UN Youth Event Doesn't Even Define Youth

“Young people are not always in the right,” The 33-year-old Pierre Maudet, Mayor of Geneva, Switzerland declared. “However, a society that doesn’t give them a voice will always be in the wrong.” 

This sentiment — giving young people a chance to better their own lives — was a top theme at the United Nations High Level Meeting on Youth in New York City on Monday. The meeting delivered a clear and much-needed reaffirmation of young people’s right to participate in public life. But more importantly, the discussions seemed to show how wide and vague our definition of youth has grown. In order to properly incorporate young people, perhaps the first step is not a question of discussing how to engage them, but re-examining who and what we mean when we talk about youth.

The delegates and representatives were certain about how today’s generaton needed to be engaged in society: Many representatives and speakers acknowledged the marginalized nature of the youth that has pushed them over the edge in countries that have taken part in the Arab Spring, and urged people to deal with the frustration of sidelined youth before such oppressed masses resorted in chaotic revolt. 

Representatives from Zimbabwe pointed to their recent efforts to put youth participation first in politics and better the education system, which included organizing a youth parliament in which children as young as 12 could vote for “youth representatives” that would give them a say in government.

However, the term "youth" includes a wide spectrum, representing two very distinct segments of the youth demographic — the older half, which include those involved and leading in the Arab Spring, and the very young half (elementary age and preteens who are citizens-in-training).

“I have been trying to find a definition for the word ‘youth’,” said Moroccan Minister of Sports and Administration Moncef Belkhayat. “Some people say that youth are teenagers, while others say that they are up to 25, 30, or even 40 years old.”

Obviously, when we think of young people, the cut-off age may still be around the mid-20's. However, this reality is fast-changing because of our educational systems. Belkhayat underscored the current education system in Morocco, which creates a gap of two very distinct types of youth: one type that entered the workforce in their teens, after completing a short educational career, and another that pursued higher education and lived in their parents’ houses as single men and women into their late twenties and early 30's —the Facebook and Twitter generation. These two categories of "youth" face their own sets of concerns and issues in terms of searching for flexible job opportunities, and definitely need to be addressed separately.

The disparity between these two groups raises the question of what spectrum our definition of "youth" implies, and also highlights our lack of focus on the “middle-children” — young teenagers. Daphne Casey, United Volunteers Chief, discussed the lack of statistics and research on the younger section of adolescents around 15 years of age.

“We simply do not have enough information about the realities of their lives,” she said, pointing to the gap in data and statistics about this group of young people. 

Adolescents are known to be some of the most impressionable citizens in any nation, and steering them on the right path at this crucial juncture in their lives is absolutely essential. 

As UN members set out to empower their youth, these first concrete steps of defining the various sectors of their youth and their specific needs, as well as proper demographic research on lacking areas, is crucial to the future success and efficiency of programs and policies.

Photo Credit: Nacho Fredagas