My 19-year-old daughter woke me up the other day, in a manner of speaking. Have you heard the term before? It’s all over spaces like Instagram, where young people congregate.
She said, to my harangue about her sleeping late yet again, “That’s the price we pay for being woke.”
“Woke? What does it mean?”
“What do you think?”
I sighed and exclaimed, “You and your questions…in touch? Trending with the times? Consuming copious content as well as creating it? Interpreting insights instantaneously? Overflowing with opinions? Alive to your aspirations? Decision making daily? Saving society by self-realization?”
She nodded, “All this yes…but mainly it’s about asking questions.” She wagged her finger at me, “Which is not the same as questioning”.
I didn’t make up those questions on the spot. In our work with young people for the past 25 years, across all diversities, we have encountered this aliveness. Has it got something to do with a shift in the collective consciousness of young people? Certainly, young people born in this millennia have exponential access to information.
With 3.5 billion smartphones, 1.6 billion daily active users on WhatsApp, 2.6 billion active users on Facebook and 300 hours of video uploaded on YouTube every hour, let alone other social media and news platforms, it’s a tower of babble out there. You really have to be born in this millennia to navigate this minefield on a real-time basis.
These enhanced communication technologies bring with it their own banes like an invasion of privacy and social polarization and an adverse impact on wellbeing. Moreover, there is a digital divide with large numbers still denied internet access, but with the rapid strides in penetration, inshallah, that too shall be bridged in quick time. And even without personal access to the internet, most marginalized youths are still far savvier than their elders were, growing up.
Despite all the ills, this upsurge of information is here to stay and it’s probably safe to declare that the adult monopoly over knowledge is more or less broken.
We are the youngest country with an average age of 27, and a demographic dividend of 400 million youth with a dependency ratio that has changed from 0.4 at the start of the millennia to about 0.65. That means the working population in proportion to those that need to be looked after has grown rapidly.
Unfortunately, the flagship youth policy of skilling is seeing a bit of a stumble. Only 21 million have been “trained” as against a target of 321 million by 2021 and while job availability has become a trickle (at the end of the lockdown unemployment was 27%) and was already drying up even before COVID, even more, striking is the fact that many jobs are still going abegging due to the huge mismatch in what an employer wants and the available candidate capacities. The MUDRA entrepreneurial initiative is also still far from reaching its true potential.
As argued earlier, youth aspirations have changed drastically in these woke times. It’s no more only doctor, engineer, MBA or government jobs. For example, at Manzil, an NGO in Khan Market, New Delhi, where mostly lower-middle-class young children of the helpers in the kothis gather, the favourite aspiration is to become a musician. Seven viable bands over the last five years have come out of this tiny little ‘finishing’ school.
Not only are these ‘new-fangled’ aspirations not met in vocational courses, but, institutions are also unable to meet the demands of new economy jobs. Also, they haven’t been able to meet the aspirations of what young people want to learn apart from trade skills. Life capacities in these institutions, typically, are limited to grooming and interviewing. Courses are not as experiential as they need to be. Job placements and retentions have also not been adequate.
Not just the economic front, there is a stumble on the social front, too. Large schemes for nation-building and solving social problems are yet to take off at the scale required. The recent call for young people to “perform their duties” from national and state governments alike brings out what this country expects (and requires) from them.
It’s not all bleak though. Many young leaders rose to the occasion and shone out for their massive volunteering relief efforts during the pandemic. And over the year, several young people across campuses and communities have risen to act with compassion, courage and wisdom and raise their voice against discrimination, patriarchy, and communalism to fight for the freedoms earmarked for all citizens as per the constitution.
Several CSO and Government initiated youth citizenship movements have created their own woke moment, with Jagriks (Jagruk + Nagriks) being born every day. Even across the world, we can see, the battle to save the planet is led by children still in school; the fight against Chinese oppression in Hong Kong is led by the youth as is the Black Lives Matter movement to bring about racial equality.
Young people are clearly showing the way and yet, we are a long way from this becoming a mainstream movement.
Do policymakers need to become alive to the emergence of the aliveness we spoke of earlier? Is it time to upgrade the demographic dividend lens? Youth power certainly has increased by leaps and bounds in the last decade-and-a-half. In any case, a dividend means someone else from outside invests in an entity and reaps the returns.
Instead, if we recognize the awareness, aspirations, assertion, and the agency of the new millennia youth and create conditions where they can invest in themselves, a demographic multiplier, which can rapidly transform this country, maybe invoked. Wise or otherwise, youth are “coming of age” much quicker in the past decade and a half than any time before in the history of humanity.
What’s common between Barack Obama (USA), Justin Trudeau (Canada), Jacinda Ardern (NZ), Sanna Marin (Finland), Sebastian Kurz (Austria), Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Iceland), Leo Varadkar (Ireland)? They all took over the reins as heads of their states when they were below 50 (many were below 40).
In India, too, young people have never shirked their leadership duties, as was evident in the independence movement. In fact, in the first two Lok Sabhas, we had representation to the tune of 26% and 32 % respectively of young people below 40. But unfortunately, none of them were given senior cabinet positions (average age of cabinet was 60 plus and has only gone up since). Lok Sabha representation has dwindled to 13 %, as a result.
If we want young people to heed the call for nation-building seriously, we have to ensure they have the corresponding right to decision making at the highest echelons in all the spaces they occupy – organizations, education, family, government, politics. It’s simple – if we want to see young people in action, we have to create a context for their action. You can’t expect them to pick up one end of a stick (duty to take leadership of social change) without the other (right to decide).
Such a combination of rights and duties (HaQartavya) was crowd created in a collaborative process by the vartaLeap coalition, a 100 (and growing) strong cross-sectoral grouping of young leaders, NGO.s, corporates, government, UN bodies, higher education institutions, and social media with a collective experience of 1500 years plus in the youth development. In this articulation, we present the top three HaQartavyas to the wider world for argumentation, addition, adoption, amplification and action.
These three combinations, selected from a longer list by the vartaLeap coalition members, are declared to the public as a draft in the spirit of an open architecture for wider consultation. In fact, no one should endorse this without putting their own brick into this edifice.
Again, youth rights and duties are not only necessary because of the large demographic they seek to address but also because youthhood is a special developmental stage. You will recall this was the logic for child rights charter, born three decades ago and signed by all member UN countries. This draft declaration emanates from the values enshrined in every constitution of the modern world – Equality, Liberty, Justice, and Fraternity. Our aim is to nurture these values and at the same time respect the changed youth psyche so that young people (across all diversities all over the world), as well as human societies, can reach their fullest potential.
This is not just an articulation; it’s the voice of young people that the vartaLeap coalition brings together through its members’ deep engagement in many different kinds of interventions and campaigns at the grassroots. Some power equations will be rewritten but if we don’t get woke to the new yin and yang of the young, we will soon be woken up with a rude shock.
In conclusion, we are not asking that adults hand over the world to young people and get out of the way. Adults still have an important role to play but it’s a drastically changed one. Instead of looking at themselves as providers of parcelled knowledge; or givers of permission to young people to act in the world; or as the sole setters of rules, the new role could be to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young people as co-designers and facilitators of self and social transformation experiences.
Also, as mentors helping in authentic interpretation of the insights from such experiences. In short, adults need to support youth refl-Action, which will always remain the key human capacity for self and social awakening.
Both adults and young people must, together, build on this foundational architecture of youth human rights and duties because in the intergenerational dialogue lie the seeds of a real and sustainable future for every species and this planet…
Arjun Shekhar… for the vartaLeap Coalition and ComMutiny – The Youth Collective
PS: Just read that society has put the word “woke” to sleep last year.