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From youthwashing to meaningful youth engagement

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By Ivo Wakounig

· 7 min read

Youth engagement has been gaining relevance over the past few years. Especially in energy and climate discourses, the number of youth programmes, events, or trainings has increased exponentially. While these are just a few of the many forms youth engagement can take, they all try to achieve one thing: to include the youth in conversations about our energy futures. But why should we include the youth in the first place? To what extent can the current approach deliver proper engagements? And how could youth engagement happen in the future?

We have a lot of young people…

Around 50% of the world’s population is below the age of 30 - four billion people, full of ambition, ideas, and passion. Many of today’s decisions, especially in climate and energy-related fields, will have a profound influence on the live(lihood)s of those four billion living on the planet today. One must only read a few pages of the IPCC report to understand the catastrophes that wait for us if we don’t manage to drastically reduce our emissions. But one must also read successful development case studies to draw hope that we can improve communities’ lives while preserving or even restoring nature. 

Two extreme storylines with many more potential futures in between which solely depend on the decisions we take today. Whether a young person in Southern Spain will need to flee the country because the living conditions have become unbearable due to continuous heat waves or whether they can raise their children in their hometown depends to a large extent on the ‘great’ decisions of today. And these decisions are currently not made by them but made to them. 

Especially in decisions that have an impact on the generations to come, youth representation still lags behind. A recent UN report highlighted that only 2.6% of parliamentarians worldwide are below the age of 30, meaning that young people’s voices in decision-making are clearly underrepresented. It is not that giving the youth a seat at the table automatically leads to different or better results, but it enhances the decision-making process and increases its outcomes’ validity. Therefore, youth engagement leads to more informed, inclusive, and valid decision-making.

Figure 1. Demography of the world population (Our World in Data). Young people take up a major share of the world’s population and the majority will live until the late 21st century.

Demography of the world population

Where are we right now?

While youth engagement can lead to a more inclusive decision-making process, the youth still doesn’t have a seat at the table. Youth voices are underrepresented at every level of decision making which causes huge frustration and anger among young people. This is a very natural and logical response, particularly when it comes to decisions that will primarily affect them - decisions that are made to them. Wouldn’t you also be enraged if you wouldn’t have a say about your future? 

Because of that, various protest and youth-led movements have emerged in the past years - for example, Fridays For Future or SDG7 Youth Constituency - to fight not only for a more sustainable planet but also for better inclusion of young voices in decision-making. It is only because of the work of those brave pioneers that we can now see the emergence of this crucial topic of youth engagement. Most of the conferences that I attend have a special youth track in their programme and they try to put youth representatives on the stage. Additionally, many organisations have programmes tailored towards young people so that they can build capacities, network, and get the opportunity to influence decisions within organisations. Those programmes include the Future Energy Leaders Programme at World Energy Council and the Youthwise Programme of the OECD. 

While giving young people a platform and stage is indeed a first good step towards proper youth representation and engagement, we are still very far from reaching our goals. Unfortunately, youth engagement today far too often happens at the surface level, to create the image of youth engagement in an organisation or (policy) process only to ‘youth-wash’ the outcomes. This tokenisation of young people is not only disrespectful towards youth but also leads to mistrust and disappointment among young people. Even worse, even if young people’s voices get acknowledged in a forum, their voices are usually not representative of all young people. Youth engagement to this date is usually only something for a privileged minority. Most of the work is done in our free time, next to studies or other obligations, meaning that you are only able to represent youth when you are privileged youth. And this inherently creates biases and issues.

Although there are a lot of organisations that are genuinely interested to engage with young people, we still have a long way to go for proper and meaningful youth engagement. We need to make sure to increase our efforts and try to think of new forms of partnerships, representations, or inclusion so that we can ensure that youth voices are heard. But what are potential avenues of future youth engagement? 

The way forward

I am very hopeful that youth engagement will only accelerate in the upcoming years and become more professional, impactful, and institutional, for example through more formal youth engagement at organisational and decision-making levels and through more inclusive representation. This also requires empowering young people to get active in their cause and supporting them in their ambitions. Furthermore, I am convinced that the benefits of youth engagement in topics such as climate and energy can and will also be seen in other sectors, such as health or law. 

The establishment of the United Nations Youth Office on 12 September 2022 (A/RES/76/306) is one step in the right direction. This body shall support youth engagement in the UN on different levels, and also oversee the implementation of youth strategies. To maximise the impact of this office, there needs to be a proper follow-up on the UN and on national levels through mainstreaming youth engagement. One potential follow-up is capacity building by providing young people with the education and tools they need to understand the clean energy transition and how to get active, for example through widely available and accessible trainings. The second is by enabling young people to innovate and explore their own ideas. Young people are a source of innovation and it should be the government’s responsibility to enable them to innovate.

Young people also need to have the financial means to innovate and push for a clean energy transition. Governments have to support young people financially, for example through start-up financing, so that they can focus on transforming the world for the better. And lastly, governments have to involve young people in decision-making processes. Governments have to include young people in decision-making and give them the authority and power to push for change, for example mainstreaming youth involvement in decision-making processes by introducing mandatory youth quotas. 

Finally, while youth engagement is indeed an important topic, it is only one small part of the wider nexus of intergenerational conversations. By enabling young people to shape conversations, the need and cause for intergenerational approaches will only increase. This will be the next milestone for truly inclusive energy conversations, by having proper representation of all generations, not only ‘older’ ones. Younger generations can learn from the experiences of the older ones, and older ones can learn about new approaches from the younger ones. Only by acting collectively through generational collaboration will we be able to tackle societal problems such as energy transformations. Truly inclusive and intergenerational energy conversations are the foundation of that, to enable the creation of a future-proof energy system, tailored towards human needs.

What are your thoughts on intergenerational collaboration? And do you have best practice examples from your community?

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ivo Wakounig is a PhD Researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology, where he studies how policies can support the transformation of the European North Sea into an integrated renewable energy hub. He is also a Global Future Energy Leader of World Energy Council and a strong advocate for intergenerational cooperation. 

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