Kaya Lovestrand is a First-year at Bennington College and has accepted an Emerging Leaders Internship at the Will Steger Foundation in conjunction with her January Field Work Term. Her series of blog posts focused on the Millennial generation and youth engagement will run through February 2011.
“ The rights and decision-making capabilities of young people often remain unrecognized, and their potential as a valuable resource is seldom realized.” – United Nations World Youth Report, 2010
All of my work with the Will Steger Foundation has been leading up to one question: why is it important to invest in youth? You can talk to anyone who has been involved with youth programs, or teachers, or even parents and they will be able to give you more answers than you could ever want. A lot of people know that it is important, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into the “why?”, connecting it to the research I’ve already done and finding solid evidence to back it up.
Wondering what makes young people so different, I got the same answer from almost all of my sources: it’s the mindset. No one mentioned that specifically, but I read and heard repeatedly about the optimism, openness, and energy of youth. When I asked Dennis Donovan, National Organizer for Public Achievement, what kind of effect youth have in contrast to adults, he started listing the first words that came to mind – “energetic, enthusiastic, hopeful, not cynical, ready” – drawn from his years of experience both as a teacher and organizer (1). His response was echoed not only by the others I interviewed, but also by reports and studies. The tagline for the Pew Research Center’s massive report on the Millennial Generation is “ The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” (2) The optimism they’re referring to comes mostly from Millennials’ outlook on economics (while less than a third say they earn enough for the life they want, 88% say they expect to in the future), but this optimism shows up in other places too. One example is from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen where young people were the most supportive of the countries making the most progressive demands, and put the most challenging targets on the table (3). This optimism, along with the many other mindset characteristics associated with it, gives the impact of youth a unique and powerful perspective – not to mention the courage to try things no one else has.
One product of the current youth mindset is the way youth approach change. Young people have opened the door to a new kind of movement, where there is no one leader and all about a team and networking approach (4). The main features of this new approach are the lack of hierarchy and use of technology. As noted by the UN World Youth Report, while developing new approaches and combining them with the strategies of the past, “They [young activists] are increasingly developing informal, non-hierarchical ways to communicate and organize using the Internet, mobile telephones, and other high- technology communication tools”. We can see that since young people’ s tendency is to avoid hierarchically structured programs (5), in creating their own organizations, events, and movements they tend to be more group focused and without high ranked officials. This kind of structure is only possible because if their utilization of technology – which is an important topic on it’ s own.
Before mentioning anything else, I want to point out the around 18 billion people use the Internet on a daily basis according to Internet World Stats. Something so virtually universal is sure to play a huge role in sustainable efforts in the future. Unfortunately, technology is not always a good thing; young people’ s affinity for technology means increased exposure to a lot of commercialism which increases general consumption, and also just more consumption of technology. However, it’ s important to realize that that technology can, when used effectively, be a tool for good. For instance, “ It has been observed that increases in the use of information technology have resulted in an increased interest in the world and an enhanced ability for voices from around the world to be heard.” (6) Also, both its accessibility and frequency make technology a must for modern day wide-scale change. For some older generations, not growing up with technology makes it more confusing and some people are likely to think that it makes life harder rather than easier (2). In contrast, we see know young minds are better at handling large amounts of information at once (7) and that youth are effectively utilizing of this massively widespread tool – both valuable characteristics of young people.
Any action that young people do to combat climate change and countless other environmental issues will benefit everyone, but even if there isn’t specific action in this regard, simply engaging youth benefits society as a whole (8). It’s been shown that “a young person showing positive youth development will be more likely to contribute to self and to family, community, and civil society in positive, valued ways.” (9) And when youth are engaged to the level of collaboration, “they become full partners in action,” increasing the power of action taken by the adults they’re working with (3). The quality of future leadership around the world depends on what positive decisions youth are making now, and what decisions they make in the future (10).
Youth Are the Future Majority
Millennials are the largest generation in history (2), nearly half of the world’s population is under the age of 2510, and in some countries, youth make up a third of the population (3). As stressed in my first post, ‘Millennials: Realizing Our Generational Potential’, if none of the other reasons are convincing, we need to care about youth because our choices are going to have monumental impact no matter what. In addition to just population size, youth are already making an impact on economies all over the world. In 2003 alone the combined spending of youth in 11 major economies was over 750 billion dollars – more than the combined GDP of the entire continent of Africa (3). It’s of great importance what actions these many consumers choose, and there is still time to make sure they are making the right decisions.
It’s Our Future
Young people are simply going to be around longer, and will live to experience the consequences of our current actions. Currently, our leaders who are not youth are making decisions about the future that many of them will not be a part of. Young people need to be involved in the decisions being made today because they will be the defining features of the rest of our lives. Therefore, they need to be engaged not only to make decisions, but to make the right decisions – for everyone’s sake, but especially our own.
We know that as a generation, young people are not especially aware of environmental issues (7), and have been shown to be less cognizant of politics than older adults (12). For the reasons I’ve listed above and many more, this needs to change, and research tells us that it might not be as impossible as some think. A majority of youth are frustrated by their desire for change back lack of an outlet (4). If they know they can make a difference they will. The enormous challenges of our time require action from everyone, and yet no progressive development can happen without the help of youth (13). We need the open, optimistic, confident, energy-full, and hopeful minds to bring together everyone on fighting not just climate change, but every other challenge our society faces. As a young person, I am constantly aware that my life will be marked by the decisions made before my time, and by the actions I will choose to make. It’s time for a critical mass of younger and older people alike, to start paying attention and caring about the earth we will inherit so that we can work together towards a more resilient future.
4 – Timmer, Dagmar, Carolee Buckler, and Heather Creech. “Supporting the Next Generation of Sustainability Leadership.” International Institute for Sustainable Development Sept. (2008): 1-30. Web. 28 Jan. 2011.
9 – Jelicic, H., Bobek, D., Phelps, E., D., Lerner, J. V., Lerner, R. M. (2007). “Using positive youth development to predict contribution and risk behaviors in early adolescence: Findings from the first two waves of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development”. International Journal of Behavioral Development.
10 – Elias, Maurice. “How to Bring Service Learning to Your School.” Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 17 June 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://www.edutopia.org/blog/service-learning-how-to>.