Pondering for the reason why ‘youth’ remains one of the most complex term in human experience is because you can never really put your finger on it. Categorizing people by age is the most obvious demarcation that sets the young apart from their adult counterpart. The young aged between 15 and 24 have been classically defined as youth at the global stage, in line with the official UN definition, paving the way for specific policy designs and implementation based on the understanding that specific needs arising from this segment of the population beg for specific solutions. As a global society, we are weakening the power of the youth by treating them as a separate, “human-becoming” category. As a result, young people’s respect could never be earned, their true potential could never be realized and their voice could never be taken seriously.
Established personas and perceptions around youth already exist, which can be reduced to a characteristic that someone is simply chronologically young. Some of the common amplifiers you most likely have seen in the youth word clouds of labels associated with youth may include ‘youthful’, ‘idealistic’, ‘energetic’, ‘creative’ – and even less positive ones – ‘inexperienced’, ‘immature’, ‘violent’ or ‘troublemakers’.
Are these word clouds doing any good or are they in fact still relevant?
Take ‘Safe Spaces of Youth’ as this year’s theme for International Youth Day for example. The presence of ‘safe spaces’ has been understood as an environment in which people individually or collectively can identify themselves, conduct activities or exercise their rights without fear of reprisal, whether online of offline. It must be noted that there are specific risks associated with being age15 or 24, which is mainly due to the fluid intersecting identities developed during this stage; the perceived fear of persecution and actual punishment received, which is not unique to young people.
If you look at the previous themes of the youth day, you will soon realize that they do not necessarily have a specific relevance restricted to young people. The different focus on peace building (2016), mental health (2014), migration (2013) were there not because they are unique to young people, but rather they are part of different global priorities that affect young people in similar ways as they affect those above the age of 24, women, refugees, migrants, politicians and domestic workers. One might say that the challenges facing the youth of today really mirror the broader, seismic shifts in the social, political, and economic climate of the world.
At the foundational level there appear to be more similarities, than differences, between young people and adults. The International Youth Day in turn conveniently creates the youth bubble that further distances them from the rest of the population. Tens of thousands of events were organized around the world by young people to commemorate the occasion. A highlight among the events, 100 young people organized a bicycle rally and public speaking in Kushtia district, South-west of Bangladesh on the occasion. The objective of the rally was ultimately to raise their voice against state violation of social-safety related issues. Events such as this are necessary and can be an effective tool for certain political environments. However, when an issue is campaigned on youth day, it is all too often perceived as a ‘youth problem’, coming to no surprise that this is when those word clouds come in handy. While making the case for safe spaces is needed, the struggle is not specific to young people. These mentioned Bangladeshi youth are in fact part of a local organization called ALO, mandated to promote participatory democracy and social cohesion—the issues that concern us all. In the end, the International Youth Day designated by the United Nations in 1999 may seem noble as an effective symbolism and good political gesture, but in reality, it serves no practical purpose for young people.
In fact, the situation of many young people, particularly in certain geographies, represent rather different set of word clouds due to the different realities that have evolved around them.
At the end of 2017, 628 million young people (aged 15-24 years old) were not in education or in employment. Almost 90% of this number lived in developing countries, and 40% of these are three times more likely to be in a more vulnerable form of employment than adults. These are young people who have to struggle daily, who would need to do the last menial tasks available to make ends meet and often find themselves in self-employment or involuntary part-time jobs, with little or no access to social protection, and high levels of job insecurity. For the great majority of young people in Palestine, Kosovo, South Africa, most parts of Africa and a large segment of Europe, their current word clouds are likely to consist ‘unemployed’, ‘hopeless’, ‘unprotected’, ‘economically frustrated’, ‘precarious’ and ‘informal’. Although they may be part of the same digital natives, the traditional ‘youthful’ filters do not necessarily reflect this segment of youth population.
This simplistic categorization of youth which have been perpetuated both by mass media and political discourse no longer represents the global youth today. The stereotypical traits do not offer a full look of what it is like to be a young person in today’s world. Indeed, a broader definition of today’s youth as ‘youthless’ may be closer to the truth. Youthlessness has become a global phenomenon caused by the increasing economic inequality and political instability. Many young people – in similar ways as adults in both developing and developed economies – increasingly experience fear of uncertainty and the knock-on effect caused by the lack of access to opportunity, basic income and social protection.
Ultimately, the growing state of youthlessness reminds us that this global cohort needs not be treated as an age group against another. In essence, International Youth Day should not be an awareness day that raises an awareness of youth as their own grouping who are purportedly fighting their own battle. There is no benefit in claiming that certain situations or struggles are specific to young people when they are experienced by the rest of population as well. It may seem convenient to frame certain issues as “youth issues” when what this does is actually separating and demeaning young people from the bigger crowd they too have the right to membership of with its commonalities.
Essentially, young people are unique because there are in their present ages experiencing the stages in their transition from childhood to adulthood, with a unique set of challenges and vulnerabilities that the generation above only too experienced themselves. However, problems faced by young people cannot be eliminated through the pre-existing lens of assigned perception, because it is the very lens that has inadvertently caused young people to be excluded from many processes that would otherwise benefit them. The International Youth Day can never be justified if it is celebrated on the basis that young people’s experiences and strengths are singled out by adult establishment, taking away their legitimacy. ‘Youth’ need to be removed from any bubbles the present-generational young people themselves did not create, needing to be understood for who they truly are and what they truly represent.