“This year, Youth Day highlights the theme of Transforming Education to make it more inclusive, accessible and relevant to today’s world.”
– António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, Message on International Youth Day
Monday saw the 20th anniversary of International Youth Day, which was first designated by the UN General Assembly in 1999. This year’s theme is Transforming Education, connected to Goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. In many ways, education is a transformative practice that influences all the other sustainable development goals. Education has the power to promote climate action, gender equality, good health and well-being, clean energy, peace and justice, and all the rest.
The world still has a lot of work to do to ensure quality education for all. Today there are more young people on our planet than ever before in history, but only a fraction of them have access to quality education, although the numbers attending school are increasing. International Youth Day seeks to highlight our responsibility to the youth to enable them to thrive, but also draw attention to the capabilities and potential in the youth themselves.
Research shows that youth are often presented in a polarized fashion: either they are passive and disengaged from society, or they are seen as radical change-makers (Walsh, Black & Prosser, 2018). The researchers suggest a less polarized view, where many young people may be engaged in citizenship matters but disempowered to participate in decision-making processes. Young people feel distanced from the formal governing bodies of society and have to learn the insider culture of politics before they feel they will be heard. The participants in one Australian study felt they had more agency on the local scale, but very little influence in national or global debates: “age constrained their capacity to exert influence” (Walsh, Black & Prosser, 2018, 228). Many young people felt infantilised, but they also felt there was “lack of access to the information required for influence” (ibid.).
I was curious to find out what is the state of youth action here in Finland. The news is not bad, although there is still work to be done. For example, Finland set up Agenda 2030 Youth Group in 2017 to “to increase youth participation in the national planning and implementation of the Agenda 2030” (Prime Minister’s Office Finland). The group is composed of twenty youths between ages 15-28 from diverse backgrounds and geographic locations. The participants change on a yearly basis to allow many young people to participate. One of the most visible outcomes of the group has been the Youth Climate Summit in March 2019, which was attended by 500 youths. The summit produced a statement to urge politicians into immediate climate action. At around the same time children and young people around the world were rallying around young climate activist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays For Future movement, including the youth in Finland.
Youth representation at national level is very necessary in Finland, as the mean age of the new Finnish parliament (elected in April 2019) is 46, and only eight of the 200 members of parliament are under the age of 30. The Agenda 2030 Youth Group is a welcome initiative by the Finnish government, but not all youth have equal opportunity to participate in this kind of programme. Many forms of influence are simply not accessible to the majority of young people in the world, given that covert power structures limit opportunities for participation (Walsh, Black & Prosser, 2018). Parents, teachers and other authorities carry the responsibility to make decisions and impose limits on behalf of underage youngsters. Issues that are important to youths may be side-lined by the older generation who favour a different set of priorities and values. This is why it is crucial to create practices that empower young people from all walks of life.
Coming back to the UN Secretary-General’s words: What makes education inclusive, accessible and relevant to today’s world? What kind of an education has the power to empower? The first step is to start developing a culture of participation and listening in the day-to-day practices of educational institutions. Children and young people who feel heard and valued are more motivated to participate actively in their learning too. Participation and taking action can start from the local community, where young people can develop the skills and knowledge they need to engage in more formal processes at higher levels of decision-making. Alternatively, institutions can lower the threshold for participation by adopting child perspective methods, such as Storycrafting (Karlsson, 2013) or visual methods (Honkanen, Poikolainen & Karlsson, 2018). Traditional interviewing or questionnaires may leave certain areas of young people’s knowledge untapped.
So I leave you with a question or two. Do you know what issues are important to youth today? Are those the same issues that you as a parent, educator, administrator or politician are tackling? (Please share your thoughts in the comments below!)
Doctoral Student in Education, Primary Teacher
University of Eastern Finland
International Youth Day, UN Secretary-General Message: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR4VmC1ip5M
Honkanen, K., Poikolainen, J. & Karlsson, L. (2018) Children and young people as co-researchers – researching subjective well-being in residential area with visual and verbal methods, Children’s Geographies, 16:2, 184-195, DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2017.1344769
Karlsson, L. (2013) Storycrafting method – to share, participate, tell and listen in practice and research. European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, 6 (3 special issue), 1109–1117.
Walsh, L., Black, R. & Prosser, H. (2018) Young people’s perceptions of power and influence as a basis for understanding contemporary citizenship, Journal of Youth Studies, 21:2, 218-234, DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2017.1363388