Generation Next is politically engaged but just not in the worn-out ways of the past


OPINION:ONE OF the hefty questions levelled at the youth in Ireland today is: why aren’t you doing something about your situation?

You would be forgiven for thinking that Generation Next had caused the current mess given the level of responsibility being placed on our shoulders to get the country out of it.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, young people are politically engaged more than ever before. But keeping here to continue that engagement, and reaching those of our generation who think Ireland is a lost cause, are big challenges.

We must make the business of reshaping this country accessible to all people from all backgrounds and break down the myth of the heavy word “politics” that grates on so many young people who shudder at the lack of trust it implies.

When I started campaigning, “politics” was not a word I used. I felt it had nothing to do with me. I had one goal – to improve the services for people with cystic fibrosis and therefore keep people alive.

The goal was simple and direct. It wasn’t leaning on a political ideology and it wasn’t concerned with what one establishment wanted over another. In the simplest sense, to me, it was just about humanity and staying alive.

Young people in Ireland aren’t protesting like those in Greece, Spain or indeed the Arab world. But lack of protest does not mean lack of engagement. The sphere of political action is shifting and while you’ll find young people in youth divisions of political parties and in student unions, you’ll also find that those who shun the traditional systems are working in lobby groups and NGOs.

You’ll also find them creating their own community-based awareness of issues, through workshops, art or youth groups. There is also a lot of activism online; it’s just not as visible to those among older generations not connected in this way.

This generational disconnect is part of the problem when it comes to youth participation in politics. Last year’s Occupy movement appeared to ignite hope for a short while. A span of generations got involved and took a leap of faith in trying to establish a physical manifestation of what was called by some a “global resistance”.

Moving on from that was the tricky part. Most of the young people involved dropped away around Christmas, and the young people who stayed were already active in other campaigns internationally. They saw activism as their duty in life.

But the sacrifice it requires full time is not possible for all. Psychologically, physically and financially it’s difficult. Creating change requires a leap of faith, it requires risk. In an uncertain Ireland, leaping outside the box is hard. It’s a sacrifice that doesn’t necessarily pay off, particularly not the first time around. Successful campaigning requires accepting the crisis, keeping a clear head and adapting something like survival instinct. It’s about remembering the message, being consistent and above all speaking the truth in the clearest way possible. And then the challenge is to keep doing it.

The survival response in this country by many young people has been to fly out of here. It’s a valid response when all around is crumbling. Our version of fight appears not to be protest; it’s a consistent effort to keep our heads down and carry on ensuring the foolish risks of others do not define our future.

In order to take a positive risk, young people need an outlet. Being your own leader in a climate of uncertainty is hard work. Young people are forging on and doing the best they can despite this – for Generation Next just keeping their own stuff together is difficult enough.

The visual landscape of politics is different for this generation – it’s as much where you buy your clothes to what food you choose to eat, to what you retweet online.

It’s not about traditional politics, it’s not necessarily about Ireland. For young people it’s about deciding where they are in this moment and where their greatest responsibility lies.

Orla Tinsley is a journalist and activist

* The headline of this article was corrected at 11.20 on September 26th, 2012 .

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