From Youth to You
Updated: Jan 12
Young people are the drivers of change everywhere we look. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg have become household names through their exemplary activism for girl’s education equality and climate change, respectively. Some young people have dedicated everything they have to tackle and solve the most pressing social issues of our age. Nevertheless, youth activists continue to face challenges such as underrepresentation, not being taken seriously, and a general lack of agency. Society needs to change the way it perceives youth activism and re-conceptualise young people as potential solutions to existing social and environmental issues. This requires societal change stemming from the acknowledgment and empowerment of youth advocacy by the institutions and governments.
Perspectives on leadership has been reassessed due to the conceptual, social, and experiential gap between older and newer generations, and their distinctive approaches towards leadership and social change. According to Safety4Sea (2020), millennials (those born between early 80s and mid-90s) are rapidly filling leadership roles in workplaces and community. A similar trend is seen across Australia with growing activism performed by young people in social and political spaces. This maps onto the observed increasing belief of young people that it has become their responsibility to create a better world (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2016). It is important for young voices to be heard and their contributions to be fostered in the community, as young people are ultimately going to be affected by the existing social issues in future. However, there are negative stigmas at work surrounding youth participation in society, predominantly on the grounds of inexperience, and stereotypes of impulsivity and a lack of self-awareness (Taft & Gordon, 2013). From the human rights perspective, it is the right of young people to be heard and empowered in important social advocacy and thus propose positive social changes and solutions. Current social activism is at an intersection within which the experiences of older generations is being readily and effectively combined with the creativity and innovation of younger generations, to collaboratively drive social change. This is reflected by the climate action movement in Australia and dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health and wellbeing by using creative methods of advocacy such as virtual platforms. Despite the human rights perspective and positive impact of young people’s participation, a ‘speak when spoken to’ trend still persists in society resulting in little to no acknowledgement of youth leadership in change making spaces (Swerts, 2015). The biggest transformation in highlighting young voices is going to be the shift from traditional individualistic leadership to a better, more engaging collectivist leadership style (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2007).
The Possibilists study was conducted in 2021 by an alliance of the 16 leading youth social innovation networks globally (The Possibilists, 2021). Their aim was to better understand the lives and realities of young social activists. Some of the key findings of this study are:
95% of young people between the age of 18 and 30 believe they can change the world.
62% of young people don’t feel like their voices are heard on the global stage.
43.7% of people lack access to opportunities that equip them with the resources needed to make an impact in the world.
67% young leaders do something for their community.
One major highlight of this study is the fact that young social innovators are not primarily driven by their own employment needs and wishes, but rather by an intrinsic desire to improve the lives of others on a global and local scale. They are the changemakers, dreamers, social innovators, disruptors, doers, people who believe that social and environmental change is possible. However, young people are faced with barriers and challenges such as juggling various responsibilities, high burnout risk, lack of financial security, being stretched thin and being underestimated in their advocacy.
According to the United Nations, participation is the fundamental right of everyone. It is the guiding principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been reiterated time and time again. Active participation is integral in empowering young people for their own development as well as the development of their communities (United Nation, n.d.). In order to participate effectively, young people must be provided with the essential tool kit of access to information, civil rights, and education. Communities can work together to provide a space in which young voices can look for solutions. It is important for young people to keep having uncomfortable conversations with people around them. These conversations, and the resulting sharing of ideas, will result in further communication and subsequently, like-minded people will continue the trend within their social network. This chain reaction of conversations will lead to a ripple effect that ensures human rights and empowerment are at the heart of social advocacy
Young people have the responsibility to fight off the stigma and avoid being politically correct just for the sake of social trends, for as—Martin Luther King Jr. asserted— “nothing in this world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” (Stagman, 2015). For young activists, sincere ignorance is the idea of believing something is right with no basis or background information. For example, it is quite trendy among today’s youth to get involved in the protests or share posts of the ongoing social change movements such as Afghan Crisis, Black lives Matter, or Save Sheikh Jarrah on social media without any background knowledge. This is not to claim that these matters are not important, or unworthy of supporting, of course, but rather emphasises the need to understand and recognise the depth and complexity of a topic. It is a matter of due diligence and reflection. Young people must reflect on their agency, and what they are capable of contributing to society. Simply put, it is time for young leaders to go the extra mile in activist spaces and act for positive social change upholding respect for inclusion, equity, and diversity.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2016, November 28). Youth and Democracy [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-sRy5GTltw
United Nations. (n.d.). Youth in action. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/youth-in-action