Youthful enthusiasm and optimistic visions of how to create a better world are not new in society and politics. There are countless examples throughout modern history of students and young activists around the world taking to the streets to demand change:
- in the US Civil Rights movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was carried out by four young men aged 17-19 and led to the creation of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), while the nine students in Little Rock Arkansas, standing up against their state’s refusal to integrate their schools in 1957, were aged between 15 and 17
- in 1968, student protests rocked cities around the world, covering a range of issues including civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, antiwar, anti-colonialism and struggles against repressive governments
- in South Africa in 1976, protests against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools originated with school children in Soweto, Johannesburg
- in China, the iconic image of the protestor facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was part of a student-led hunger strike and pro-democracy movement in 1989, calling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech
- starting in 2010, social media helped drive anti-government demonstrations from Tunisia across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, in what became known as the Arab Spring
Youth people engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience have undoubtedly changed aspects of society but have also been met with repression, imprisonment, police brutality and military force, sometimes deadly. Government crackdowns on protesters are estimated to be responsible for 600 deaths in the Soweto protests, over 800 in Egypt’s anti-government demonstrations and 10,000 during the Tiananmen Square movement, while many others have been imprisoned in countries around the world for raising their voices. Even when governments do not use physical force, those in power who are wary of protests often attempt to suppress dissent and to demean the young who rise up, belittling their struggle for change.
Young activists today are leading the way in the efforts for climate change action. Youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and School Strike for Climate Action are using protests, school walkouts and legal action against governments to pressure politicians into taking more concrete measures to protect the future of the planet. The school strikes, which have now taken place in over 200 countries, originated with Greta Thunberg (16), who began with a weekly Friday protest outside the Swedish parliament until the government live up to its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Her passionate, no-holds-barred speeches at Davos and the United Nations went viral and have given her a global platform. While the worldwide school strikes she inspired this March were met with support from the UN and many other world leaders, they also faced criticism, including from UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In an angry parliamentary session Morrison asserted, “we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools” . However, in the face of such criticism, Thunberg and thousands of school students have continued to argue that the strikes are imperative in raising awareness of the need for legislators to take decisive action now to protect the planet. For her efforts, Thunberg has been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers for the Nobel prize. To date, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded it in 2014. Malala was already renowned for her advocacy for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when she was shot and critically injured. The Taliban, who had banned girls from school, targeted Malala specifically to intimidate her and other girls who attempted to gain an education. However, she has used her international profile since the attempt on her life to continue to fight for equal rights for young women worldwide, and has refused to be intimidated or silenced by the violence wrought against her.
Around the world, youth movements are undeterred by criticism and threats, and are continuing to speak out for change. In the US, in light of the country’s record of violent crime, the quest for reform of the gun laws is being led by the survivors of shootings. March for Our Lives, which saw over 1.2 million people gather in Washington DC and around the US in March 2018, was organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida, a little more than a month after their school had suffered a mass shooting. High profile figures from the group, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who Greta Thunberg has credited as the inspiration for her own activism, have worked together with other advocates for gun safety, co-ordinating and promoting the cause on social media. For standing up to the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobbyists in the NRA, they have been targeted by right wing media and commentators, whose tactics include photo-shopped images and the propagation of conspiracy theories that the teens are ‘crisis actors’ or left wing puppets. Similarly, in the fight for environmental protections and indigenous land rights, much of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was organised by young activists. The International Indigenous Youth Council and Rezpect Our Water were integral to the pushback against the oil firms and criticism of the government for granting rights to commercial interests on native lands. 12-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes and 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer co-ordinated actions such as a 160,000-signature petition and a 2000-mile march on Washington DC. In response, security services set dogs on the pipeline protesters, soldiers and armed police were sent in to dismantle their camp, protesters and journalists were arrested and strip-searched, and water cannons and tear gas were fired upon them. Similar tactics have been used against the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, whose protests have been met with riot police, and participants have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and ‘unpatriotic’. When the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (29) protested against police brutality and discrimination by taking a knee during the national anthem, the attempts to demean and silence him and paint him as the villain reached the highest level of the nation. President Trump blasted the protest and angrily called for the NFL to take punitive action. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
As well as protest movements, the younger generations also have an important voice within the political process. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, only 29% of 18-24 year olds voted to leave the European Union compared with 64% of those aged over 65. Some countries, including Austria and Argentina, have a legal voting age of 16, while in Scotland, it was lowered from 18 to 16 for the independence referendum in 2014. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have also broached the idea of giving full voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. As there is still a tendency by many voters to cling to the image of the ‘elderly statesman’ as the ‘natural leader’, youth and diversity are vital in political representation, as well as in media and the arts, in order to reflect the full spectrum of society and provide role models for future leaders. The voices of all ages, abilities, races, religions, genders and sexual identities need to be heard, and there are signs that voters are beginning to place faith is younger, more diverse candidates. New Zealand has a 38-year old female Prime Minister and an opposition leader who is a 42-year-old Maori man. In Ireland, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a 40-year-old gay man. When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 2nd youngest ever Prime Minister, aged 43, he chose a cabinet divided 50/50 male/female, with most aged under 50, and including members who were Sikh, indigenous, refugees and with disabilities. Trudeau explained, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,… Because it’s 2015″. The US also seems to be becoming more receptive to younger, diverse lawmakers, with current high-profile political figures including Alexandria Acasio-Cortez (29, Latina), Cory Booker (49 African-American), Stacey Abrams (45 African-American), Kyrsten Sinema (42, LGBTQ), Ilhan Omar (37, Muslim), Sharice Davids (38 LGBTQ Native American) and Pete Buttigieg (37, LGBTQ). It remains to be seen how those running in the 2020 presidential election, where voters tend to have a conservative view of what a president should be, will fare against Trump (72), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Saunders (77). However, their success in local and congressional elections to date signals a desire from many for a variety of younger voices in government.
Of course, younger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Experience and historical knowledge are still vital in politics and diplomacy. A 38-year-old real estate developer with no experience in public office or international relations should not be given unfettered influence at the highest level of government and be placed in charge of negotiating peace in the Middle East, finding a solution to a national opioid epidemic and developing trade relationships with Mexico and China. (However, the same could be said of a 72-year-old real estate developer with the same deficit in government experience or public service). Similarly in business, innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship must come with a share of responsibility and consideration of real-life repercussions. The lauded young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are now discovering this, as their careless disregard for the consequences of their decisions and actions mire their companies in controversy and investigations, and endanger ordinary people. And there are also some young people who feel threatened by the changes occurring in society, who are raising their voices against diversity and inclusion. They can be heard on social media, in anti-EU sentiments in the UK, amongst Trump supporters and high-level advisers, and in acts of violent extremism and terror. At its worst, their perceived loss of status drives a hatred of, and willingness to bar or destroy, the ‘other’. Their desire is to hold onto the power, privilege and influence they feel they deserve by excluding others, or to return to some promised but imagined halcyon age, where they have been told things would have been better for them.
Thankfully, today’s youthful voices calling for a cleaner, more equitable, more compassionate, kinder society show no signs of being silenced by the trolls, commentators and politicians who fear the change they desire. Rather than belittling, demeaning, suppressing or silencing demands, the older power brokers need to listen to the voices of all sectors of society, representing a full range of experiences of the world around us. Today’s issues will have an impact on the young long after the elderly leaders of today are gone, and so it is only fair that they have a place at the table, as an integral part of the decision making process, shaping policy and planning a better future for everyone.
April 17th 2019