International Youth Day – Too soon to celebrate? photo: Joseph Ferris III - Flickr: International Youth Day in North Korea

Another year, another International Youth Day, with the theme: “Youth Building Peace”. According to the UN, this global day – 12 August – serves to recognize the efforts young people make in enhancing global society, while promoting their participation in shaping global agenda.

Now, more than ever, youth have recognized their power, as much as governments have increasingly recognized the benefit of working with the youth – engaging them through official representation and in policy dialogues. But how far are we from a finish line, and what exactly is there to celebrate? Can this awareness day – and its heart of the matter, “youth”– go beyond mere symbolism?

The UN first proclaimed 1985 International Youth Year, recognizing the importance of the youth’s direct participation 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 have they?

A decade after, youth participation in decision-making was made a priority through the adoption of the World Programme of Action for Youth, but it did not specify how this was supposed to be done. Another decade later – on the cusp of the social media and mobile technology boom – young people steadily moved away from engagement in formal structures (e.g. political parties) to form cause-oriented, self-organized activism. Offline or online, the participation of youth in civic and political space became more visible with increased connectivity and agility.

We are essentially at a juncture where the youth are thought to be as 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. If only there was a global indicator to determine how successful youth inclusion has been, because it’s the lack of one that indicates its failure.

In the face of progress, the world continues to grapple a silver bullet to the global youth’s problems. As Ban Ki-moon stated 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 problems when it comes to youth. First, are the ‘problems of youth’, which point to problems like access to basic education, healthcare and gainful employment; ultimately policy and decision-making they face while being young. The other, much-bigger ‘youth problem’, where social perception and treatment towards young people is the by-product of the first problem. Until these two problems are tackled hand-in-hand, we may never get far.

‘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, socio-economic and cultural environment. These norms are often the direct result of multiple forms of discrimination experience by young people in many parts of the world.

Young people have also been stereotyped by both government opinions and the media, framing what they should be (or rather fail to be) and what should be done with them. For instance, today’s popular rhetoric towards millennials in relation to politics has excessively been painted in harmful ways. Blanket assumptions about millennials’ political interests, voting behaviours, or lifestyle choices are too often made in the west and east. These could further distance young people (especially the younger millennials) in the midst of increased generational polarization.

Young people under the age of 25 make up 42% of the world population; in the Sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 70% of the population is under 30. However, according to IPU Report 2016, 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 of their gender—let alone people with disabilities 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, it 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 under 30.

Perhaps it is the rigid structure and traditional adult-centric approach to global politics that inhibits the world to accept and allow young people to fully participate. Perhaps this has become today’s unfortunate Catch-22, where young people have the proclivity to distance themselves from the inflexible structures, which in turn perpetuate the status-quo. Take the recent US election’s millennial voter turnout as a wild example.

Politics aside, there are other palpable reasons to why we are not yet there.

Youth is still largely seen as a socially-constructed process. 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. The definition of ‘youth’ as those between the ages of 15 and 24 – consistently applied across the United Nations and other global organizations – becomes indiscriminate as it does not account for those defined in different regions. In practice, how do we reconcile those aged 0-24 defined as youth in the Netherlands with those aged 15-34 under the same definition in Mozambique? Putting youth in an age bracket (and with national variance) effectively means imposing certain formal qualifications and prerogatives and embedding the exclusion of young people from formal processes within legislation and thus inhibiting an active participation.

This brings us to explore the nebulous concept of youth lies in their legal recognition – or rather lack thereof. Despite the 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. These mechanisms could also pave the way for better recognition and protection of many rights engendered by shared and specific situations.

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. The 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 diverse identities, socioeconomic, political, cultural and psychological realities of young people are accounted for and respected.

The global ‘problem of youth’ will first require global attention; youth participation should not be only about youth.

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 endeavour 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, real 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 a global policy framing and implementation, with necessary access and resources. With irony, this can only be realized when young people are involved in all areas of participation - especially in the processes that govern their own.

International Youth Day should be celebrated when policy and decision-makers have exploited young people’s skills and abilities –instead of placing them in the socially-constricted Millennial box.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not represent or reflect the views of Amnesty International)

Regional Activism and Youth Coordinator Asia-Pacific, Amnesty International

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