Global Youth Activism

Allison Reed

Aug. 11, 2020, 4:49 p.m.

Long gone are the days in which the youth are taking a back seat to social change. One can hardly turn on the news without seeing images of mass social unrest and protests attended by people who are still too young to drive a car or cast a vote. Student and youth protests are hardly a new trend, however, with the accessibility of social media and the emerging global network of youth activism, they are better organized, more engaged, and they are calling for systemic change around the globe.  

Young people have a pivotal role to play in the social movements of 2019, 2020, and beyond not only as the major beneficiaries of change, but also as partners and participants in global movements. Today, there are approximately 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years old, accounting for nearly 16% of the global population.  

2019 saw a wave of protests across the globe, in all of which young people were an integral part and filled the streets demanding change. Many believe that this generation’s social and political activism is a direct result of generational precariousness or the so-called generational desperation. This notion refers to the perceived burden felt by a generation who feels they will be paying the price for the greed, gross mismanagement, and irresponsibility of the previous generation of political and economic elites.  

This sentiment is clear when looking at the protests in Hong Kong. One 15-year-old protestor going by the pseudonym Yannus, reported to TIME magazine reporter Laignee Barron, “Maybe I will die for this movement… I am ready.” Protests that started in June 2019 with the singular goal of countering a proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, ignited a wave of youth political participation in Hong Kong that continued even after Beijing discarded the bill. This generation of Hong Kong youths, born around the time or following the separation from UK colony control in 1997, uniquely identify as citizens of Hong Kong and fear that their identity and their way of life may be threatened by the tightening grip of Beijing.  

Additionally, under the current agreement, Beijing promises to maintain Hong Kong’s separate legal and political systems, but only until 2047, when many current youth protestors will be of middle age. Hong Kong youths do not have to look far to mainland China’s decreasing political freedoms and human rights violations to have an all too real vision of how their lives under total Chinese control would look. The external pressures of the impending loss of autonomy coupled with the skyrocketing internal cost of living, economic hardship, and lack of social mobility in the city has created a situation that uniquely affects the youth and creates a perfect storm to unleash passionate, desperate, and aggressive political engagement.  

Additionally, the youth of today are learning from the mass protests of the Arab Spring. Similar sentiments of disenfranchisement, corruption, and tone-deaf responses to national economic woes are clearly seen in Lebanon of today. While we mourn the loss of life from the recent explosion in Beirut, it is important to recognize the long-standing and pervasive issues faced by the youth of the country every day.  

In Lebanon where people under 25 make up 40% of population with advanced degrees, as of October of 2019, saw an unemployment rate of 37% for the people under the age of 35. While many begrudgingly leave their homeland in pursuit of opportunity, many more stay behind and experience the rapid and persistent economic decline. As in Hong Kong, increased uncertainty and hopelessness of the Lebanese youths are the spark that leads many youths to speak out and demand change. In Lebanon, where the voting age remains 21, the 2019 protests, were spearheaded by students, and soon joined by all segments of society and spread around the country.  

Today’s youth activists and protestors rely heavily on social media and technology to engage their peers. By capitalizing on and mastering technology to connect with others, a shift has taken place within youth activism with the rise of so-called “Alter-Activism.” Alter-Activism emphasizes shared lived experiences and connectivity amongst young activists. While similar characteristics exist across international social movements, alter-activism expands on many of the features associated with past youth movements, by nature being highly globalized, more profoundly networked, more open and collaborative, and more deeply shaped by new technologies than its predecessors. 

Additionally, young protesters continue to distance themselves from formal political parties and established party line ideologies. They invest more time and attention in novel technologies, new forms of thought, highly value deliberation, open dialogue, and consensus-building within movements. Youth Alter-Activism stands as a direct counterpoint to multi-party politics, religious sectarianisms, and dogmatic debates over representative democracy. 

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the new wave of youth protests is that they are leaderless.  Using social media as a key tool for creating awareness, mobilizing, and organizing movements, youth protests can capitalize on spontaneity to keep energy behind their campaigns instead of relying on charismatic leaders. Maintaining leaderless movements is particularly important to those movements happening in repressive countries, where the movement can continue even as governments arrest protestors and shutter challenges of communication.   

Although Covid-19 has slowed some of the large-scale public protests of 2019, not even the virus could stop international racial equality protests initiated by Black Lives Matter protests growing across the US triggered some of the largest protests on a global scale ever witnessed. Youth political engagement and social movements of the last year focus on a variety of issues, from socio-economic grievances, climate change and environmental protections, political freedoms, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and clearly shows that this generation is a force for change. While these systemic and pervasive issues uniquely affect the global youth, they show a willingness to work with others to recognize the interconnectivity of the world around them and demand change.  

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