Give youth a chance: real and radical change needed
OPINION:Young people may have it good compared to many in the world and to generations before them but they also face daunting challenges
THE YOUNG people are at it again. They’re drinking, fighting, losing their religion, and causing havoc on the streets of Ireland. They have no respect, no manners, no get up and go. They’re mollycoddled, dossing on the dole, sunning themselves in Australia and only interested in sex, fun, Facebook and their phones. You’d think that Ireland’s young people were the scourge of the nation.
Sadly that’s a common view shared by many and something that urgently needs to change. Yesterday was International Youth Day and the theme this year is “building a better world, partnering with youth”, a proposal that is in great need of consideration here in Ireland.
A staggering 40 per cent of our population is under 30. Think about that. Four out of every 10 of us is under 30, meaning a new generation is coming of age to fundamentally change every aspect of this country.
When you turn on the TV or radio it sometimes feels like a funeral for Ireland or indeed humanity. It’s no wonder there is a mental health crisis and that many of us choose methods of self-medication or escapism through alcohol, drugs, entertainment or apathy.
Our leaders aren’t leading us through this. They’re busy trying to appease the markets. It’s hard to be convinced or inspired by vague talk of recovery and reform. “Stick with us, we’ll be back to ya” is the overarching message – a message we oddly seem to be accepting. Where’s it all leading to? Where is the big vision to get excited about? Recovery towards what? Another Celtic Tiger? No thanks.
This is not about us versus them, youth versus age in a battle for sympathy and solutions. Surfing the storms of change can’t be easy for the older generation. My parents were born in the 1950s and grew up in a rural, Catholic and conservative Ireland broken by generations of colonialism, conflict and emigration. It was a romantic Ireland in many ways but also a country where young people were to be seen and not heard in an authoritarian culture where the influential in society held sway over the rights and voices of the majority.
Of course young people today still have it good compared to many in the world and to the generations before them but they also face new challenges. The power of consumer culture and advertising often has more power than their parents. They are affected by the continuing cuts to education, youth and health services, and by the financial pressures and stresses of their families. Young people are bombarded with overt and often abusive sexual imagery online and in the media, all contributing to the already difficult anxieties of adolescence.
The results are evidenced by high levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, political disengagement and suicide among Ireland’s youth – all symptoms of a country that is failing our young. This can lead us to ask questions of our elders but if they too are lost then what chance do our young have?
All of that said, things are changing, new ways are emerging and a cultural shift is under way. People all over the world are increasingly questioning those in positions of power and asking big questions of themselves and their leaders.
Young people are often at the fore of this questioning as was the case during the Arab Spring and in the 80 countries where the Occupy movement emerged as a youth-led attempt to stir debate and ask why 1 per cent of the world’s population controls 40 per cent of its wealth.
We need to celebrate and encourage this questioning and foster a culture of debate, dissent and discovery. If we do not question, we are lost. Perhaps this calls for the teaching of philosophy and civic education in school as is the case elsewhere in Europe.
Moving towards empathy and a compassionate understanding of underlying issues would serve us better than knee-jerk reactions to youth and other issues. Asking why a large part of the nation’s youth are getting off their heads every weekend would be much more useful than rushing to criticise them. The dominance of alcohol advertising in sport and music has a huge role to play in this.
Beyond this the reason young people are abusing their bodies, minds and spirits is everything to do with them needing support, a listening ear, a hug, an education system that nourishes the human spirit and uncovers the enormous gifts and potential within each person, alternative safe and fun places to hang out, healthy role models, guidance and wanting to hear messages of “You matter”, “Ireland needs you” and “I love you”.
There seems to be a vacuum in the heart and soul of public dialogue. We are too busy reacting or understandably caught up in survival mode. Together we must reclaim our power as citizens of Ireland and meaningfully discuss our hopes, dreams and future. Can we collectively find a new vision for ourselves and our country, something to believe in that offers young people, and indeed all of us, hope for the future? Of course we can.
In my experience of growing up in Ireland, going through my fair share of trials and tribulations, and of 12 years working with young people, nothing is more empowering than opportunities to participate in decisions that affect your life. Ten meaningful minutes with a young person can change their life.
Our huge youth population is one of our greatest untapped national resources. It’s time to meaningfully engage with them, to mobilise and resource a national inter-generational effort that connects young and old in homes, schools, clubs, communities and in government. It must mean an end to the prioritisation of bond holders over young people (the youth centre in the Taoiseach’s home town of Castlebar, population 10,000-plus, recently closed), the establishment of a youth parliament with real power and radical democratic change that provides real citizen engagement beyond the limited scope of the forthcoming constitutional convention. It means the passing of the delayed Children’s Rights referendum, injection of fresh young voices onto boards and into the worlds of media, politics and business.
We cannot continue to stand by and lose more young people to unemployment, emigration and despair.
By investing in young people, they will prosper and we will be rewarded individually and as a nation. We will unleash a part of us that is missing: a bold, energetic, creative, entrepreneurial, imaginative, and irreverent force for change that can build the bright new world that we are crying out for.
Ruairí McKiernan is the founder of the SpunOut.ienational youth organisation and a member of the Council of State.