A browse through online responses to a recent BBC report on a speech given by Greta Thunberg to parliament in April provides an interesting illustration of youth activism today. Messages of support and enthusiasm are in abundance, yet, while Thunberg may have achieved an audience with MPs and a roundtable discussion with most major party leaders, comments such as ‘You lost me at ‘teen’’ and ‘She’s a child! Why are you treating her as an oracle?’ litter the replies. With the prominence of youth activism rising, such an example evidences the wider interaction with youth movements. As a student and member of the European Youth Parliament since 2015, directly witnessing and experiencing the increasingly visible impacts of youth activism have served to inform my view of its continued value, both to the individual and our society as a whole.
Youth activism has, however, been received with some scepticism. In fact, Piers Corbyn, brother of the Labour leader, attracted headlines when he tweeted: ‘Listening to an ignorant brainwashed child is deranged. I am an actual scientist of physics Meteorology, astrophysics and climate and say @GretaThunberg is wrong and suffers mental abuse by manipulative adults.’ Such denial of the autonomy and validity of young voices has been commonplace among responses to youth movements and Thunberg has been provoked to respond to portrayals of her activism as that of a political puppet and victim of educational indoctrination. On a generational scale, the characterisation of a ‘snowflake generation’ attributes the rising activism of many young people to hypersensitivity, rather than legitimate political concerns. A self-perpetuating cycle, objections to such labelling simply appear to substantiate the use of the term against youth activists, denying the legitimacy of their views.
In spite of this, the impacts of the ‘Greta Effect’ have been far-reaching and poignant. Beginning in August 2018, and with no signs of stopping, the #FridaysForFuture school strikes evidence the commitment of young people to inciting change, as well as an unwavering belief in the value of young opinions. Despite the inability of many to vote, the communicative power utilised by young people has contributed to the shift in perceptions of environmentally oriented parties from fringe idealists to credible political forces. The spread of school climate strikes to at least 120 countries has clearly indicated increased democratic engagement of young people and was followed by the unprecedented success of the Green Party in the European Parliament Election. The success of the German Greens was largely attributed to first-time voters, a group among which the greens took the highest share of votes. In Scotland, citing a catalysing interaction with young climate strikers, Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency at the SNP Spring Conference, and UK MPs followed in May by making the country the first to declare a climate emergency. Thus, the globalisation, coordination and success of the #FridaysForFuture movement has undoubtedly instilled an increased sense of agency among young people.
Globally, politicians have credited youth activism with seismic shifts in policy. Following the Stoneman Douglas High shooting, school walkouts and marches engendered a swift implementation of new gun restrictions, raising the minimum age to purchase a firearms and extending the waiting period. Contrary to conspiracies claiming that students such as David Hogg, who played a key role in the precipitated activism, were crisis actors, in announcing the change in policy, state governor, Rick Scott addressed the students, saying, “You helped change your state. You made a difference. You should be proud.”
While strikes and marches exemplify activism in a somewhat traditional sense, social media has also played an integral role in contemporary youth activism. As a large portion of life as a young person plays out online and, with a single social media account providing access to a cornucopia of information and opportunities, from the trivial to the world-altering, young people participate daily in activism, through their online consumption and contributions. Millennial and Generation Z cohorts and their online identities shape, and are shaped by, social movements. This symbiosis has visibly manifested among recent marketing trends, with a barrage of companies using social issues to attract young consumers, increasing the perception of the inseparability of activism and everyday life for young people. Such engagement with policy is reflected in the increasing engagement of young voters, with the UK seeing a 16% point increase in the number of people aged 18-24 turning out to vote in the 2017 General Election, on 2015.
As a young person, in the context of the youth movements of
the past year, I feel both more impetus and agency to voice my frustrations and
hopes. Not only have I experienced an increased sense of the value of my vote,
I have become vastly more aware of the power of my voice as an individual, in following
the colossal swell of Greta Thunberg’s movement. Millions of young people today
have taken to the streets to hold adults accountable for issues that affect
them and I am confident that this personal sense of accountability to society
and the world is not lost on young activists. Participating in the Youth
Strike for Parliament on the 15th of March brought me an affirming sense of
this ethos of social responsibility and I have often found myself reflecting on
one particular occurrence on the day. Standing on the fringes of the protest
outside the Scottish Parliament were a pair of schoolboys, who held hastily
made signs, shunning women’s rights. The crowd was largely averting their
attention from the pair, who I expect viewed it was an amusing prank. Yet, when
a schoolgirl marched over and swiftly relocated the signs to a (recycling) bin
nearby, the cheers of the young crowd gave me a heartening outlook for our
future. It affirmed my belief that young people are fostering a culture in
which we will continue hold each other, as well as older generations,
accountable for the condition of our society. Ultimately, if the
‘hypersensitivity’ of our generation continues to foster
attempts to improve our world, I am hopeful that we will build an environment
in which our own, and future generations, will thrive.
Katie Birrell is a 20-year-old student at the University of St Andrews and Member of the European Youth Parliament.