Why youth engagement isn’t just about age

Ahead of International Youth Day, Sarah Smith calls for inclusive youth engagement that goes beyond age and breaks current cycles of marginalisation.


As we reconnected for what was probably the fifth time after a dropped Skype call, Nour (name changed) and I continued with our conversation on youth engagement in Tunisia. We had started talking about her advocacy work on democracy and freedom of the press. Discussing her engagement during the 2011 Arab Spring, Nour reflected that it had opened her eyes to the inequalities and injustices more marginalised young Tunisians were facing. This sentiment was echoed by another young Tunisian I spoke to whose engagement with a youth organisation in more inland areas of the country had introduced him for the first time to poverty. They both recognised that they need much less support in their own engagement than those with less available resources.

Through interviews with various youth in Tunisia, Burma/Myanmar and Liberia about ways in which they are engaged in peace and development and the barriers to participation they face, I have continued to be amazed by the dedication amongst young people throughout the world in making their communities, countries and the world more peaceful and inclusive. I have become even more sure that youth engagement is critical to ensure sustainable peace and economic and social development.

Today, more than half of the world’s population is under the age of 30. Not only are youth the future, they are also the present. They can bring energy and innovation, and know the situation of youth and thus the solutions to youth problems better than adults. Yet, throughout my work on youth engagement, it has become apparent that these arguments fail to get at the heart of the importance of engaging youth. The most important aspect of youth engagement is breaking cycles of marginalisation, ensuring that the most marginalised sectors of society are included in peace and development.

Does age matter?

While Security Council Resolution 2250 (SCR 2250) on Youth, Peace and Security defines youth as persons of the age of 18-29 years old, it also recognises that the concept of youth, and the age range this represents, depends on the context. In some countries, being a youth is associated with social status rather than age; as you gain employment, get married, buy a house and have children, you are no longer considered young. This results in people aged 35-40 or older being considered youth, which in the case of Myanmar, has contributed to many younger youth feeling like their perspectives are not adequately represented by youth organisations led by older youth.

For many, feelings of exclusion do not necessarily end once they cross the maximum age threshold for what is considered youth. A 31-year-old living in a poorer neighbourhood with less access to institutions can feel more marginalised than a 24-year-old with a university degree and living in a wealthier neighbourhood. In Liberia, for example, certain individuals may be too old to participate in youth programming yet because they have not been able to fulfil the societal ideals of being an adult are simply not engaged at all, further contributing to exclusion.

To ensure the inclusion of young people of all ages, initiatives should target activities to particular age groups within a broader age range. But, also critical is understanding that marginalisation is much more nuanced than age.

Breaking cycles of marginalisation through youth engagement

Youth engagement is about including marginalised groups at a younger age towards a more inclusive and peaceful society. It is also about engaging more privileged youth in discussions on inclusivity, equality, peace and development before they become indoctrinated in a system that values their participation over others.

All youth face, to more or lesser of an extent, marginalisation due to their age and for this reason ensuring youth engagement in general is needed. Still, I and other privileged youth who have been to university, who lead relatively economically stable lives, we have access to institutions in a way that more marginalised youth do not. In many countries such as Sweden and the United States, the problem is not a lack of youth organisations or organisations working with youth, the problem is that they do not necessarily reach out to those most excluded. We may not feel like our voices are heard, we may feel like sometimes we are included only as a token gesture, all of which are very legitimate concerns. But at least we have channels available to us in which we can express ourselves. And the marginalisation that we feel will likely only decrease as we get older and more established in our careers and communities.

For many young people, however, their age is not the biggest identifying factor contributing to their exclusion. This was made even more clear to me when during recent discussions with Swedish youth, those young people living in the suburbs of Stockholm with large immigrant populations raised barriers to inclusion relevant for not only youth but by their communities at large. These youth—young women, marginalised ethnic and religious youth, rural youth, LGBTQ youth and socio-economically disadvantaged youth—are less likely to be engaged as an adult and will require additional support in participation both as a youth and as an adult. Attention should be given to developing sustainable peace and development processes in which people from marginalised communities are included throughout their lives, from childhood to adulthood.

Providing a platform for marginalised voices

In implementing SCR 2250 the United Nations and international and national civil society should advocate for youth engagement that is not just about age. A first step will be for the ongoing Global Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security to highlight the need to ensure that marginalised youth—those youth who are less likely to be engaged as adults—are given a platform to raise their voices. Peace and development efforts should to as great an extent as possible physically go to more excluded areas of countries to meet with and hear the perspectives of young people there. Understanding and being able to react to the different needs of various young people in different contexts will be critical to ensuring inclusive youth engagement. Developing education curricular that highlights the importance of diversity and promotes dialogue is also needed. Strengthening exchange and collaboration between youth from various sectors of society is key to ensuring inclusive youth engagement.

Asked “why youth and why now” at Almedalsveckan in Visby, Gotland, panellists concluded that there will not be an end to conflict and violence if youth are not engaged. Exclusion is part of the reason for violence, and therefore inclusion is part of the answer to peace. In working towards greater youth engagement, it is critical that it doesn’t just become a way to include privileged youth between a given age range. Member States and organisations need to be held accountable for ensuring inclusive youth participation in which all youth, regardless of background or experience, have the opportunity to engage.

Sarah Smith By Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is Programme Manager at the Foundation in the thematic area of Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace, with a focus on implementation of the UN’s Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace agenda and the Youth, Peace and Security agenda. She also covers programming related to inclusivity in peace and development, as well as peacebuilding and dialogue. Prior to joining the Foundation, Sarah conducted research and supported policy advocacy on conflict resolution and prevention with the Uppsala Department of Peace and Conflict Research and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Sarah holds a Masters from Uppsala University in Peace and Conflict Research.