Contemporary issues refer to social issues that are prominent in today’s point in world history. They often point to points of friction in society or pressing concerns that are or may affect the daily life of millions of people.
They can include issues that are social (such as inequality), environmental (such as climate change), economic (such as loss of jobs), technological (such as the rise of AI), and so on.
They often impact upon cultural identities (such as the rise of globalization) and a nation’s politics (such as the rise of nationalism).
All issues arise as a result of the specific contextual and historical factors that come into play at this particular moment in time.
Below are a range of key examples.
1. Artificial Intelligence
When OpenAI released ChatGPT, the internet changed forever. This was the first generative AI program that seemed like it had general intelligence – it could answer any question under the sun!
Of course, early iterations, such as GPT3 and GPT3.5 often gave false answers, often called “AI halucinations”. But as each new version comes out, GPT and competitors such as Google Bard have gotten smarter and smarter, making less and less errors.
In fact, GPT-4 passed the bar exam – it could qualify as a lawyer!
AI chat software has caused shockwaves around the world, with new software emerging that uses the GPT API to perform a range of tasks, such as AI voice generation and AI article writing.
And it really blew up, fast, with the fastest growth of users of any software – ever! Here’s its usage in the first six months, peaking at 1.8 billion visits in its 4th month:
And this has caused some serious problems – especially for education. How are teachers supposed to set take-home essays when there are now one-click AI essays?
2. Climate Change
If there’s one dramatic way of demonstrating the importance of addressing climate change, it’s the climate clock. This clock demonstrates how little time we have left to do something about climate change.
We’ve already missed a lot of targets, with goals now being set to minimize rather than avoid the negative impacts of human-induced climate change.
This contemporary issue is generally tied-in with policy debates about how aggressively we should decarbonize our industries, how much we should rely on technology (as opposed to policy levers), and whose responsibility it is to take action on a geopolitical level.
As we can see here, average global temperatures per year are on a steady rise:
3. Political Polarization
Many societies have become increasingly politically polarized, thanks in large part to social media and the rising popularity of partisan and conspiratorial new media.
Social media platforms have been a large culprit for group polarization (Prior, 2013). It has meant that people can pick-and-choose their media diet rather than consuming shared media across a culture. This has some benefits – such as preventing censorship – but has arguably had far worse downsides. It has allowed conspiracies to spread and led people into making strawmen out of their political opponents rather than engaging with and listening to their points of view.
For more on social media effects, see: social media pros and cons
4. Wealth Inequality
Wealth inequality has increased dramatically since the 1970s in advanced western nations, to the point where we could use it to explain some (not all) of today’s political polarization.
Most scholars blame neoliberalism, a political philosophy that involves removal of government interventions, low taxes, and hyper-capitalism.
But, there is also an argument to be made that neoliberalism has created greater overall wealth, explained by the metaphor of “the rising tide rises all boats.”
Below is a graph of wealth distribution in the USA in 2016 (the newest data I could find), which shows that 39% of wealth is in the hands of the top 1%, while the bottom 90% have just 23% of wealth.
5. Data Privacy and Cybersecurity
People are increasingly concerned about who’s viewing and collecting their data online. This has led, for example, to browsers like Firefox and Safari phasing out 3rd party cookies.
Data breaches often make the news, such as the famous Mailchimp data breach in early 2023.
The sheer number of data breaches these days calls for innovative protective measures, provided by both the tech industry and public policy, to address the escalating level of sophisticated threats.
6. Racial and Social Injustice
Racial and social injustice refers to the systematic bias, discrimination, and prejudice that an individual or a group faces based on their race, ethnicity, and social status.
In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement rippled across continents, following the tragic fate of George Floyd. Reiterating the urgency to dismantle systemic racism, these events demonstrate the need to address this ongoing issue (Banaji, Fiske, & Massey, 2021).
Laws such as the Civil Rights Act in America have constituted significant steps towards the eradication of racial discrimination. Even so, law enforcement and the justice system continue to grapple with instances of racial bias, underscoring the importance of comprehensive, lasting reform.
7. Mental Health
Mental health relates to one’s psychological well-being, emotional resilience, and the ability to function within societal norms and expectations.
Mental health is a silent pandemic. As per data from the World Health Organization, around 264 million people globally suffer from depression, with other disorders such as anxiety adding to these numbers year by year. Modernity’s relentless pace, coupled with the recent pandemic, have exacerbated these figures.
Hope looms on the horizon. Initiatives such as “Time to Talk Day” and “Mental Health Awareness Week” have emerged globally, aiming to fight stigma and promote open dialogue. Schools, workplaces, and even governments are now acknowledging the importance of mental health and are implementing measures to support those who need it.
8. Migration and Displacement
Migration and displacement refers to the mass movement of people, often driven by circumstances such as conflict, natural disasters, or socioeconomic conditions.
Global displacement has hit record levels, with UNHCR reporting in 2020 that nearly 80 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide.
The refugee crisis, primarily sparked by wars and civil unrest, has been a contentious issue politically and socially. From legal policies governing asylum seekers to the socio-economic impact on receiving nations, the discourse is under constant scrutiny.
9. The Nuclear Power Debate
The nuclear power debate is a prolonging dispute about the use of atomic energy to produce electricity.
On one side, proponents praise nuclear power’s low-carbon output and ability to provide steady energy supply. Yet, the opposition directs attention to the inherent dangers of nuclear reactors, risks of nuclear proliferation, and the challenge of managing radioactive waste.
This is a vexed issue, because it could help us to make gains in the fight against climate change, but the trade-off is a potential nuclear disaster, especially if a nuclear powerplant is in the middle of a warzone (Wheatley, Sovacool & Sornette, 2016), as has occurred in the Russian unjustified and immoral aggression and war crimes against Ukraine.
10. Sustainable Development
Sustainable development can be defined as the principle of meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.
Sustainable development covers a broad spectrum of issues, from the use of renewable resources to the enforcement of corporate social responsibility (Nastasi et al., 2020).
The international agenda for sustainable development is largely guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which highlight diverse areas, such as zero hunger and affordable and clean energy. Yet, while the vision is clear, the journey towards achieving these targets remains fraught with challenges, including economic, social, and political resistance.
11. Healthcare Accessibility
Healthcare accessibility concerns the ease with which individuals can avail necessary medical services, regardless of financial, geographical, or socio-cultural boundaries.
The issue of healthcare accessibility is complex and multi-faceted.
In the United States, for example, healthcare costs can be prohibitive, often leading to medical debt and bankruptcy. In other countries, such as the UK, there may be healthcare that is free at the point at service, but ensuring the healthcare is timely and high-quality remains a struggle.
Furthermore, regardless of the method for delivery of healthcare, concerns about accessibility often still remain, particularly for marginalized communities and regions with limited medical infrastructure.
12. Gender Equality and Women’s Rights
Gender equality refers to the state where access to rights, responsibilities, and opportunities is unaffected by gender.
Historically, societies have been marked with clear gender disparities, from educational opportunities to wage gaps, that are often symptoms of patriarchy. Women’s rights movements such as feminism have fought to counter these, resulting in significant strides towards gender parity.
Nonetheless, discrimination and disparity persist, and the fight for equal rights continues. Glass ceilings still remain in many sectors, harassment is a grim reality for many, and harmful gender stereotypes are often rooted in cultural ideologies.
13. Fake News and Misinformation
Fake news and misinformation refer to falsehoods or distortions of truth deliberately disseminated, often to serve a particular ideological or political agenda.
The proliferation of social media has amplified the spread of fake news, with instances of misinformation often causing societal unrest and complications for public health.
Addressing fake news requires the collective effort of individuals, institutions, and even governments. Fact-checking, media literacy, digital literacy, and responsible information dissemination are key countermeasures that can help combat this contemporary issue.
Recent wildfires in California, Canada, and Australia have been some of the worst in recorded history. Some argue that these are early signs of the climate change catastrophe.
This contemporary issue has a range of sub-issues, such as problems with some areas becoming uninsurable, meaning house and contents insurance companies no longer cover them due to the high risk profile. Another issue is the need to mitigate the numbers of fires by working on reducing the effects of climate change. Finally, control burns are often a hot topic, where control burns in winter can create fire blocks to prevent the spread of fires, but at the same time, this causes some man-made habitat loss.
15. Renewable Energy Transition
The renewable energy transition refers to the global shift from reliance on fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable sources of power, including wind, solar, and hydro energy.
This is a pressing issue. As governments around the world begin to realize the irreversible damage caused by fossil fuels, renewable energy becomes an increasingly appealing option. However, transitioning to renewable energy is no cakewalk—it involves overcoming both infrastructural and economic challenges.
The reward, however, could be tremendous. Not only would transitioning to renewable energy dramatically reduce our carbon footprint, it could also generate substantial economic benefits in the form of sustainable jobs and industries (Blyth et al., 2014).
16. Aging Populations
The term “aging populations” pertains to the demographic shift toward a higher average age in a country’s population, often caused by a combination of increased life expectancy and reduced fertility rates.
Soon, you will witness several developed countries, such as Japan and Italy, facing a demographic crisis. The issue resides not merely in the aging itself, but the fallout—we’re talking rising healthcare costs, labor market pressures, and the threat of economic stagnation.
From ramping up healthcare services to encouraging childbirth or immigration, nations have been strategizing to mitigate this looming demographic challenge. However, given the scale of the issue, the jury’s still out on which policies will prove most effective.
17. Vaccination Mandates
Vaccination mandates are government directives requiring individuals to receive certain vaccines, or to provide proof of vaccination, often as a condition for participating in specific activities or accessing certain locations.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust this issue into the limelight as countries grapple with the trade-offs between public health, individual freedom, and economic activity.
The effectiveness of mandates in improving vaccination rates is clear. However, they have also proven divisive and have sparked heated debates around medical privacy, personal autonomy, and equality, given disparate access to vaccines globally.
It’s an issue that encapsulates our ongoing struggle to balance individual liberties with collective wellbeing, and is likely best addressed through better education and trust of the medical institutions – something that has been dramatically undermined by fake news, another key issue explored in this article!
18. Space Exploration and Colonization
Space exploration and colonization involves investigating other planets and celestial bodies, with the long-term aim of potentially establishing human settlements beyond Earth.
The advancements brought by private space enterprises have reinvigorated the space race. However, beyond the exhilaration of entering the final frontier, there are serious concerns to consider.
The challenges are significant. From advanced life support systems to addressing the psychological impact of isolation, a multitude of obstacles impede the realization of extraterrestrial settlements.
19. Internet Censorship and Freedom of Speech
Internet censorship and freedom of speech examine whether — and to what extent — authorities and other entities should be permitted to control or suppress what people can access, publish, or view on the internet.
Government censorship of digital content is another vexxed issue of our times: sometimes it could be arguably justified as a measure against misinformation or hate speech; but at other times, we could argue that it would infringe upon people’s free speech rights.
The juxtaposition of unrestricted speech and sensible content moderation continues to be a contentious issue online, driving debates about legislation, platform responsibility, and user behavior.
20. Globalization vs. Nationalism
The trends of globalization and nationalism represent an international dilemma: the ideological conflict between free trade and multiculturalism on one hand, and national sovereignty with protectionist tendencies on the other.
Globalization has resulted in an interconnected world where goods, services, and ideas flow freely across borders. However, as a backlash, nationalism has surged, often resulting in anti-immigrant sentiment and trade protectionism.
These intertwined phenomena shape the current world order, leading many to consider how to balance the benefits of economic interdependence with preserving national identity and autonomy.
21. Democracy vs Authoritarianism
Democracy and authoritarianism are two different models of governance, rooted in contrasting principles of political power distribution and citizen participation.
Democracy, founded on the premise of citizen participation and equal representation, seems to be challenged today in various regions around the globe.
Emerging authoritarian regimes, often under the guise of populist movements, pose significant threats to democratic institutions, especially (for example) in Turkey (Arat & Pamuk, 2019).
The struggle for democracy against authoritarian inclinations ensures a turbulent international political climate.
22. Overfishing and Ocean Health
Overfishing is the practice of capturing fish from a body of water at a rate that’s too high, leading to a depletion of the fish population. This practice is a direct threat to ocean health.
Overfishing is pushing many fish species to the brink of extinction. The Bluefin Tuna, for example, is critically endangered due to excessive fishing practices (Porch et al., 2019).
Marine reserves and sustainable fishing practices have been proposed as measures to counter overfishing’s devastating impact. Yet, creating a sustainable fishing industry requires a global commitment—well beyond individual or regional actions.
23. Indigenous Rights and Land Disputes
Indigenous rights and land disputes surround the legal, social, and economic issues that indigenous people encounter as they seek to claim, protect, and manage their traditional lands.
This is a particularly prominent issue in Canada and Australia, where courts have mandated the return of land to indigenous peoples (Porter & Barry, 2016)
Land is not merely a source of livelihood for indigenous communities. It constitutes the foundation of their cultural identity.
Land dispossession for commercial activities like mining and agriculture continues to plague indigenous communities worldwide. On a more optimistic note, concerted efforts by indigenous activists and allies have led to crucial victories in courts, affirming indigenous land rights and, by extension, their right to self-determination.
24. Economic Inflation
Economic inflation refers to the rate at which the general level of prices for goods and services is rising, eroding purchasing power.
Consider the United States, where recent inflation rates have sparked concern in the post-pandemic period:
Higher cost of living, spikes in mortgages with variable interest rates, and stagnant wages put a substantial strain on the economy and everyday people’s pocket books.
Central banks typically counteract high inflation through higher interest rates, though this has its own risks. And thus, the battle against inflation forms a central element of economic policy-making worldwide.
25. Pandemic Preparedness and Response
Pandemic preparedness and response refers to the actions taken to plan for, prevent, respond to, and recover from pandemics.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the inadequacies in global health security arrangements, highlighting the paramount importance of robust pandemic preparedness systems (Godshall & Banach, 2021).
Strengthening global surveillance measures, ensuring equitable vaccine distribution, increasing investment in health infrastructures, developing robust containment strategies—these are just a few of the things we could do better next time. Worldwide collaborations and accountability in handling future public health crises could be the key to mitigating their impact.
Awareness of contemporary issues can help us to better understand our social and cultural contexts, empathize with others, and make more informed decisions – such as when knowledge of racial inequality affects governmental policies.
Arat, Y., & Pamuk, Ş. (2019). Turkey between democracy and authoritarianism. Cambridge University Press.
Banaji, M. R., Fiske, S. T., & Massey, D. S. (2021). Systemic racism: individuals and interactions, institutions and society. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 6, 1-21. doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-021-00349-3
Blyth, W., Gross, R., Speirs, J., Sorrell, S., Nicholls, J., Dorgan, A., & Hughes, N. (2014). Low carbon jobs: The evidence for net job creation from policy support for energy efficiency and renewable energy. London: UK Energy Research Centre, 31.
Godshall, C. E., & Banach, D. B. (2021). Pandemic preparedness. Infectious Disease Clinics, 35(4), 1077-1089. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.idc.2021.07.008
Nastasi, B., Markovska, N., Puksec, T., Duić, N., & Foley, A. (2022). Renewable and sustainable energy challenges to face for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 157, 112071.
Porch, C. E., Bonhommeau, S., Diaz, G. A., Arrizabalaga, H., & Melvin, G. (2019). The journey from overfishing to sustainability for Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus. The future of bluefin tunas: ecology, fisheries management, and conservation, 3-44.
Porter, L., & Barry, J. (2016). Planning for coexistence?: Recognizing Indigenous rights through land-use planning in Canada and Australia. Routledge.
Prior, M. (2013). Media and political polarization. Annual Review of Political Science, 16, 101-127.
Wheatley, S., Sovacool, B. K., & Sornette, D. (2016). Reassessing the safety of nuclear power. Energy Research & Social Science, 15, 96-100.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]