In an era marked by complex global challenges and rapid societal transformations, promoting the role of youth in moulding the future will be vital. As the inheritors of global governance systems, youth possess the potential to become catalysts for transformative change. Throughout history, there are examples of young people who have defied age conventions, shattered barriers, and harnessed innovative thinking to shape the world – challenging the notion that wisdom comes only with age. From the remarkable courage of Malala Yousafzai to one of history’s greatest scientific minds, Albert Einstein, whose greatest contributions were made by the age of 26 we see just how the sheer power of their ideas can have a transformative effect on society. As the impact of young voices ripple throughout the world, we see a proliferation of platforms that foster youth engagement in global affairs. In a period of ongoing international conflict, the missing piece to the puzzle could lie with these voices, which need to reverberate throughout the corridors of power.
Breaching the Generational Rift
Youth-led initiatives and forums are being implemented and given space in a plurality of countries and international organisations. The UN ECOSOC Youth Forum; the European Youth Forum, and the African Union’s Youth Envoy showcase significant resources and efforts being invested in including youth in global institutions. But, often, these are only symbolic gestures. Participative agency remains superficial, and consultations are met with limited encouragement and nods of approval.
This situation has led to a generational rift fuelled by mistrust and hopelessness where the youth do not see their views put into action, their efforts answered, nor their opinions acknowledged. They have lost faith in an older generation whom they often feel consumed planetary resources and left a heavy debt for the next generations. There is, thus, an urgent need for an engaging, meaningful intergenerational discourse that breaches these rifts and ensures that young people’s views are actively included in policymaking and implementation. It is past time for an inclusive dialogue and empowering youth to shape their own future by seeking to become disruptive forces without being destructive.
Elephant(s) in the Room
When discussing youth participation, there are some clear challenges hindering effective agency that have relegated them to their current symbolic role:
1. Youth often lack the relevant expertise and experiences to be extensively involved in decision-making:
Youth can lack a comprehensive understanding of historical contexts, the legal frameworks and the societal implications that are sometimes necessary to make informed policy decisions. Lacking sufficient expertise can also affect their ability to assess risks, evaluate alternatives, and think critically about long-term consequences. Their limited experience can impact their ability to anticipate potential repercussions as they haven’t witnessed the long-term effects of policies and have not had the opportunity to make mistakes they can learn from.
2. Youth are often very optimistic and self-righteous:
While the optimism of youth, and a certain self-righteousness, can bring fresh perspectives and a sense of urgency to decision-making processes, these qualities can also be a hindrance. They can blind youth to the practical constraints and limitations that decision-makers face. They may have grand visions or ideas that are difficult to implement due to financial, legal, or logistical challenges. Lacking understanding or ignoring these constraints can result in unrealistic and impractical policy recommendations that cannot be effectively executed.
3. Complexity of government structures and institutions:
Young people’s limited knowledge of the intricacies of global governance and negotiations can make them prone to overlooking the pragmatic compromises that are often necessary to achieve consensus and move policies forward. Youth may have limited exposure to the influence that corporations, lobbying organizations and advocacy groups exert on policymaking processes. A lack of hands-on experience in the compromises and trade-offs that are often necessary can result in policy suggestions that may be difficult to implement or lack the necessary support from key stakeholders.
Potential for Youth – Engaging change
Despite the pressing challenges and urgent issues that demand attention, there appears to be stagnation in addressing them and a notable lack of forward action. Whether it’s the complexities of political polarisation, the inertia of bureaucratic systems, or the struggle to find consensus amidst diverse perspectives, the momentum for meaningful progress has waned. This impasse hinders the implementation of necessary reforms and inhibits the exploration of innovative solutions. Hence, despite the challenges associated with youth engagement, they have the potential to contribute the missing pie of the puzzle.
Two key fields where young people have emerged as pivotal voices in developing systemic change are climate action and sustainable peace. Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s valiant stand at the age of 15 was followed by millions and proved that youth are crucial in developing innovative solutions and cooperative dialogue. This has already been reflected in the creation of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change by the United Nations, quoted as the “first-ever system-wide youth strategy”, which represented a significant milestone in granting agency to young people and instilling hope for systemic reform.
On sustainable peace, the voices of the young are systematically silenced. We turn to soldiers, diplomats, politicians and medics in search for a swift ceasefire that may temporarily halt the violence. Yet, we tend to overlook those young survivors who will bear the consequences of war and, in many cases, outlive it. While we attend to their physical injuries and strive to prevent trauma, we fail to acknowledge the immense potential they possess as assets in the process of building lasting peace. Let us arm our youth not with weapons but with the tools and agency necessary to shape a peaceful future.
The Role of Youth – Steps Forward
Global affairs are in dire need of change, including uniting our efforts to ensure that proposed solutions are inclusive, sustainable, and effective. Youth have a vital role in this process. To address the current global gridlock, we need to overcome contemporary challenges to youth advocacy and promote intergenerational approaches. There are three potential steps towards igniting a new process of meaningful and effective change:
1. Developing Expertise: Lending an ear and a seat at the table
Lack of experience inherent in the condition of being young can hinder youth’s effectiveness in policymaking, but educational and skill-building steps can be taken. Hence, Step 1 would be to establish mentoring programs where seasoned professionals share their experience and insights with young advocates. This would not only foster much-needed intergenerational discourse but would also create a realistic mindset – for both policymakers and activists – to determine ways forward. Such a mentorship program would enable young people to learn first-hand from professionals and get a better sense of the issues and challenges that arise in real, hands-on settings.
2. Developing youth-led reports
The global community offers a multiplicity of reports, at internal, regional and international levels. However, in this system, the youth become relegated to a section or appendix rather than taking centre stage. Step 2 would enable youth to take direct action in a two-way system of making policy recommendations that are equipped with checks and scrutiny from professionals. Through engaging youth in authoring reports, policymakers can gain new perspectives on contemporary challenges. Youth should have the freedom to be innovative and consider further creative emerging solutions in these reports, as well as the capability to hold decision-makers to account for their actions.
3. Developing Translators
To bridge the gap between the younger generation and older politicians and institutions, there is a need for ‘Translators’ – an idea depicted by Professor Funmi Olonisakin, Vice-President at King’s College London, at a 2023 UNU Conference in Tokyo. These ‘Translators’ would act as youth diplomats and negotiators. They would advance the suggestions and ideas of young voices, but also ensure that they are presented in a format that resonates with, and can be effectively understood, by policymakers. Their role would not be to call on existing powers who may promote divisive narratives, but, instead, they would independently convey youth voices. They would recognize the importance of context and the intricacies of the policymaking process and later establish separate platforms for youth representation.
The increasing recommendations to enhance youth agency demonstrate growing awareness of their role within the international system. The steps proposed can be implemented alongside current global frameworks. By harnessing the potential of young voices and facilitating their active participation, we can foster an environment where their influence and contributions can flourish, but it would also contribute to shaping a better future for us all and lead to positive transformation on a global scale.
In conclusion, youth possess the ability to be ‘disruptive without being destructive’. They can play a key role in challenging an unjust status quo whilst igniting conversations and offering innovative alternatives for a more equitable future. Urgent action is needed to break away from the environmental, political, and humanitarian challenges that grip our world. This calls for a multidimensional approach, which entails inclusivity across gender, ethnicities, and regions. In the intricate puzzle of addressing global challenges, there are numerous pieces that need to come together. Amidst this complexity, one crucial gap can be filled by the catalysing role of young people – for they possess the transformative power that will shape a better future across systems and institutions.
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