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Each generation faces a different set of challenges compared to those that came before and those that will follow. But how can we ensure that today’s young people feel heard and that we are helping them overcome the issues they care most deeply about?
According to a recent study from the YMCA, young people are facing challenges around their chances of finding stable, secure employment that will meet their financial needs, while also experiencing significant mental health difficulties and overcoming feelings of isolation and loneliness (particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19).
And on a global scale, young people are increasingly concerned about the future of our society and the world we live in, with a BBC study showing that 60% of people aged 16-25 were very worried or extremely worried about climate change and three quarters feeling the future was frightening.
The growth of social media in the 21st century has created an open platform for everyone to share their views and connect with like-minded individuals and groups.
For young people, this has served to help them understand that they are not alone in their views and that it is possible to create powerful movements for action, as has been seen with climate activism.
However, as a result of every young person having the ability to share their views online and to access the opinions of others comes greater focus on the actions or otherwise of those in power. The greatest way to bring about change in a modern democracy is through the ballot box, but according to a recent YouGov study, young people are more likely to feel disenfranchised and that their vote doesn’t matter.
Therefore, the focus must surely be on showing young people that their voices are heard and actioned upon – at both local and national levels.
In order to create a society where everyone has an opportunity to share their views and to see change occur based on their concerns, we first need to ensure this happens in our communities.
One of the main challenges to overcome in creating greater social cohesion in communities is in bridging the divide between generations.
Perhaps one of the most prominent reasons for this kind of generation gap is a reduction in interactions between different groups within community settings - something which was exacerbated by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, and which particularly reduced in-person social interactions and forced a rise in virtual connection.
This move to online communities, combined with the prevalence of social media, has created echo chambers for us all, where we are surrounded by the opinions of those who think the same way as us and decrease our empathy for anyone with different motivations.
However, overcoming those divisions is more complex than simply exposing ourselves to different views, especially in the case of young people who continue to feel as though they are ignored and left uncatered for by our decision makers.
If we really want to create a society where young people feel that their voices can be heard and that their ideas are of value, then we need to provide viable platforms for their thoughts to be shared and then demonstrate that they will be acted on.
Perhaps the best example recently of young people’s combined voice making a difference is the School Strike for Climate movement, started by Greta Thunberg as a result of her frustration at the lack of action taken by governments to address climate change.
Started in 2018, the movement rapidly grew, thanks in large part to a vibrant social media scene, to the point where students were striking from classes all over the world in a bid to encourage action from politicians and corporations.
However, that movement is unfortunately also a good example of the challenges that young people face when trying to make their voice heard, with negative media coverage and public opinion perhaps due to the age of those campaigning.
Whether or not the concerns of young people about the environment will truly be taken on board and considered in global decision making remains to be seen. But what Greta and others like her have shown is that if young people feel they are not being listened to, they have the power to gather together until their combined voice is loud enough to be unavoidable.
In recent years there has been a shift towards recognising youth voice and helping young people to feel empowered. Organisations such as the British Youth Council and UK Youth have shown that there is huge potential both in the collective voice of young people and in the impact they can make as a mobilised group.
By learning more about the motivations, aspirations and concerns shared by young people, we as a society can then encourage them to choose their own path towards feeling confident and empowered to make a difference.
One great example of how organisations, businesses and young people can work together to bring about change is the #iwill campaign, where funding is made available to support campaigns and programmes where youth social action is at the centre. What makes #iwill different is that young people are placed in equal standing to organisation representatives as co-chairs of various self-organising groups. As a result, young people are provided with tangible role models of how they can be involved in making important decisions that lead to actionable change.
The first step towards empowering young people to make changes in society is to help them build the confidence to make their voice heard. Returning to the YMCA study into challenges faced by young people, one of the key actions identified to support them was to provide them with employability and life skills alongside access to meaningful work experience.
While it might not be possible to develop confidence in isolation, it can grow in young people as a result of building skills such as communication, teamwork and self-belief. By reinforcing these skills and providing young people with opportunities to put them into practice and see how they can be harnessed for positive effect, we can create those lightbulb moments that help today’s learners see the potential effect of their social action.
That positive feedback of seeing their skills make a difference can be incredibly powerful, both in reinforcing the benefits on an individual level but also in providing inspiration to others of how they too could be an agent for change in their communities and beyond.
That kind of reinforcement and encouragement can create a virtuous circle of social action and inspiration, which if nurtured correctly and provided with a platform for growth can then spread through all corners of society and across the country.
We just need to show young people they all have inside them as individuals and as a group, then allow them the time and space to discover the scope for themselves.
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