‘Young people are the future’ is a phrase used so often it has become a cliché. Personally, I cringe when I hear it, because I like to believe that young people can create change in real-time. However, during the past year, I’ve noticed that not everyone sees young people as valuable change-makers in the same way that I do.
Until September of last year, I held the position of the Dutch Youth Ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. A long title, which essentially meant that I worked with youth organizations and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to amplify youth voices in the Netherlands and globally. I addressed anything related to sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, human rights and international development.
In my position there were no typical days – some days I was at the Ministry working on proposals, and other days I was on an international visit to partner countries or at the United Nations speaking up for young people. The role is unique and it is the only one in the world as no other country has a similar position. Naturally, many youth advocates and youth organizations envy the investment the Dutch Ministry has made by putting this position in place, because it offers a direct way of providing input on your government – a privilege most young advocates can only dream of. So why don’t other governments jump on board?
Based on my experience, meaningfully engaging young people is not welcomed for many reasons, but here are 3 I hear most often:
1. People in positions of power are afraid to let go of the reigns, especially when it concerns someone with fewer years of ‘professional experience’. This is often the case when governments and institutions are hierarchical and involve a high level of bureaucracy – in other words, when the only young people in offices are interns needed for administrative tasks. In these settings, older generations struggle to view young people as professionals. Additionally, personal experiences and life lessons are not valued as much as ‘hard-earned’ experience from working hours, which is troubling as a young person’s background can be what makes them a strong advocate and key contributor.
2. Meaningful youth engagement needs investment, which many governments aren’t willing to consider. It is true that young people need support so that they can actively participate (support with understanding regulations or jargon, for example). Therefore, more time, resources and money need to be set aside for creating youth-friendly spaces. Many governments and organizations view this as too large a barrier, and are instantly put off because they believe that the costs of meaningfully engaging young people outweigh the benefits.
3. The added value of engaging young people is overlooked. Officials and senior employees I have spoken with have often highlighted this point – what’s in it for us? My response is always the same: as the world continues to change, young people provide unique insights, creativity, and perspectives from a large section of the world population. This last point is particularly relevant, as there have never been as many young people in the world as there are today.
So, what can young people do to push for meaningful engagement?
If you’re a young person trying to convince your local government, or any other organization for that matter, to take action, preparing counterarguments to objections like the ones mentioned above can be useful to improve your discussions. If you want to go further and lead an organization to call for attention to your cause, I would recommend this youth guide developed by CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality (it is written primarily for the field of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights but is applicable for advocacy in all fields).
Keep in mind: one argument you make could resonate with one person and shift everything. Stay passionate and keep reaching out to other young advocates. Young people can shape the present!