Builders of Civilization: Youth and the Advancement of Humankind
It is often said that youth are the leaders of tomorrow, the future of humanity. This is clearly true, but young people are very much present in the neighborhoods and villages, work places and communities, of the world today. They form a sizable segment of many populations, and the way those of their generation understand themselves, their inherent capacities, and their role in society has, in every land, significant social consequences.
The issue, then, is not the difference youth can make in the life of society. Young people are already impacting their communities every day, in countless ways and to widely varying ends. The issue, rather, is how the desire to contribute to constructive change and to offer meaningful service – both characteristic of our stage in life – can be strengthened, supported, and expanded.
At the international level, discourse on the role of youth often focuses on issues of voice and participation. Integrating young people into formal structures of power is of course advantageous for a variety of reasons. But simply feeding “young” voices into “old” systems, if unaccompanied by more substantive forms of participation runs the risk of degenerating into mere tokenism. Young people are needed as leaders and decision-makers not only in youth forums and special-purpose councils, but in those spaces where the course and direction of society as a whole are determined. This may well require the development of new systems of decision-making and collaboration – systems characterized by an unbiased search for truth, an attitude of cooperation and reciprocity, and an appreciation for the vital role every individual can play in the betterment of the whole.
But society is far more than a collection of impersonal laws, policies, programs, and organizations. It is equally shaped by norms, values, aspirations, and relationships. It is important, therefore, not to artificially limit young people’s potential sphere of contribution. Youth might well contribute to social progress by participating in the structures of government or volunteering their time and capacities to development agencies or other civil society groups. But no individual is dependent on external organizations to better the condition of his or her community. None of us are reliant on the direction of others to begin working for the common good. None of us are incapable of making a difference in our own social spaces and circles.
In this light, the paths open to the youth of the world for selfless service to others are numerous. Few of these opportunities are found at the highest levels of global governance. Most are less formal and closer to home, but equally important. In partnering with other youth and like-minded adults, for example, youth play a powerful role in catalyzing home-grown transformation and progress. They make similarly unique contributions in the development of upcoming generations, providing those younger than themselves with a model of conduct to emulate and a trusted partner in developing personal capacities and exploring how those talents might be dedicated to the well-being of the community. Put simply, their generation is a vibrant source of social advancement in a variety of contexts, ranging from the village square to the global stage.
In considering contributions to the Post-2019 development agenda, it is important to recognize that an essential element of progress requires addressing patterns of thought and behavior if it is to be truly transformative. It must, in other words, enter into the realm of culture. The task of combating corruption, for example, is ultimately a matter of building a culture of honesty and trustworthiness as well as one of fairness and equity. Reducing exclusion and addressing prejudice similarly requires norms of solidarity, respect, and mutual support. Youth, then, are crucial to the global development agenda not simply for the work they do and the projects they complete. Equally important are the social arrangements they and their contemporaries can envision, the constructive patterns of association and interaction they can promote that give practical expression to their natural sense of idealism, and the patterns of community life they can build and welcome others to take part in.
In this light, the involvement of youth is not something to be sought for their sake alone, nor a tool designed to advance their needs as a specific population group. Rather, it is a component critical to the well-being of all of humankind, young and old alike. Youth must be involved in development efforts because the construction of a new and better society rests on their shoulders as much as on those of any others, and everyone is worse off when the contributions of any group or population are marginalized or disregarded.
Edited from a Contribution of the Baha'i International Community to the 2014 World Conference on Youth