When considering our current times, it is hard to draw away from the urgent crises we face – millions still in extreme poverty, deadly conflicts raging, and a growing environmental crisis. These are just some of the issues where concerted action by youth, and indeed by all, is desperately needed. However, the idea that these crises are hopeless, or that young people are disaffected and disinterested is wrong.
Over the past few years, the quiet beginnings of systemic change in the action and role of youth in confronting global challenges have begun to emerge. Moreover, technological development is moving so fast that new products, tools, and services with potentially massive implications are appearing every day. Whether new technologies will have positive or negative implications is not always clear, but it is evident that young people are often at the forefront of developing and adopting the new ways of our future. This is why the 24th Session of The Youth Assembly has the theme of New Horizons for Global Youth.
Throughout the 20th Century, the global discourse on “youth” usually had a narrative of handling a “challenge or problem”, with youth seen as especially prone to crime and disorder. Slowly that narrative is changing, with youth increasingly seen as not a problem, but, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “an indispensable asset” and an extraordinary potential source of new ideas and serious action. The first Youth Assembly in 2004 was one of the pioneering efforts that led this change, and one of the first YA delegates was Ahmad Alhendawi who at 29 became the first ever UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Ahmad chose as his mandate, not just youth problems, but also “greater participation for youth” and “partnership with youth across all income and social levels”.
This was followed by the 2015 passing of Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace, and Security, the first-ever UN Security Council Resolution on youth, which urged UN member-states to “increase the representation of youth in decision-making at all levels”. This energy is spreading across the UN system, with the launch of a new holistic Youth Strategy last year.
Meanwhile, grassroots youth movements are growing at the country level, with young leaders stepping into political power as well, such as Emmanuel Macron, President of France at 39, and Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand at 38, while Justin Trudeau has formed Canada’s first ever youth policy. The position of Youth Minister is also increasingly held by young people, such as 22-year-old Shamma Al Mazrouei in the UAE, 26-year-old Syed Saddiq in Malaysia, and 27-year-old Pedro Robledo (who came to speak at the last session of The Youth Assembly) who is Executive Director of the National Institute of Youth of Argentina. Even in the US where the average age of Congressmen is 58, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at 29 became the youngest ever woman in Congress this year.
While these signs are encouraging, it is not a time to be complacent. Though some countries are focusing on youth, many are not, and many more thousands of youth need to engage and work together if there is to be a large-scale impact. Currently, not a single country is on track to achieve the SDGs, while youth still typically have far lower turnout at elections and those who do take action struggle to find support.
It may be that youth leadership is the factor that tips the world balance towards a positive future. The 24th Session of The Youth Assembly will be one platform where we hope young leaders will be able to find new skills, ideas, networks and opportunities to make a difference. We want to look at the New Horizons for Global Youth, in the hope that young people can make this a horizon full of progress, excitement and the end of global challenges that have persisted for centuries.