Why our youth must always have a seat at the table

Why our youth must always have a seat at the table
© Getty Images

After two decades of no legislative action in response to dozens mass shootings at schools, movie theaters, workplaces, concerts, and churches, high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have seized control of the gun debate in the United States, capturing the attention of Congress, state legislators, the White House, and the American people.

The movement sparked by the Florida teenagers spurred more than 200,000 people to attend a massive march and rally in Washington, D.C., where many of the speakers were under the age of 20.

ADVERTISEMENT
As Florida Senator Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioKevin McLaughlin tapped to serve as NRSC executive director for 2020 Senate votes to end US support for Saudi war, bucking Trump Senators offer measure naming Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi slaying MORE (R) told the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “the Parkland students have done more in five weeks than has been done in 15 years.”

What can government and business leaders, most of whom are in their fifties, learn from these young people so they can better engage the public in vexing issues and break gridlock? And, just as important, what can young people gain from those with experience so they can transform their ideas and vision into reality and lasting change.

The best way to ensure that this historic moment is not lost, that it becomes a learning experience and win-win between generations, is to ensure, once and for all, that there are seats at the decision-making table for young people.

We’ve been here before. From the four teenagers who started the lunch counter sit-ins which accelerated the civil rights movement in the United States to the public school students in Soweto, South Africa, who set in motion a global movement to end apartheid, recent history is brimming with examples of world-changing movements launched and led by young people.

Yet, after each of these milestones, the older generation has often failed to bring young leaders into the rooms where strategies are devised and policies are made, losing the opportunity to learn from each other through collaboration, debate, and negotiation.

In a post-Parkland world, it would be foolish not to open the corner suites and halls of power to young people if not for the most basic reason that there are more of them on the planet than at any time in human history. Half the world’s population is under 25 years old and 40 percent is under 19.

There are, of course, more important and substantive reasons for ensuring more room at the table for young people.  

From climate change to economic inequality, the biggest problems facing the world today are complex and interconnected, impacting people in every region and from every socio-economic background. Governments, companies, and organizations work better when they are representative of the populations they serve. By relying on input from people of diverse ages and backgrounds, we will develop better and smarter solutions to these complicated challenges.

This is not just wishful thinking. The United States National Institutes of Health found that people between the ages of 12 and 25 are uniquely suited to creatively solve problems as they are biologically wired for novelty-seeking and risk-taking. As young people are more likely to see new possibilities and go out on a limb to bring them to the rest of us, it’s no surprise that Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft were started by teenagers in dorm rooms and garages.

Staying on the topic of technology, the Parkland students have provided the older generation with a master class on how to use social media to not just shape and change the national discourse, but also bring millions of their peers into the conversation. By using their true, authentic voices, they have deftly and directly challenged political leaders on Twitter, created highly-shareable and effective memes on Instagram and Snapchat, and are poised to launch a channel on YouTube, the number one social media site for news among tweens today.

I have seen firsthand the leadership potential of young people through my work with countries like Argentina and Saudi Arabia, whose youth are playing a major role in their government efforts to modernize their economies and attract foreign investments. Initiatives like the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh and the Argentina Business and Investment Forum in Buenos Aires, both of which my firm helped produce, have put the youth front and center and relied on them to help develop policies for creating sustainable economic futures for these rapidly-changing countries.

It’s time for governments and businesses everywhere to start creating more places at the table for young people. This could mean changing laws so that anyone old enough to vote is old enough to run for any office. Or launching youth boards to advise businesses like the UK’s B&Q home improvement chain did. Or creating high school student liaisons to city councils like they have done in Quincy, Mass., or a gubernatorial youth council like has been proposed in New Jersey.

By following the lead of young people, who embrace risk and innovation, we can re-imagine leadership and governance with youth at the table and start tackling the world’s problems together.

Richard Attias is the founder and executive chairman of Richard Attias & Associates, a global advisory firm and minority subsidiary of WPP that develops communications strategies and live public events for governments, corporations, and institutions including the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Public Investment Fund, the Misk Foundation, the International Olympic Committee, and the World Bank. He produced the World Economic Forum in Davos from 1995 to 2008.