“Young people are the future” and other nonsense

I cringe every time I hear that self-patronizing statement. Ever so often, well-meaning people get up on stage and utter these revered words , ” Friends, young people are the future, they are the future leaders of this nation”. Now many variations of this same speech exists, but for each one of them, my response would be the same : bullshit.

You see sir (or madam), young people are not the future, we are very much the present. In the future, we will not be young, we will be old, like you.  I wish I could tell that to them, but often the costs of such heroics are not worth the benefits. So instead, most of us learn how to smile and nod in agreement.

This reveals, quite aptly how “adults” and adult-based organizations (both in the state and in the civil society) view youth participation and youth-led development. For most of these organizations youth participation is some sort of a charity project. There is a tendency to think of young people as a “problem group” (an attitude which some of us identified in the plagiarized youth policy of Sri Lanka), a group that needs to be “included” because otherwise, they might resort to violence. This results in tokenism, engaging in “youth consultations” purely for appeasement, symbolism and in the case of civil society, often only to fulfill criteria imposed by donor organizations (youth consultations – check).

The bottom line is, there is a lack of understanding of what meaningful youth participation in policymaking  means, from all quarters, including young people themselves. There is a tendency of some young people  (and youth organizations around the world) to engage in group-lobbying to say, get concessionary bus fares, or air fares by governments.  This I feel undermines the case for youth participation and feeds into this altruist attitude towards youth involvement.

Some of these issues were raised at the recent Commonwealth Youth Ministers meeting held in Colombo, where some BB-ites were invited to speak in a forum with the youth caucus representatives from the commonwealth (an organization which has an excellent youth program).

In the forum, a question was raised about the youth-quota which was one of the recommendations that actually got implemented from the 1990 youth commission report, which among other things,  recommended that nomination lists for all political parties contesting for local council elections must allocate 40% of those places for candidates aged between 18 and 35.

Personally, I’m against quota systems. Not only because I think it reinforces the sympathetic attitude for youth participation I complained of earlier, but also due to my other larger political convictions, which I will not discuss here. The failure of the quota policy to spawn meaningful youth participation,  the quotas  are often “filled” by sons, nephews of politicians and the debacle involving the rejection of Sri Lanka’s major opposition party’s nominations list for the Colombo Municipal Council elections (due to the presence of a candidate under the age of 18), vividly demonstrates the seriousness with which political parties approach the youth-quota mandate and the youth participation in general.

Another part of this story is that, thanks to economic liberalization, the role of the state has become less and less important. This means that young people do not look to the state as the only way in which they can create opportunities for themselves, which has made the threat of  “youth uprisings” extremely unlikely. This means that youth-participation is no longer in the exclusive domain of “state responsibilities” and instead is a more of a broad phenomenon which needs to be appreciated by a  range of actors both within and outside government, which includes  NGOs, educational institutes, corporates and other civil society actors.

This brings to be my concluding point, which is this : I don’t think we need major institutional changes to make youth participation ‘work’.’in fact, I feel what is required more than anything is an attitudinal change towards youth participation  and learned perspectives on youth involvement, and youth-led development by both state and non-state actors which will allow them to properly create processes by which youth participation can be a meaningful and a mutually beneficial exercise.

— Deane Jayamanne

Deane is a Core Group Member of Beyond Borders Sri Lanka and frequent blogger. His rants on economics and politics can be read here.

Related : Youth participation and Democracy, How to make a youth policy in 3 steps.


Posted on 06/04/2008, in Opinions, Sri Lanka, Youth-Culture-Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “…thanks to economic liberalization, the role of the state has become less and less important. This means that young people do not look to the state as the only way in which they can create opportunities for themselves, which has made the threat of “youth uprisings” extremely unlikely…”

    well, i don’t agree with this for one. Economic Liberalization still remains, sadly, the dominion of cities & certain strata of society within those cities.
    So the state is PRETTY MUCH the only opportunity for most young people, especially on the road to becoming young people where most of the education depends on the government. (Think free education policies, no teachers for English & Math etc…)

    While it may not be the exclusive domain of the state, the state is definitely majority stake holder, unless & until these economic liberilzations you are talking about trickle down to the majority living without it! (taking my earlier example of education, you have to give them an opportunity that doesn’t cost too much to opt for private education, if the country can’t find enough English teachers for state schools!)

    Money is the motivator, but money needs to go to everybody, not be hoarded by a few!
    So true, young people are the present, agreed! But where is the present going to get them without a state that can back the inititative? Stopping youth uprisings is going to be quite hard in this context!

  2. It’s true that the Western province in particular and few other provinces have benefited most economic liberalization. So if you were to say the greatest threat of “youth uprising” comes from lack of liberalization, I’d agree. But most provinces, have benefited some way or the other, as can be seen by the falling poverty figures increasing per-person incomes after 1977, not just in WP, but across the board (with the upcountry being an exception, I don’t think the surveys included north and east, will check.)

    I think “youth uprisings” are unlikely because you got to have a sense of scale. In say the 70s or before that state was the major employer now that’s no longer the case. People don’t have to look for “government jobs”, because much of the economy is in the private sector.

    Generally cities create more prosperity, because well, obviously there’s greater division of labor, the cost of say generic services (infrastructure, water, etc) , per capita would be less, greater access to technology, so on.

    There’s nothing that prevents young people in rural settings to migrate into cities, and they, as you will observe, often do.

    So no, state is NOT “pretty much the only opportunity” for most young people, nor is it the majority stake holder. As for state backing initiatives, where’s the state backing us? or most other civil society organizations.

    I mean, seriously, do you think we are in the verge of a “youth uprising”?

  3. Interesting post, written with a lot of positivity. Nevertheless, this whole phrase ‘the youth are the future’ and the variations of this cliché has some truth in it. As you stated the youth are very much so in the present but their actions and decisions made today create the basis of what the future is going to be. For example, take the conflict in Sri Lanka, due to various factors the wrong decisions, sometimes inactions and missed opportunities of the then society which comprised of both adults and youth has undeniably contributed towards what the conflict is, today.

    A youth uprising is not necessarily bad as long as there is clarity in terms of what the uprising is for. There needs to be a lot of change in the mindsets of today’s youth in terms of the conflict, especially in terms of active involvement in dialogue. Today the youth are more interested in carving out their individual futures and the amount of young people interested in social development is really quite low. Sri Lanka is ready for a social movement in order to push for a negotiated settlement for the conflict and what better way to start than through a positive and progressive youth uprisal.

    Furthermore, your comments in terms of the state, maybe be true to an urban situation but there are many rural places in Sri Lanka where whatever the state provides is sometimes their only option and even though as you state many migrate towards the urban areas, their ability to succeed is fairly remote. Here the issue of knowing the English language comes into major play.

    So without the present there cannot be a future and what you do today really defines what the future is going to be like….sorry, but the cliché does apply…

  4. Exiled, thanks for the comments.

    The cliche maybe true, but that’s a very obvious statement. They might as well say that Christmas is in December.The issue is, it gives this notion that young people are only relevant in the future and until such time, we should just lick lollipops, listen to adult wisdom and wait. It’s not that I’m picking fights, it’s a very real attitude I’ve encountered many a time.

    It maybe true that young people interested in social development are low, but partly, this is because spaces for such engagement are quite low too. BB is one such initiative which aims to create this space, our mission is to explicitly to work on development issues not charity. I think we need more of that. I am less optimistic though as to the readiness for a social movement among SL youth. Being involved is one thing, risking your neck for a ‘youth uprising’ is quite another. I guess we are too busy, and in some sense this is a good thing. I believe in more like a marginal revolution — small steps for a better world.

    I’ve responded to the urban vs. rural stuff above and in my blog . I agree that rural Sri Lanka is still defendant on government more than the urban youth, my contention is even so, they are much less dependent than they were before and it’s not as bad for a lot of them to pick up a gun. There is also no ideological motivator. Che guevera is on T-shirts and mugs in the market, thankfully. It might be different story for north and some parts of the east, this is why the restrictions on travel from the north is especially stupid, in my opinion.

  5. It is so true…I will use some of your nice statements in a workshop of mine. If you want young people to make sense in the future…invest now!

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