what do you think?
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Apathetic. Disinterested. Selfish. Unmotivated. Uncaring. Indifferent. Ignorant. These are just some of the labels applied to young people in relation to their awareness of and participation in political and social activism. The biggest challenge in my work is getting past these stereotypes. But can you be an advocate for a group of people that you don't belong to, or on issues that don't directly impact on you? As a 34 year old "Youth" Project Officer, should I be hanging up my boots (or booties?) and passing the baton to someone younger, greener, more enthusiastic and energetic than me? (1)
Diogenes (most names are clickable)
I notice the way you (unconsciously?) put the word youth in speechmarks. The word smacks of paternalism right from the start, don't you think? Would a young person refer to themselves as a youth? I don't think so. That's the tragedy of so many union projects in this vein - they're conceived by faceless bureaucrats sitting around the top table, who then set out to employ people like you - people with the kind of integrity which leads to the question you raise - to act as a kind of human footbridge in building membership numbers. Why? To help meet their annual recruitment targets. So that they can stay in power for longer. Cynical? Moi?
Whoah, that's pretty harsh. In a way you're just taking a top-down view yourself. Try looking at it from a young person's point of view. Chances are they're getting paid less, have less security, and are treated worse than all those around them. They also have less experience of sticking up for themselves. When they do something wrong it's not just management who lets them know about it. And when you're young everybody acts like management towards you. Young people are the last to get asked their opinion, and the first to get laid off when there's a downturn. They need unions, and of course unions need them.
Kyle "Asbo" Chav-Innit
Listen up, coz we the future innit. n u like it or not. We da mint, an m8s Chavs, Hoodies, Neds, Townies, Kevs, Charvers, Steeks, Spides, Bazzas, Yarcos, Ratboys, Skangers, Scutters, Janners, Stigs, Scallies... [Babelfish translation follows]: and despite what the media says, young people have not turned their backs on trade unionism. A study in Canada, Australia and New Zealand showed that our demand for unionisation is significantly higher than that of older people(2). And why? Because our need is greater. And on top of our industrial problems, we've been "commodified" more than any other generation. We've been tethered right at the centre of the global free market, and subject to a lifetime's bombardment by specialists in product differentiation, niche marketing and branding. We've been made over by capital's cartoonists... [Babelfish breakdown] ... ill bang u all out innit biggup the chezam massive reppin innit yad, mosher an that.
Err, sorry, I missed some of that. I guess the language barrier must have gotten in the way. In Japan we are experiencing something similar - a tribalisation of youth and our first ever generation gap. This is the era of the shinjinrui (the new race); young people with wild clothing and colorful hair who are questioning values in a way which this country has never seen before. It's also a generation of very conspicuous consumers. I'd be the first to admit that our union hasn't been able to crack the issue of organizing this new breed, in fact if we did we might just create another new tribe, and alienate all the others. Still, we have young people officers; we hold conferences targeting young workers; we go to rock concerts... I don't know. To be frank, everything we try turns into a bit of a blind alley. I don't have any particular answers to offer, but I will say one thing: I don't think we should expect young people to solve this problem for us. We need to find a new way forward, and new organizing approaches. That's why roles like Jodie's are so important. Ikuze! Iko! Ikimashou!
I'm not so sure that young people can't solve this problem themselves. Personally, I think the difficulty lies in understanding of what "youth participation" means. Two issues have been raised above: firstly, decisions are being made by adults on how to engage and organise young people, with little or no consultation on how to do this (ie token youth participation). Secondly, young people are sometimes being engaged in union processes, but these are producing few useful outcomes. I'd like to ask if young people were really engaged in the planning and decision-making, or was this just a perception? Perhaps the issue is that adults have low expectations of what young people are capable of? I think young people are able to find solutions to their own problems - this is the core principle of youth development! Sometimes they just need guidance or mentoring from a good advocate... someone who doesn't feel compelled to intefere in their decision-making, but instead allows them the space and flexibility to undertake the task, and is there to support and encourage them when they make mistakes.
Pearl S. Buck
The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation.
Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation!
Dan Berger and Andy Cornell
Yes, validation and encouragement from people we respect can bolster our resolve, but what we're really looking for is mentorship, multigenerational commitment, and solidarity. We're willing to put ourselves out there, even to make mistakes. But it would be helpful if we didn't have to make the same mistakes older people have already made. And young folks need to see that older activists maintain their political commitments in both word and deed. What young people don't want is patronization or abandonment; people who focus on their glory days or on lecturing 'the young'uns.' What young folks do want are older activists who remain steadfast in their resolve and organizing, who seek to draw out the lessons from their years in the struggle (and are clear about where they differ with others of their age cohort without being sectarian), who look to younger activists for inspiration and guidance while providing the same, and who are focused on movement building... Two older organizers in Greensboro summed this up beautifully by saying, "We aren't done, we're not leaving, and we're in this together".(3)
Book editors: Berger, Boudin and Farrow
From globalization to the war on terrorism and beyond, our generation is compelled to action in the midst of a rapidly changing, and unique political moment Our challenge, and yours, is to live our lives in a way that does not make a mockery of our values.(4)
I know I am never doing enough and that I have much to learn, but... I know you understand that, and that is what pushes me onward when the wind chill plummets and when lies pass for truth.
We don't know how to deal with the nuances of our differences and the differences of our oppression.
Our goals include shifting folks from a personal analysis to an institutional critique.
the youth movement
"The 'teenager' seems to have replaced the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding" (9)
During the last century we saw young people demonised (in roughly historical order) as nihilists, the lost generation, beatniks, mods and rockers, bikers, hippies, yippies, student radicals / situationists, yuppies, punks, skinheads, streetkids, generation x, slackers and gangstas. I've missed more than a few. This hostility to youth can be traced much further back. In fact here's a strangely familiar quote from 700 BC !
I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient of restraint.
The contemporary youth movement has left behind bureaucratic structures and started to define itself as a series of interlinked networks, taking various positions in relation to "adultism". Here's an ints harm youth because they have bad ideas about them; adults fail to see shared humanity. Solutions may involve questioning double-standards, or trying to be "age-blind", living without assumptions.
2. "Youth power" activists tend to explain adultism in terms of the history of youth being treated like human property. Adults unjustly claim the right to command young people's obedience. Liberation projects might include taking away adults' right to spank, changing the power structure in schools, winning the vote.
3. "Youth culture" (or "youth-centrist") activists tend to think about adultism in terms of adult repression of youth culture. Young people have their own ways of being: e.g. playful, dyed hair, music choices, swearing, etc. Liberation involves embracing youth culture and creating alternative spaces where it can flourish, like free-schools and recreation centers.
I think these three philosophies are guaranteed to manifest within the Youth Liberation movement because they've manifested in other movements: feminism, black civil rights, and queer activism, for instance... Obviously, with each vying to promote their own version of what youth are like, conflict is going to arise... (I would) argue against trying to pick one flavor as the "right" way by showing that each addresses an important dynamic of adultism. (10)
Let's hope unionists consider this analysis carefully before putting too much weight on the word "youth". This is a self-aware movement which is turning its back on paternalism, formulaic answers, clichés, logos and slogans. It will not be lead by the nose. And given the state of the world, it has very good reasons to break with tradition.
This might make the union organizer's job more difficult, but what's much more important is that the legacy of problems which has been stacking up in front of this generation will be met with innovative and daring responses. Unions might do well to learn how to organize from within this movement, rather than approaching it from the outside with leaflets and forms.
To find out more about the contemporary youth movement, in all its diversity, click here.
Just who are we talking about?
According to the UN, to be a "youth" you must between 15 and 24. The World Bank gives you an extra year (bless their hearts). But the US government claws back three, saying you must be under 21. Confused? It gets worse. When will you be "old"?
One of the reasons why there is such disagreement over definitions is because it means A LOT in terms of government expenditure, legislation, and social security eligibility. Think about schooling, drinking, voting, social services, apprentice and youth pay rates, retirement, pensions... Where you place the lines can make billions of dollars worth of difference. As a result most countries see no contradiction at all in running several distinct definitions at the same time. However young people certainly notice such double standards.
Your friendly healthcare professionals
Despite this, and despite what kitsch items in novelty giftshops would have you believe, age is not subjective. We recommend you take at least one of the following free tests. The first will take you through a set of questions to determine your body's internal age. This is well worth doing, just to assess your own health, and may help you to realise what you can do to change your lifestyle and prolong your life: www.realage.com/reg/regvar/st1.aspx?mod=LONGFORM.
The second test has been developed to measure "adultness". The results have led scientists to reevaluate their views on what young people are capable of: http://howadultareyou.com/ That is, if they are given a chance. However many of them do not have that chance. The facts below speak for themselves; the 21st Century is not a good time to be growing up.
The global perspective
Of the 1,158 million 15-24 year olds worldwide:
• 515 million (45%) live on less than US$2 per day.
• 209 million (18%) live on less than US$ 1 per day.
• 130 million are illiterate.
• 88 million are
• 10 million are living with HIV/AIDS.(5)
Young people aged 10 to 24 now account for more than 30% of the population of developing countries. However the share of youth in the world's total population is gradually declining. HIV/AIDS is the primary cause of mortality, followed by violence. (5)
As for children, a quarter of those who live in the developing world are malnourished. About 120 million are working full-time. Eleven million under the age of five die each year, mostly from preventable and treatable diseases. That's one every three seconds. (5)
Is the problem too big?
Of all the accusations levelled at young people, apathy has got to be the most unfair. They are responding to this grim situation in a way the world has never seen. In 2005 the Global Call to Action Against Povery (GCAP) involved millions of young people across the world in the largest mobilisations against poverty ever seen. Before going into the Gleneagles G8 Summit Tony Blair was presented with a list of over 30 million names calling for debt relief.
Remember Tiananmen Square? Remember when the Multilateral Agreement on Investment was forced off the OECD agenda? Remember the closing of the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, and the huge protests which have dogged such meetings ever since (including the G8 one in Germany as we speak)? What about the ongoing World Social Forums? The political voice of youth (generally in alliance with other groups) has being raised time and time again, and in the process they are developing new and independent media, new forms of protest, and new ways of networking and sharing ideas. This is the generation of the culture jammers, the street reclaimers, the McUnion organisers, alter-mondialists, anti-sweatshop campaigners, and human rights hacktivists...
Youth culture has changed to reflect this upswell. The 2004 presidential elections in the USA saw “more political songs than any election since the dawn of rock and roll”. Protest songs have appeared in just about every contemporary musical genre (although unlike the 1960s almost none of these have found their way onto mainstream radio). There is something supremely ironic about the "Me Generation" calling their children "apathetic"!
Yes, yes, yes. That's all very well, but it hasn't got us any nearer to answers. Maybe the reason all those union conferences and workshops and sub-committees and caucuses achieve so little is because they're wired to reproduce the blah-blah. The idea of setting up a safe area for young members to play in is not just paternalistic, it is like saying "to join us you must become us". It creates a generation of replicants, rather than building new energy at the base. Putting policy remits, passing motions, voting on resolutions... we may as well inject the poor sods with embalming fluid!
One distinctive feature of the most powerful political movements that have emerged in recent years is their refusal of central leadership and unified programs... In this new framework there is no single movement but a movement of movements communicating in horizontal, decentralized networks.(6)
I think a lot of us on the left still believe that it is about winning arguments, marshalling facts, being damning, just kind of auditing the record. And maybe we're not thinking about the fact that nothing's going to change until we really start organizing counterpowers that can be countervailing forces to the impunity we're seeing from corporations or from the state...
You've got to give people a taste of another way of being that breaks through a kind of spectatorship stance by demanding change and actually doing it. (7)
It is sometimes said that declining density among young people is the result of individualisation. The evidence does not support this. It would be more accurate to say that because of individualisation young people have different expectations of organisations. They want to be able to express themselves and they want to take responsibility. (8)
My experience, having grown up within the union movement, is that the 'young member' structures attract a certain kind of person who perhaps would not do well outside of this environment. They love calling meetings, they propose rules and procedures, they draft white papers, and they move so slowly and with such caution that nobody gets their feathers ruffled. By far the majority of young workers are alienated, even repelled, by this kind of approach. In fact it confirms their worst stereotypes. I think the key to unionising young workers is to understand this, and to think about change. Organisational culture has moved on: both in the workplace and within social movements. It's no accident that over the last 20 years NGOs have thrived while trade unions have declined. We shouldn't be trying to organize young workers by inviting them to take part in antiquated participation processes... we should be actively and enthusiastically supporting them to develop new and dynamic trade union networks. Too scary? Why not give the idea with some young people and see what they come back with?
Networks <=> Organisations
The approach that unions often take is fairly crude. Find where the young people are at; go talk to them; sign 'em up. The prime vehicle for this essentially commercial activity is the young recruiter, usually employed and trained by the trade union. She/he is assessed (consciously or not) according to membership sales. It is a recipe for cringe. How do you think it sounds to yer average Arctic Monkeys fan to be approached between sets by an earnest young union evangelist bearing an armload of leaflets? "Hi there. I have got some product X. I'd really like you to believe you need it."
Perhaps, instead of this approach, we should be asking young people to become involved in rejuvenating trade unionism. Put the problem in front of them, rather than the proposed solution. Offer them a microphone (metaphorically speaking), rather than a sales pitch. Of course this would involve them joining up to the union first, but ultimately it is a much more stimulating and ambitious project. Furthermore it fits in with what young people do best: building networks, sharing ideas, generating excitement, developing convictions, trying new approaches, experimenting with new technologies, creating social events, organizing protests...
You could ring-fence a budget and then demonstrate your faith by handing over control of it. Provide mentors. Arrange access to resources. Jointly develop simple evaluation tools. Offer training. The agreed goal? To build trade unionism in whichever way(s) they see fit. This might involve setting up an NGO or communications network of some kind. Or staging a rock concert. Or running a website. More likely it will be all three. And if it doesn't work out, watch what happens next. They will build on their experience and try again. Think what might develop if a number of unions were to try this approach at the same time, and were to facilitate global links!
If nothing else it would be cheaper, more honest and more democratic than flying people around the country to attend meetings where they're expected to represent a group who has given them no mandate. More importantly, though, the union would be sponsoring an important experiment in contemporary network-building. This approach to collective work has a proven record. It is powerful, inclusive, light on bureaucracy, and allows for a rapid response to new ideas and challenges. It evolves quickly, and it plays to the participants' strengths. Thanks to new technology it also has an international reach, by default. In other words it's just what's needed by way of a response to the evolving corporate model.
Given this, it might turn out in the long run that unions have a lot more to gain from this experience than an increase in membership!
What's working? Snapshots from around the world...
Very few unions aggregate union membership by age. For this reason the effectiveness of most union youth projects cannot easily be measured. In the section below we have started compiling data on some of the ideas which have a proven track record. If you have an example to add, with concrete data on outcomes, we would very much like to hear from you. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, you'd be well advised to have a look at UNI's excellent Going Places with UNI Youth: 21 Successes Organizing Young Workers.
The Sovanna Soy project, based on “union summer” programmes in the U.S., is run by committed young unionsts (see http://www.u-who.org.au) who were initially brought together by SA Unions, the peak body of South Australia's unions. The project develops confidence and leadership skills among young unionists through a 3 week paid internship in a union office. During the internship they work on a specific project or strategy which targets a workplace where there is good potential to recruit young workers. A plan with clear and achievable goals is jointly developed, and the participant works with the support of a mentor in the office. All projects focus on organising. This project has produced many positive outcomes, and 38% of the young people who have participated since 2003 have been employed in unions as a result.
An "Action Bus" has doing a daily run recruiting youth members in front of schools and technical schools, usually with permission agreed in advance. An information desk is set-up in front of the school (with protection from the rain, like a tent, and some small tables), and there is background music and a relaxed atmosphere with alcohol-free drinks. Union officials explain policies and services, and discuss how solidarity can help solve problems. Pupils can join on the spot. The union also seeks permission to speak directly to classes on social partnership, unionism and solidarity. In 2001 more than 3800 young members were recruited. (excerpted from Going Places with UNI Youth: 21 Successes Organizing Young Workers - see link below)
Three unions created the Tria programme, offering joint membership
for students at a one-off price of about ten euro for the whole student career. Services
offered to this group focus on the transition from education to work. They are provided
with information, job interview courses, a mentor programme, statistics for salaries in
different professions and a resume review service. After graduation, they are contacted
by the local union organisation to ask them to become regular members of the union
connected to the profession they have chosen. The programme is run by student activists at the campuses, who may receive financial
compensation. At its start in August 2005, Tria had 13,500 members; within a year this
has risen to 18,000. The aim is to have 26,000 members by the end of 2007. Initially, the share of Tria members joining a regular union after graduation was 30%, by now, this has risen to 55%. (11)
The FNV-affiliated teachers’ union AOb has specific publications and a website with practical information on teachers’ issues, as well as volunteer teachers giving guest classes to students. It also offers a student membership of one euro per month. Since the introduction of this approach three years ago, the number of student members has risen from 300 to 1,800. (12)
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1) Jodie Schluter is a founding member of the New Unionism network, and helps organize young workers for the peak union body in South Australia. She also manages the U-Who? Young People and Unions project. Her key roles are education, advocacy, networking, campaigning, building partnerships and resource development. Prior to this she was as an organiser with the Australian Services Union, and she also worked for a number of years as a youth worker, community educator and in the youth development field. An experienced advocate, Jodie has also worked for a few years with multicultural communities. A recent paper by Jodie concerning her work with young people in unions is available from our On-Line Library here
2) “The Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand surveys indicate that young workers, those with low income, and workers in small workplaces are much more likely to have unsatisfied union demand. In other words, the more vulnerable groups of workers are less well covered by unions. As Campolieti, Gomez, and Gunderson put it, "Frustrated desire for unions is highest among the youngest and most economically disadvantaged.”"
Click here for more.
"Using Freeman and Rogers (1999) definition, we estimate the ‘representation gap", the extent of unsatisfied demand for union membership... is greater among younger and lower paid workers in smaller organizations in private sector service industries."
Haynes, P, Boxall, P and Macky, K, "Union Reach, the ‘Representation Gap’ and the Prospects for Unionism in New Zealand", from The Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 48, No. 2, 193-216 (2006)
3) From Ten Questions for Movement Building by Dan Berger and Andy Cornell, http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/bc240706.html
4) Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out, Nation Books, 2005. For more information on this book see http://www.lettersfromyoungactivists.org
Stephanie helped organize the Seattle WTO shutdown in 1999. She also edited Through the Eyes of the Judged, incarcerated young men’s autobiographies. She works as a popular educator & organizer with Project South in Atlanta.
Ismail, 22, was born to Palestinian parents in Lebanon and grew up in Chicago. He is a writer and actor whose work combines poetry, drama, music, photography, and film. He has written for the Electronic Intifada and Mizna.
Nilda has been part of developing projects like Bronx PrYde in the Boogie Down and Urban Mana in BK. She is a writer, poet, resister, hoper, prayer, and a magic bean buyer.
5) These figures are taken from Youth in Crisis: Coming of Age in the 21st Century, IRIN, February 2007 available for download here and the United Nations World Youth Report 2005-2015, available for download here.
6) Extracted from the article Hail the Multitudes in Adbusters magazine, available here.
7) Extracted from the AlterNet interview Naomi Klein Gets Global in 2002, available here.
8) From Innovative Trade Union Strategies, written by Dirk Kloosterboer for the Dutch union federation FNV, 2007. This excellent survey of what's best in the contemporary union movement is available for download here.
9) Quoted from The Vanishing Adolescent by Edgar Friedenberg, Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.
10) This quote is extracted from the article Three Types of Youth Liberation: Youth Equality, Youth Power, Youth Culture, written for the U.S. National Youth Rights Association. There have been a few contextual ammendments to the text approved by Sven. You can view the original article here.
11) Kloosterboer 2007, page 32
12) ibid p33
• Going Places with UNI Youth: 21 Successes Organizing Young Workers, Union Network International, 2003, available for download here. (This is a well-produced, user-friendly and practical resource for unionists searching for ideas that work).
• Youth in crisis: Coming of age in the 21st century, IRIN, February 2007 available for download here.
• The forthcoming United Nations World Youth Report 2007 (to be launched on International Youth Day, 12 August 2007) will examine the challenges and opportunities existing for the roughly 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the world. Distinct from the 2003 and 2005 editions, it will provide a regional overview summarizing the major youth development trends in the fifteen priority areas of the World Programme of Action for Youth. The report will explore major issues of concern to youth development, including employment, education, health, poverty and violence. At the same time, it will highlight youth as positive forces for development and provide recommendations for supporting their essential contributions. For more information click here.
• United Nations World Youth Report 2005-2015, available for download here.
• No Logo by Naomi Klein, Flamingo 2001
• Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents, Reporters Without Borders, 2005. Available for download here.
• On a very related topic, we'd highly recommend Charles Heckscher's discussion of organizations vs networks vs movements for the future of labour. This is available from our Online Library here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License .