It is in times of adversity that the equality in a society is weighed.
The COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath has highlighted generational divides and the selective attitude towards engaging with and considering the specific needs of young people. While there is wide agreement that younger generations are crucial for the future and sustainable development of our societies (and international support to this proclaimed, as exemplified by today’s International Youth Day), what we see in practice falls short from ideal.
With the Corona virus markedly threatening the elderly, and the economic and social consequences of restrictions felt acutely by those in working age, the specific grievances of young people – from teens to young adults – have received much less attention. Attitudes have ranged from demonising millennials as neglectful and reckless to specific restrictions to freedom of movement targeting youth. The picture painted is of care-free youngsters who need to be educated, controlled and perhaps even feared for spreading the virus. What we hear less of are the worries and challenges of young people regarding their families and plans for the future, adversity faced as young civic actors, and the increasing tensions in fragile and conflict-affected settings caused by unequal access to social and medical services.
The pandemic is already changing the trajectory of education and entry to work life for a generation of young people who in many regions were already overrepresented in unemployment statistics. Restricted face-to-face interaction with friends and peers has meant even more time spent in front of electronic devices, even less exercise, and more youth who feel isolated and lonely. In families where domestic violence is prevalent, lockdowns continue to be a direct threat to the physical and mental well-being of young people, who often find themselves without adequate support systems.
There are some fundamental principles about inclusivity – in this case of youth – that need to be critically examined and moved from words to action, whether we are talking about COVID-19 response or youth engagement in general.
Agents of change – or equal partners?
To see young people as a serious group of the population, we have to go beyond engaging them only in matters that those in power are either unwilling or uninterested in working on – such as volunteer, community and social activities deprioritised by government. This work is undeniably important, but if we push the responsibility on youth for being “agents of change” ( a term popularised in development lingo) in matters that decisionmakers are not focusing their attention on, we risk further disempowering young actors. Instead, we should find ways of opening doors for meaningful youth participation as leaders, influencers, service providers, researchers and peer educators in politics, business and civic activism at every level – including the pandemic response. Consultations and deliberations should be accessible for younger people through their own platforms. Local governments can reach out to young constituents to understand how to serve them better with schools, youth centres, employment support, parks and libraries – not to mention opening access and influence in mainstream media and art.
Youth need to be active – and positively so?
Youth participation approaches thrive on images of outgoing young women and men selflessly working for the benefit of their community. But young people’s inclusion should not be conditional to whether they are active, constructive or benefitting the general public. Inclusion is believing that every person, regardless of their background and contribution to society, inherently has the right to be heard and have their basic rights fulfilled. We all fare better when we see the most vulnerable among us protected. Furthermore, young people’s contribution should not be taken for granted and presumed – we need to acknowledge the time and effort that people invest in the common good.
Youth – who are you talking about?
Good intentions of being youth-inclusive in policy and programming can be hampered if “youth” is seen as a homogeneous group. Not recognising that young people are as diverse in their backgrounds, values, opinions and capabilities as any other age group can tempt a ticking-the-box attitude whereby the usual suspects – the elite, well-spoken and well-connected young people – get to represent the generation as a whole. To go a step further, we should in our minds replace the concept of “youth” with “young stakeholder”; such as young civil society actors, young health workers, young media professionals and researchers, young minority representatives, young entrepreneurs. Extra effort is required to capture the voice of more marginalised groups.
Make young people visible
We cannot know what the perspectives of younger generations are unless we ask them. Remembering young people when collecting and analysing data, or when doing research on societal issues is the first step. We also need to involve young actors to the forefront as active participants, with more than a decorative role, and not just the fringes of dialogues. At the same time, we need to bring this attitude of inclusion to all spheres of life – to families, to school, to communities. Civic engagement takes place when people see their actions and opinions matter. When we find out what the specific interests of young people are in post-COVID societies, we are closer to getting them on board to work with us: delivering help and essential services, spreading accurate information, championing mental health and conducting research.
Young people are living their reality now – not in the future
While young people have not been in the focus of the emergency response to the pandemic, they are among those reaping the repercussions. For young adults building their own life, the pandemic has come with unexpected economic and social setbacks. It is the vulnerable young people - those at risk at home, dropping out of school, slipping into poverty, struggling with life transitions - who will require the most substantial and pressing support during and after the pandemic, as a matter of urgency. The situation is especially acute for young women who are disproportionately excluded from education and employment.
Idealistic rhetoric of young people changing the future is all good, but we will never get there if we don’t hear them out now.