Apathetic. Apolitical. Indifferent. Insensitive. Self Absorbed. Self-Obsessed. Selfish. Uncaring. Uncompassionate. Uninvolved.
Have you heard these words thrown about? They are often used these days to describe today’s youth. Some call them the Me Generation or Generation Me. Whatever order you prefer, the meaning is unmistakable: young people today are a generation of individuals who are more focused on themselves than others. This sentiment is summed up quite succinctly by Christian Smith and his colleagues in their book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Based on 230 interviews with a cross section of young people between the ages of 18-23 the authors argue that:
The vast majority of the emerging adults interviewed remain highly civically and politically disengaged, uninformed, and distrustful. Most in fact in this study claim to feel disempowered, apathetic, and sometimes even despairing when it comes to the larger social, civic, and political world beyond their own private lives.
Given your own experiences and observations of young people do you feel this analysis rings true? I tend to have a different perspective than the authors of this study. My sense is that today’s young people are not all disengaged, consumer-driven individualists. I am more inclined to believe a recent study that found 56% of young adults around the world consider themselves activists and 69% of youth in the U.S. self identify as such.
I encounter many young people who are less interested in their iPhones and more interested in the conditions of the workers making them; who are less interested in their choice of footwear and more interested in their carbon footprint; and who are less interested in personal success and more interested in the common good. In short, many of today’s youth take seriously the moniker “Leaders of Tomorrow” by demonstrating how they are leading today.
Last summer in Columbus, Ohio, students from North America came together at the National Student Power Convergence to share stories, discuss strategies, and organize around a host of issues related to the environment, education, labor, inequality, war, and health care.
For a generation of young people that are often lambasted for their self absorption, the students at this gathering sure seemed interested in the power of coalition building. One of my former students, Eirik, attended the Convergence and he conveyed to me the positive energy that came out of it. “The Convergence was all at once inspiring and humbling. For us to all come together and share gave us all a sense of purpose, and lots of us are still in contact planning the next steps.”
The students at this conference are reflecting what a number of recent sociological studies have discovered: that young people today are often leading the fight for social justice. In fact, there has been a spate of recent sociological books that counter the assertion of Christian Smith and his colleagues and detail emerging movements of youth power. We Fight to Win: Inequality and the Politics of Youth Activism by Hava Rachel Gordon offers an account of how young people in Portland, Oregon and Oakland, California are working together to address community and educational problems. Despite obstacles they face from their families, communities, and schools, and despite the fact that many adults see them as mere citizens-in-the-making instead of as bona fide political agents, the young people Gordon studied were often at the forefront of social movement activism in their cities.
The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism, and Post-Civil Rights Politics by Andreana Clay dispels the myths that today’s young people of color are all violent, gang-banging thugs. Based on two years of ethnographic research in Oakland, California, Clay explains how these young people are mobilizing their peers, organizing the adults, and leading the struggle to change the urban landscape. As the title of the book suggests, Clay shows how urban cultural forms such as hip-hop and spoken word figure prominently in their activist strategies.
Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas by Jessica Taft is a cross-cultural study of young girls who demonstrate that being effective and powerful agents of social change is not solely the province of adults. Based on research she conducted in San Francisco, Mexico City, Caracas, Buenos Aires, and Vancouver, Taft illustrates how young girls both reject and reconstruct their feminine-based identities so that they are viewed legitimately as political actors contributing to social change.
As 2012 gave way to 2013, many media outlets compiled a list of the most influential people of the past year. A common name on many of these lists was the young activist Malala Yousafzai. Malala is a fifteen-year-old from Pakistan who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban because she was fighting for access to education for girls (the literacy rate for females in Pakistan is 26%). Her latest actions for women’s rights was not surprising given that in 2009 as an eleven-year-old she began exerting her political agency by writing a blog for the BBC about the oppressive treatment of women under the Taliban.
As sociologists, we know that there are a lot of inequalities, injustices, and problems in world. If we have any hope in eradicating some of these ills, either in our local communities or on a larger national or international scale, then we will need to harness the energy, insights, and actions of young people. Activists like Malala are not just expressing youthful naiveté; rather, they are demonstrating the type of (youth) power that all of us can learn from.