Ahead of the curve

The world’s youngest generations are rapidly moving way beyond baby boomers and millennials in their grasp of the modern world and governments must develop ever more sophisticated ways of connecting and engaging with them. 

As each year is eclipsed by another, the differences between the oldest and youngest generations living today become sharper.

While technological advances are at play, often making even the early thirty-somethings in the middle feel bereft, there are also major demographic shifts. The lives and lifestyles of the youth – a group defined by the UN as including those between 15 and 24 years old – are becoming increasingly novel to many, necessitating a change in the thinking of governments in order to connect with their younger population.

In terms of lifestyle shift, just take a look around. When was the last time a train carriage, café, library or park was free of people clinging to their smartphones? In 2013, some 45 per cent of people across 21 emerging and developing countries reported using the internet at least occasionally and owning a smartphone. Just two years later that figure rose to 54 per cent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Though technology can allow more connectivity between state and youth, and quickens the pace and efficiency of the workplace, it has not seemed to solve global youth unemployment, which – while steadying recently from pre-crisis highs – remains a cause for concern. “Unemployment will continue to rise in the coming years due to slower growth and widening inequalities in the global economy,” says the International Labour Organisation. “By 2019, more than 212 million people will be out of work, up from the current 201 million.”

Young people are busy in their minds and social lives, so give them short and achievable challenges to deliver on

Anne-Beth Derks, University of East Anglia, UK

So while the world is more connected, economically and socially, the experiences of the youth are – and are likely to be – so vastly different that it often feels challenging to connect and engage. Instead, distrust creeps in. Baby boomers are accused of not leaving anything to the young, and so-called millennials are seen as selfish, apathetic, lazy and mollycoddled.

How, then, can governments engage with the youth, to spur employment and community participation? Like all engagements, it takes preparation, innovation and understanding.

“Don’t wait to engage young people in high school, college and university, but begin in schools,” advises Brione LaThrop, an instructor at the Academic Bridge Programme at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, a scheme dedicated to preparing students for university admissions. Some of her students, she said, had recently travelled to South Korea. “They were most impressed with the culture of community service there,” she says.

“Young people in South Korea were volunteering as young as six years old, alongside their parents, siblings and grandparents. The culture of community service begins at home and is seen as a form of service to the country; it is given the same weight as military service. In fact, individuals in South Korea that don’t meet the physical requirements of military service can opt to perform community service in place of their military duty.”

In Seoul, the government has installed an Innovation Bureau or lab that draws on citizens’ ideas for policy and society, and runs to the tune of US$7m annually. Among its achievements are a new night bus, a car park sharing scheme and a rent initiative that connects generations: the elderly rent spare rooms to students for a small fee and a subsidy – extra income for the elderly and cheaper accommodation for the students – plus the opportunity to get to know one another and share experiences.

“Now is the time to boldly invest in the young,” says Jun Hyo Gwan, the bureau’s Director. For youth that are actively seeking out a space to be heard, “choose carefully what you want to say and who you would like to address your message to,” advises Anne-Beth Derks, Associate Tutor of politics, philosophy, language and communication studies at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

“There are national, regional and international organisations you can link with to meet like-minded people. Seek them out and try to get on one of their programmes. Your voices can be heard, but it takes determination to make a difference. One step at a time and keep going.”

As well as involving the pre-youth generation, gearing developments towards them is important. In Bogota, Colombia, the government set up a Centre for Social Innovation in 2011. One project developed a set of computer games to empower children aged seven to 12 to make positive changes for their families and communities. 

The games, which focused on subjects such as health, nutrition or family issues, such as preventing child abuse, were downloaded more than 40,000 times in 2013. Further, though it may seem obvious, investing time in offering prospects is key.

“Provide more opportunities to create, develop and implement projects that can translate into social entrepreneurship,” says LaThrop. She adds that at Zayed, when such chances are created, they are snapped up. “We find at the university that we always have a greater response to requests to serve in the community, than there are generally placements. When the opportunities are available, our young people respond to the call.”

Young people in South Korea were volunteering as young as six years old, alongside their parents, siblings and grandparents

Brione LaThrop, An instructor at the Academic Bridge Programme at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

LaThrop’s other tips include creating a database of prospects and setting up a scheme whereby hours spent performing civic duties could purchase soft-skills training. A similar aim is fostered in Washington DC, with the Education Department’s Investing in Innovation Fund. One grant goes towards the National Math and Science Initiative, which seeks to improve college readiness through preparing teachers, waiving student exam fees, upgrading classroom equipment and holding additional Saturday study sessions for students.

These examples prove that for governments to connect with their youth, action must follow discussion. "It’s not good to have endless youth consultations and not do anything with the suggestions,” agrees Derks.

“Give young people ownership. Young people are very connected and enthused if given the opportunity to action on something. They are, however, busy in their minds and social lives, so give them short and achievable challenges to deliver on.

“Celebrate these achievements in the media and seek positive role models.”