Young and misunderstood


— ST ILLUSTRATION: LUIS MISTADES

Far from being a restless, feckless bunch, young people of today are the middle class-in-waiting who want jobs

DEVELOPMENTS over the past year or so have occasioned what can only be described as another sort of moral panic, though in this instance, the mass hysteria we see has less to do with the fear of unseen microbes crossing borders, illegal immigrants washing up along our shores or the proliferation of new biological weapons that may have fallen into the wrong hands.

Instead, it seems to be an instance of mass panic that focuses on one particular community summarily lumped together as Youth, and to whom all sorts of nefarious evils have been ascribed.

The reason for this unease seems obvious enough: Looking at the graphic images of violence and urban uprisings across North Africa, western Europe and even across Asia, we see the spectacle of angry citizens rising up against the state, and in many cases, the faces we see on the screen are young, and angry.

But it is precisely because the stereotype of the ‘angry young man’ (or woman, as may be the case) has become so commonplace that we need to exercise caution before jumping the gun and reading into these images understandings and interpretations that have become all too sedimented.

To offer simple explanations that fall back upon cliched assumptions about ‘youth tendencies’ would add nothing to our understanding of what is going on, but only another layer of bias that would further entrench the view that young people are wild, angry, anti-social and destructive.

Yet from western Europe to Asia, we need to take into account some painful realities: The United Nations has estimated that in the present state of the world’s ailing economy, around 200 million people – most of whom are young – are unemployed. Furthermore, it would take the creation of 400 million more jobs worldwide to get the global economy out of the slump it is in.

Compounding matters is the fact that in many countries, youth employment – understood as unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds – is significantly higher than the national average; and that many university graduates in the developed world will leave their universities with high expectations but without the guarantee of getting jobs while having to nurse student loans.

All of these factors put together should remind us that the anxieties of youth at the moment are not imaginary, but real. And it should also remind us that when young people voice their frustration and fear today, it is not simply a case of pampered, spoilt youngsters who are demanding their cake and wishing to eat it too.

The manifold expressions of youth anxiety we see all over the world have less to do with some violent form of radical, anti-state politics; and it should be added that they do not represent an existential threat to any state.

This is where the misdiagnosis lies, for I would argue that far from being a motley crew of rabble-rousers and ne’er-do-wells, the youth of today are precisely the ones who want to see the nation-state work, and work well. These are not revolutionaries in the sense of the 1960s, but the middle class-in-waiting.

Some may bemoan the fact that the younger generation today has expectations that are higher than ever; but this again can be accounted for thanks to the success of development.

Indeed, the remarkable thing about development across Asia is how, since the end of colonial rule, so many developing countries have succeeded at providing universal education – at a higher level, too – to so many young citizens.

But providing higher education to more youngsters means creating more young people with raised expectations, and with aspirations to a middle-class life: getting a job, owning a house, having a family. Again, it bears repeating that these are hardly revolutionary wants.

The states of the developed and developing world will have to grab the bull by the horns and accept the fact that one of the results of successful development has been the creation of this generation of ambitious, networked, wired-up youth who have organisational skills aplenty and aspirations to match.

It is inconceivable that any state would or should respond to these demands by lowering expectations, or wishing for a less-educated younger generation.

Youth engagement must therefore be made a priority, but it must proceed from the premise that these are not barbarians at the gates who wish to tear the castle down.

Challenging though the prospect may seem, states and governments must learn to speak to the educated youngsters they themselves have created, and that dialogue can begin only when we stop demonising the young.

By Farish A. Noor, For The Straits Times
Published on Jun 6, 2012 

The writer, a Malaysian political scientist and historian, is Senior Fellow for the Contemporary Islam Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
By Invitation features leading thinkers and writers from the region and Singapore.

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