Someone once wrote, “The more we increase the active participation and partnership with young people, the better we serve them. … And the more comprehensively we work with them as service partners, the more we increase our public value to the entire community.”1
What is immediately obvious in this quote is how much youth engagement is a partnership. It is a reciprocal relationship that is based on a foundation of mutual respect, empathy, collaboration and equality. It is not, as many programmes that involve young people are, simply a quota filling, box ticking, an exercise that results in little implement, and, even less achieved.
However, it is not always easy to attain this level of balance and equilibrium, especially in situations where young people have been called (or classified as) lazy, entitled, superficial, emotional, irresponsible, and now, ‘woke’. Time magazine had this to say in 1990, “[young people] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. … They possess only a hazy sense of their own identity but a monumental preoccupation with all the problems the preceding generation will leave for them to fix.”2 Have these attitudes really changed that much?
At the same time, young people have characterised ‘adults’ as unable to listen, quick to lecture, pedantic, patronizing, insensitive and essentially unwilling to compromise. In a recent survey, “Looking Forward with Gen Z”, by the Walton Family Foundation, it was found that most young people have “low expectations that the government, corporations, and other institutions will prioritise them or take their needs into consideration …”3 These are obviously generalised statements of stereotyping, bereft of nuances and complexities, but the gist is understood.
So, what is the possible solution to this impasse? Much before active engagement can take place, there really has to be a mind shift or both sides. The first and most obvious is the recognition that the generational differences have value at all points of the spectrum. While those in authority or influence certainly have the greater experiences, they can also sometimes get bogged down in conventional and cautious thinking, lacking fresh perspective and alternative viewpoints that young people bring to the table. Innovative and creative ideas – sometimes so far out of the box – are the propellers of new inventions. We know this so well even in our lifetime with the constant advances in technology and communication. And so, the opening up of how each side ‘sees’ the other must take place. The adults at the table need to be as open minded and curious to hear new ideas or solutions, as the young people must be to listen to practical impediments learnt through experience.
The second issue that rears its head as a potential obstacle is a very real one: talk versus action. The most celebrated climate activist in the world is only 19 years old and she challenges not only world leaders, but everyone on this planet, to stop talking but start doing. “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action,” Greta Thunberg said in a famous speech, whose sting was in her concluding remarks, “Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations.”4
What makes youth engagement a tricky proposition sometimes is how much are those in power willing to make a genuine commitment to change. This could be the provision of resources, financial or otherwise, or even the support that both nurtures, but more importantly, instigates change. Oft times, when inviting young people to participate in engagement exercises, it is seen from the perspective of simply offering hands-on experience. While this has its merits, it does not go far enough. There must be more than just allowing young people observer status at the table, but to actually enable them to be facilitators of potential solutions and change. The young people must not only feel part of the process but should also know that their contributions have been taken seriously and, one hopes, been implemented, as well. A manifesto from young people submitted at COP26, listed out key areas where genuine – and accountable – support could be shown. They ranged from involvement in planning policy to design, implementation and evaluation to the scaling up of financial and other logistical support to help young people be the drivers or change.5
What emerges from this, is very obvious and simple: to fully engage young people in their own – and in the community’s development – is not a passive act, but one that has to be bold, have initiative and sometimes even be pre-emptive to what the current status quo might be. No one is arguing that this is an easy task, but the importance and the sustainability must lie in a genuine desire on both sides to make a difference. We say it often enough, ‘the youth are the future’. How about thinking more creatively and say, ‘the future of youth is now’? thus making engagement more realistic.