Across the globe, voices from younger generations are leading on the defining issues of our age. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg sparked widespread climate change protests in more than 100 countries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has forced the Democrats leftwards on touchstone issues, and Malala Yousafzai has helped to grow educational opportunities for girls and young women in Pakistan and beyond.
Politicians and business people, as well as those in the charity and non-profit world, should not only acknowledge this youthful drive for political and social engagement, they need to willingly hand the next generation their megaphone and trust them to find their own voice.
So how can governments and the corporate world nurture this enthusiasm? From a global non-profit viewpoint – and with compelling evidence from Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere – we see the means to unlock that potential.
What motivates young people to get involved?
The causes of choice among younger generations reflect their reality – inequality, climate change, mass migration owing to civil strife (Syria, Iraq) and economic meltdown such as the crisis in Venezuela are at the centre of their consciousness.
In Brazil, youth activism is acting as a counterfoil to the administration of Jair Bolsonaro. Whilst in South Africa, it is driven by widespread corruption allegations against the African National Congress (ANC).
The South African government has been accused of failing the country’s youth, denying them access to quality education and training. The Economist’s 2019 Pocket World in Figures estimates that South Africa has the highest rate of youth (15-24) unemployment in the world – a startling 57.4 per cent. That’s over 9.5 million young South Africans, disenfranchised and unable to pursue a career.
This lost potential and the activism it is fuelling echoes elsewhere, with research showing that there are 30 countries with youth unemployment rates of 30 per cent or higher, from Greece to Gabon and Saudi Arabia to Spain. Brazil is 28th worst on the list, with 30.5 per cent of 15-24 year olds out of work – or nearly 34 million people.
The business world
The private sector relies on young people, not least to buy their products and services. The total global projected advertising spend targeting children – just children – is anticipated to be $4.2 billion in 2019. By 2030, the UN estimates that the number of 15-24 year olds worldwide will rise to 1.3 billion.
There are clear upsides for businesses that listen to young, progressive consumers. Adidas recently doubled production of their Parley line of running shoes, constructed from reclaimed ocean plastic in a bid to battle environmental degradation while reflecting a brand ethos that is aligned with the concerns of modern shoppers. Big business also brings influence when it comes to tackling social challenges, as they often have the ear of government and can reflect the progressive attitudes of their customers – a perhaps unintended but nonetheless welcome consequence of all of those young consumers.
When the South African government bowed to youth-led pressure and allocated R57 billion ($4.1billion USD) in the 2018 budget to fund fee-free higher education, it was a welcome first step. But crucially, young people did not pause in their mission. Their protests shifted to registration fees and a shortage of student housing on campus – key barriers to entry.
In Brazil, despite immense challenges, there are also bright spots that hint at progress.
The Latin American Leadership Academy (LALA) runs a pre-university bootcamp leadership programme that develops and connects socially-conscious young people across the continent with the aim of creating an ecosystem of young leaders who will one day drive the continent to greater heights.
From the United States to Pakistan, Brazil to South Africa and everywhere in between, the message is clear: give youth a chance. With active support from political and corporate circles, there’s a generation of change-makers out there itching to make a difference.
Michael Mapstone is Director of International at the Charities Aid Foundation