“Around the year 2030, 10 years 252 days and 10 hours away from now, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it.”
It saddens me that the extremely powerful words of 16-year-old activist Greta Thurnberg, spoken in parliament, have in so many of social media and partisan politics’ darkest corners been met with sexism, ageism and ableism, rather than the gravity they deserve.
While it would be wrong to suggest that alongside her detractors, Thurnberg has not also found plaudits, the fact she has become such a divisive figure in comparison to say, David Attenborough – whose latest series, Our Planet, has rightly won universal acclaim – raises questions.
I understand the temptation to take the word of a 92-year-old man more seriously than a 16-year-old teenager. The accepted way of thinking is that experience matters and the elder statesmen have authority over our children.
But this is no longer the case. Each year, One Young World welcomes almost 2,000 young leaders from every country in the world to its global summit. I can tell you that these are no “millenarian weirdos”, but the most connected and powerful generation in history, with the ability to change the world.
Social media, as first shown by the Arab Spring and seen in almost all global protests since, has changed the very nature of demonstrations and political campaigning. Many on social media and in the press have been keen to dismiss Extinction Rebellion protestors as a few spoilt children, doing nothing but disrupting traffic and business.
This viewpoint of course completely ignores the millions of positive and negative engagements with the protest on social media. Every demonstration has the potential to become a global phenomenon, with influence reaching far beyond the number of physical protestors.
Just take March For Our Lives in the US last year, which saw more than one million take to the streets to march for gun control, and almost four million more engage with the cause on social media.
For all its fake news flaws, social media is the world’s most powerful tool, and young activists are increasingly using it for the right reasons, providing global exposure to the world’s most urgent issues, and highlighting where government is letting them down.
The younger generations are often criticised for being apathetic, yet when they prove they are anything but, they receive derision from those same people. It is a familiar story of pushback against a generation who grew up in the financial crisis, who cannot afford to buy houses, who may never retire, and whose future is threatened by climate change.
With these odds stacked against them, one wouldn’t blame them for showing a lack of engagement with traditional political process.
And yet despite the rhetoric, this generation is bold, purposeful and resilient. Most importantly, they are politically engaged.
Greta Thurnberg’s eloquence has reignited calls for ‘votes at 16’, while in Nigeria, the Not Too Young To Run campaign launched in 2016 called for the lowering of age limits for holding public office in the country. It argued that with more than half of the world’s population under-30, it was unrepresentative for almost three-quarters of countries to restrict young people of voting age from running for office.
It passed with landslide majorities in the House and Senate, and was signed into Nigerian law last year. Not Too Young To Run is now a global campaign that aims to increase the number of parliamentarians under-30 from its current rate of just two percent worldwide.
Within that two percent, are some incredibly inspirational figures who can act as role models. The 29-year-old US Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is probably the most high-profile, but she is not alone.
One Young World launched its Politician of the Year award last year, recognising leaders under-35. Five were chosen for the inaugural award last year: 34-year-old Kenyan politician Naisula Lesuuda, 29-year-old Ghanaian local assembly member Julius Fieve, 31-year-old Tunisian secretary of state Sayida Ounissi, and two 23-year-olds; Bahamian MP Travis Robinson, and Australia’s Jordon Steele-John – the country’s youngest ever senator and only its second disabled parliamentarian.
Across the world, young people are showing the drive and desire to not only engage with the biggest political issues of our time, but to lead on them. This generation do not take no for an answer and will use the technological tools at their disposal to make the positive change their predecessors failed to make.
For its tenth year, One Young World returns to London this year. Once again, 2,000 optimistic and intelligent young leaders with the will to do something better for the world will make their cases. Ignore them, deride them, they are not going away.
They have nothing to lose, so why not make as much noise as they can?