“We were that generation called silent, but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period's official optimism nor, as others thought because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man's fate.” Joan Didion
Wells of ink went to waste trying to assess the characteristics of the current Youth. Generation Z, the first one born in a digitized world, is supposedly uncontrollable, desperate, but also apathetic and indifferent. A Covid-19 generation, a Brexit Generation. For each crisis affecting the 21st century, there is an attempt to define an age group through it.
Yet, one analogy differs. Will the current Youth be the 21st century’s Silent Generation? Like their predecessors, who witnessed during the 1920s the uninhibited rise of extremisms, are young people condemned to try and read the missing needles of their moral compasses while tightening their grip around persevering hopefulness? Fatalism is one more attribute often affixed to the Youth. Following Greta Thunberg’s speech in the hemicycle of the French Assembly, many politicians gritted their teeth at having to be lectured by a girl they called the climate apocalypse’s Prophet.
In recent years, young people have taken part in political mobilization. They protested against establishment and corruption in Libya and Tunisia, a decade after the Arab Spring, the unprecedented revolution led by young activists. Like Mari Copeny, they wrote letters to the American President Barack Obama when children in Flint lost access to running water. They fought for working laws, in Bolivia. They went on strike, in Europe, and America, and Asia, and Africa, to protest what they deemed to be political inaction in the face of climate change. Despite the pandemic, the Youth finds innovative means to remind adults, parents, decision-makers, or allies of Antigone’s forceful plea: “It is not right if I am wrong. But if I am young and right, what does my age matter ?”
The definition of youth varies greatly depending on social circumstances. The United Nation settled on a wide description: young people are aged between 15 and 24 years old. However, younger activists are lost to this scale, such as the Indian justice climate activist Licypriya Kangujam. She began her fight at seven years old.
In the agitation of our moment, it is crucial not to give in to the sentiment that we stand at the crossroad of youth activism. The Youth has always been active and willing to fight for change. Long before the digital revolution led to a social and geographical decompartmentalization of struggles, students in Europe and in the United States stood up. In 1229, two years of strikes were initiated at the University of Paris to protest the death penalty inflicted on fellow students following a riot. At Harvard, in 1639, students went to court with a case of mistreatment at the hand of their schoolmaster Nathaniel Eaton. During the Civil Rights Movement, student activism was crucial to the success of many demonstrations, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. In China, in 1989, university students marched for democratic reform. The central government silenced them with riffles at Tiananmen Square. Youth activism has always been active, what changed are the resources available.
Social Media is revolutionary. It enables mass and swift mobilization. Twitter and Facebook offer unprecedented visibility. With a hashtag, the issue of a few turns into the existential fight of a generation. #Schoolstrikeforclimate #NeverAgain #Metoo ... Since the students strike at La Sorbonne in the 13th century, the Youth has been asking for a change in the order of societies, for the accountability of decision-makers, for responsibility in the face of hardship. According to Marshall Ganz, Lecturer at the Kennedy School, the Youth benefits from three qualities essential for progress: “a critical eye of the world, a clear view of its needs and pain, and hopeful hearts that give a sense to the world’s promise and possibilities”.
If social media is a powerful tool of dissemination, concerns that digital activism won’t be enough to implement concrete changes grow. A solution might be that of multilateral organizations. To benefit from the Youth’s vitality, they are beginning to include young actors into their decision-making process. The European Council adopted a resolution on the 26th of November 2018 which established the EU Youth Strategy. It focuses on three key actions: engage, connect, empower. The strategy wishes to realize the vision of the European youth, through dialogue and exchange. Likewise, with resolutions 2250 and 2419, the United Nations Security Council highlights the positive roles that young activists can act.
Still, a lurking danger risks to poison constructive propositions: the sad passions of Spinoza. When young, one too easily falls into the rabbit hole of despair, one’s actions become fueled by anger, loss of meaning, lack of purpose; all at a paradoxical age when the individual is both vulnerable and resilient.
Here, the adults have a role to play, they shall be mentors and allies. They must repeat, when hopes tarnish: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice” (*).
Do you want to learn more about Youth Activism? Then do not miss our series ‘ next episode: Youth Climate Activism.
(*) Nelson R. Mandela