Today’s youth are caring, engaged political actors

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I’ve spent the last decade talking to young people around the world to find out what they believe and where they’re leading us. I also surveyed over 4,000 youth from 88 countries and searched the youth studies literature for my series of books about global youth.

There’s a “Generation We” or “Me” divide among scholars. Some say Generations Y and Z are altruistic and some say they’re narcissistic. Surprisingly, even many of the “Gen We” books don’t include the actual voices of young people. They often rely on multiple-choice surveys rather than open-ended questions.

{mosads}Few have named the problem of ageism. Many view the youth as troublemakers or in need of rescuing from their hormones by supposedly wiser adults. This propelled me to write, “Ageism in Youth Studies: Generation Maligned.”


Its companion book delves into how youth values and beliefs are transforming our future to be more egalitarian. Young activists want to create a new person in a new cooperative, non-capitalist world. They’re dissatisfied with the economic status quo and want change.

Confident youth exchange tactics and encouragement online to create change. They scorn media-designated leaders and stars. They’re more comfortable with women in activist roles and more accepting of people with different backgrounds than earlier generations of rebels.

The danger zone is the large majority (87 percent) of youth who live in developing countries but have rising expectations of access to a modern way of life. These developing countries also are most hurt by global warming.

The time bomb of youth unrest extends to urban unemployed youth. To insure peace, the questions of pollution and income inequality must be addressed or we’ll see more youth revolts.

Young people are accused of being apolitical and apathetic, but their internet-based knowledge of global problems makes educated youth caring and active volunteers globally. They tend to view political parties and politicians as corrupt, bought and paid for, so they’re not enthused about politics and voting.

Some turned to new hybrid social movement/political parties such as SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Pirate Party that began in Sweden and spread to Iceland and the Five Star Movement in Italy.  

Lack of enthusiasm for mainstream politics doesn’t mean young people are apathetic — they’re more interested in hands-on, local volunteering. The recent wave of youth-initiated uprisings for democracy that started with the Arab Spring in 2011 focused on prefigurative politics, creating local cooperative services.

The occupied squares or parks include free food, childcare, libraries, first aid, music, counseling, discussion groups and so on. Feminist groups pointed out sexist practices, such as male dominance of the microphone or power hierarchies.

Most Americans I talk with don’t even know about these youth-led movements that, for example, toppled Egyptian autocrat, President Hosni Mubarak in 18 days. Closer to home, they don’t know that the Occupy movement changed the topic of political discussion in the U.S. from balancing the federal budget to the growing inequality between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.

About 61 percent of adult Millennials attended college, and more of their generation are completing their degrees, but they’re burdened by over $1 trillion in student loan debt and underemployment. Millennials, born between 1980 and around 2000, are the largest, best educated and most diverse generation in U.S. history — about 42 percent are people of color. Their demography enhances their comfort with differences.

As well as egalitarianism, courage and bravery characterize Gen Y and Z, as I aimed to prove in the two volumes of “Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution.” Young feminists influenced recent social movements in their insistence on horizontal rather than vertical leadership and on the recognition that we are not just a binary female or male, but a complex society influenced by class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality religion and so on. 

I Skyped with Annie Thomas, 19, a high school student active in the Dream Defenders (DD) movement in Florida, sparked by the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing black teen Trayvon Martin.

Thomas said, “Being a DD is a commitment to acting out your values. You’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing other youth.” In our Skype interview, she described marching with other DD members to shut down a police department in order to get Zimmerman arrested.

When he was acquitted, they occupied the capitol building for 31 days. Thomas participated in the only meeting the governor attended, where he just advised them to pray. Comparing youth organizers today to civil rights activists, she said the only difference is the use of social media. Youth have always led, as when students walked out of their schools during the civil rights movement.

A Harvard pollster of millennials reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is “moving a generation to the left.” Over half the young adults surveyed didn’t support capitalism partly because they earn less than their parents did at the same age. 

Over half the children in U.S. schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning they come from low-income families. President Trump’s perceived sexism and racism, his lack of environmental concern and lack of ability to shape consistent in-depth policies have an even more powerful impact on mobilizing activism among all age groups.

Who respects a leader who tweets a photo altered to show him knocking his political opponent Hillary Clinton in the head with a golf ball? Hopes that young advisors like his daughter and son-in-law could moderate his reactionary views on issues like climate change or health care proved fruitless.

His millennial speechwriter, Stephen Miller, leans far to the right. However, the liberal young former congressional staffers who wrote “Indivisible Guide” for how to influence your member of Congress fomented new activist groups around the country.

It looks like Indivisible directors Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin are more of a harbinger of future politics than Miller.

Gayle Kimball, Ph.D., is the author of a dozen books, many of which explore groups under-represented in research, such as youth. Professor Emerita at California State University, she has travelled around the world to interview young people for her trilogy about global youth activism, young women’s issues and how global youth viewpoints will change our future.

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