Youth have increasingly recognized their power as much as governments have seemed to increasingly recognize the benefit of working with youth. But how far are we from a finish line, and really what is there to celebrate? Can this awareness day – and its heart of the matter, “youth”– go beyond merely symbolism?
The world first proclaimed 1985 International Youth Year recognizing the importance of direct participation of youth in all sectors of society “in shaping the future of mankind”. The word ‘youth’ was repeated 45 times in the historic two-page UN Resolution, and 32 years later youth have become as important as ever—or has it?
It was only a decade after when youth participation in decision-making was made a priority through the adoption of the World Programme of Action for Youth—although it did not specify how this was supposed to be done. Then, another decade later right when social media and mobile technology began to shape our communication would young people steadily move away from engagement in formal structures (e.g. political parties) to cause-oriented, self-organized activism. Whether offline or online, their participation in civic and political space became more visible with increased connectivity and agility.
We are essentially at a juncture where youth are thought to be equal partners as their adult counterparts, with more attention and recognition given to their engagement, whether in business, development, human rights and – in rarer cases – politics. Despite significant improvement after three decades, youth participation hasn’t progressed at the speed it should have. Only if there was a global indicator to determine how successful youth inclusion has been, it’s the lack of one that may indicate failure.
In the face of progress, the world is still grappling to find out a silver bullet to the global youth and to youth problems. As Ban Ki-moon noted at the last General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Youth: “Still, I do not think we have gone nearly far enough.” Making sense of how to go about it could just be as important as answering what needs to be done – from here and now.
So why is it that we are not there yet?
There are two types of problem when it comes to youth, the first is the ‘problem of youth’, which basically means problems like access to basic education, healthcare and decent work – ultimately policy and decision-making – they face while being young. And there is another problem, which in this case is a bigger problem: ‘youth problem’. The latter has to do with social perception and treatment towards young people in relation to the first problem. And until these two problems are tackled hand-in-hand, we may never get there.
‘Youth’ has become a theory of everyday reality that results in how they have been perceived and treated. Youth participation is often conditioned on their political, socioeconomic and cultural realities. These norms are often direct results of multiple forms of discrimination against young people in many parts of the world. Youth have also been stereotyped by both expert opinions and media for whom decisions on where they should be and what should be done with them are justified.
Young people under the age of 25 make up 42% of the world population, in the Sub-Saharan Africa over 70% of the population is under 30. However only 1.9% of 45,000 parliamentarians globally are aged below 30. While the average of MPs around the world is aged 53, rarely those under 35 make the cut. In most countries politicians are still considered to be “young” if they are below 40 (14.2% total). Political representation of young women is even more worrying as many women face a double layer of inequality, owing to their young age and because they are women— let alone LGBTI people and those with disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds.
While young people are often perceived as lacking professional experience, if the past decades have ever taught us anything is that diverse pools of young people have proven to be effective and competent. Many successful leaders notably in corporate sector, including in start-ups, are in their 20s and 30s.
Perhaps it is the rigid structure and traditional adult-centric approach to the world politics that prevents the world to accept and allow young people to fully participate. Perhaps this has become today’s unfortunate Catch-22, sadly so, where young people have the proclivity to distance themselves from the inflexible structures, which in turn perpetuate the status-quo.
Politics aside, there are other palpable reasons to why we are not yet there.
Youth is still largely seen as a socially constructed process evident in research over the past four decades. Youth is commonly understood as a transition from childhood to adulthood often characterized by greater economic independence. They are believed to represent certain images, identities and opinions. In reality, youth are hardly ever homogenous. Different groups of young people have inherently different characteristics and represent diverse backgrounds, intersectional challenges and aspirations.
Age categorization is another clear demarcation between youth and adult. Youth defined as those between the ages of 15 and 24 have negatively restricted the agency of young people. Such consistent definition, applied across the United Nations and other global organizations, becomes arbitrarily indiscriminate as it does not account for those defined in different regions based on unique sociocultural context or otherwise.
In practice, how do we reconcile those ages 0-24 defined as youth in the Netherlands with those ages 15-34 under the same definition in Mozambique. Putting youth in an age bracket effectively means imposing certain formal qualifications and prerogatives, thereby (legitimately) excluding many young people from formal processes, hence active participation.
Another reason contributing to the nebulous concept of youth is their legal recognition – rather lack thereof. Despite global application of the age standard, 'youth rights” have never been codified in international instruments with established universal standards. Achieving this could lead to young people’s agency being taken more seriously and with increased political legitimacy. Additionally, such mechanisms could also pave the way for better recognition and protection of many rights engendered by shared and specific situations, including challenges and vulnerability young people face today across countries.
This raises the point that the de facto age categorization is problematic not only for the reason of exclusion, but also for the guarantee of rights and legal protection. Thus, a consideration for expanding the age bracket to account for regional characterizations and all their differences could be a vital step towards enhancing representation and increasing inclusion. Ultimately, this would create more space for young people to participate in governance, leadership and decision making, where the diverse identities, socioeconomic, political, cultural and psychological realities of young people are accounted for and respected.
In spite of this heterogeneity, the global ‘problem of youth’ will first require global attention, and youth participation should not be only about youth.
While existing global mechanisms for youth participation at the global level – the UN Youth Delegation Programme, UN Envoy on Youth, Major Group for Children and Youth, to name a few – are important stepping stones, youth must be seen as equal contributors for change, both for themselves and the society at large. Youth advocacy must therefore go beyond tackling only youth-related issues but endeavor to create space where they can freely and actively engage left, right and centre.
Participation is a fundamental right. While active participation of young people in addressing issues affecting them is recognized, inclusion can only be achieved when the roles young people play in response to the needs of billions of young people worldwide – beyond a single age bracket – are clearly articulated in policies framing and implementation, with necessary access and resources. And it can be realized when all involves young people and young people are involved in all areas.
International Youth Day should be celebrated when policy and decision-makers have exploited young people’s skills and abilities –instead of ignored.