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Is it time to rethink systems for encouraging young people into social activism?

Wherever you look across Europe, some cities are struggling to deal with structural economic changes brought about by the impact of globalisation, increased competition and out-migration. Whilst some of the larger metropolitan cities have benefited from young people’s desire to live in cities, many have also failed to adapt sufficiently quickly to deal with the pace of change and retain their young people.

This is particularly true of many smaller and peripheral cities in Eastern and Southern Europe that are suffering from significant youth out-migration and some intermediate cities that live in the shadow of large Metropolitan cities. For these cities, many of the traditional public policy interventions to drive the behaviours of young people - whether to influence them to stay in the city or to choose careers which add value to the local economy are struggling to sustain their impact.

The reasons for this are complex, but include;

  • Young people’s increasing desire to want to live in safe, playful, liveable and affordable cities. Contrary to popular perception, young people regularly rank safety, affordability and ease of transit as the three most important characteristics they look for in a city. Affordability and ease-of-transit largely score well because of low wage growth, with many young people increasingly turning to rented accommodation and public transport to get around. Having grown up surrounded by so much racial diversity, young people are also known to be more socially aware and more tolerant of other lifestyles;

  • Changing financial, demographic and sociological drivers, shaping young people into the ‘experience over ownership’ generation. Young people’s consumption patterns are fundamentally different from their predecessors. An unforeseen combination of financial, demographic and sociological factors have impacted on young people, forcing many of them to delay their progression into adulthood, which in turn have given rise to stronger desires for experiences, novelty and technological wizardry (over the desire for material acquisition);

  • The ‘hollowing out’ of some local labour markets in smaller, more peripheral cities, caused by the increased demand for higher-level and elementary skills in larger cities across Europe. Taken together with the reduced demand for intermediate level jobs, this is also creating real career pathway challenges for many young people who find it difficult to progress from lower skilled jobs into higher skilled ones. In many cities, this has created a ‘dual labour market’, in which large numbers of people are ‘trapped’ in low skilled, low paid jobs without prospects of progression and in which businesses continue to be frustrated that they cannot find the talent they need to grow;

  • Financial pressures in the public sector have eroded many discretionary youth services and increased the pressure on institutions to think corporately to survive, rather than act at the level of place. To reach young people and compete with other youth influencers, public sector institutions need to think about problems from a ‘whole systems’ (or eco-system) perspective, to create sufficient ‘market-based’ capacity across a range of agencies to stimulate crowd actions and drive behaviour change, rather than thinking of issues as organisational problems. This is particularly challenging in the current tight fiscal environment;

  • The increasing importance of technology to young people, particularly for forming social networks and drawing inspiration about their life choices. Technology plays an increasingly important part in young people’s lives today – shaping their attitudes, helping them to communicate, establish and maintain their social networks, meet partners, shop and to enable social activism. Research has shown that many young people check their smartphone at least once every ten minutes, to ensure they aren’t missing out on anything and 60% of compulsive user’s state that they wished they didn’t feel so compelled to check their devices. In addition, the pervasiveness of mass media communications and the rise of narrowcast media channels (like You-Tube, Netflix etc.) has made it difficult for many institutions to communicate effectively with young people.

  • The rise of social activism for personal fulfilment, rather than civic pride. Whilst young people want to work for employers that are committed to values and ethics and are strongly entrepreneurially minded, research also suggests we have seen generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations. These analyses indicated a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on the self, with linked reductions in political interest, government, public officials, or to support ‘political’ campaigns. In general, today’s young people possess tremendous energy, creativity, and a strong desire to help others, but the bonds that bind them to their community are much more strongly influenced by consumerism, technology and individual desires than previous generations, rather than a strong commitment to the common good and the place in which they reside;

These last two points are particularly important for local authorities to consider when thinking about how to engage young people in helping to develop and shape their city. Whilst YouthfulCiities has shown that only 17% of young people feel that their city governments are listening to them and 55% of them want to participate in meetings about the future of their city, they are increasingly less interested in participating in democratic or civic processes (like Youth Parliaments, for example).

Whilst young people do have an activist bent, their activism is different from the idealism and rebellion characterised by their parents in the 1960s and ’70s. Its less about kicking against institutions, but more about young people knowing their own personal priorities and making a strong commitment to live by them in the face of adversity. Some authors have referred to it as form of ‘self-activism’. They treat themselves and their dreams almost like causes.

Social and political activism has become more individualised, ad-hoc, issue specific and less linked to traditional societal challenges. Whilst authenticity, altruism and community are still important for young people today, it is this generation’s consumer activism that makes them a unique challenge for marketers and civic leaders. Young people don’t just want to buy brands, they want buy in to what a brand believes in. They don’t buy features, or benefits, they buy movements.

So it is that activities like Global Service Jams, City Hackfests, Coding Challenges, Digital Strategy Labs, Urban Polls, Civic Accelerators and Open Challenges have replaced dour consultation events in some civic halls across Europe.

Many of these changes in modes of political engagement are linked to new perceptions of citizenship and the role that technology is increasingly playing in young people’s lives. The patterns of socialisation of today’s young people are considerably different from their parents’ generation, having been affected by the processes of globalisation, individualisation, consumption and competition.

And so, we understand that it is possible to harness young people into Social Action, but that requires a very personal and quite aspirational cause-based appeal which responds to young people’s goals for self-actualisation, rather than social good just for social good’s sake.

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