Can Europe Make It?

A dead-end two-way street

Marko Boko
31 March 2014

During a discussion with other young openDemocracy bloggers, we got onto the topic of apathy, especially among young people. Being active in youth organisations and the youth sector, both at a national and European level, this topic is very interesting to me, so I'm going to try to talk about the organised youth perspective without going too deeply into the theory.

Often when youth apathy is raised, we hear how irresponsible young people are, how they care only about their own wellbeing and that they are not interested in society and politics at all. What is even dangerous is when these claims are connected to topics dealing with youth unemployment, calling young people lazy and non-active citizens.

But how can we expect young people to have optimistic expectations towards Europe when they (well, we) have become the biggest victim of economic crisis that still shakes the continent? When education is far from being a right as it becomes available only to the privileged? Where young people are becoming poorer and poorer, especially compared to our parents' generation. We have been sentenced to insecure and badly payed precarious jobs, unpaid internships which often border on abuse, living with parents in our thirties which makes our socio-economic independence and ability to start a family harder and slower, etc.

Consequently, there comes the lack of involvement in the processes of (political) decision-making at all levels, as prolonged youth results in slower social integration and continued dependency with regard to society.

However, there is a different view: a perspective that considers young people as potential and as a huge source of inovation within society. But to be able to recognize their potentials, duties and rights within society, education (especially the non-formal kind) has to take a stronger and more proactive role in these processes.

Young people should get an opportunity to be introduced to the (youth-friendly) basics of democratic and political life in primary school, as that is one of very few tools that might guarantee responsible, active and solidary participation of empowered young people in decision-making processes and political life in general.

The introduction of an Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights would be the key, showing young people how to think, rather than what to think. To set up any kind of expectations towards young people when it comes to the level of our political participation and social responsibility - first think about what has been invested in the enviroment which could have made it possible.

Another powerful tool to empower young people to play an active role within the community and society is youth work. As Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights empowers young people to play an active role in society, youth work does the same and it impacts on society as a whole, with the support of youth organisations and other youth workers. Youth work has an impact both on the individual, from the skills that one gains from it (team work, organisational skills, communication, employability, etc.), but also on the community and wider society (increased democratic participation, active citizenship, social responsibility etc.).

Clearly, I want to stress the importance of adequate support that should be available to young people's needs, rights, interests and obligations in order to empower them for active participation. But we must begin by recognizing their potential and their specific experiences.

The whole discussion among openDemocracy young bloggers started due to the low voter turnout in European countries, which has gotten lower since the end of 70s (for the EP elections). It is low, not only due to lack of youth participation itself, but also due to a general lack of information about the elections and the reluctance to discuss youth affairs by the candidates. Unfortunately, that is a two way street, because if there is a lack of youth participation and interest in elections, candidates will focus on other social groups, which is usually the case.

To build healthy democracies, one has to invest in active participation and active citizenship. But, besides being well informed and educated about citizens rights and duties, social security plays a huge (and probably the main) role when it comes to the level of civic participation. It is hard to expect someone struggling for his/her own social security to play the role of active citizen. In that context we should focus on youth unemployment rates in Europe, which in some countries are above 50%, and many things will be more understandable. A few days ago, I talked to friend of mine about the situation in Ukraine and he said: ''Give me a job first and then I will be able to think more about such problems.'' I could not get any better reality check.

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