Young people are speaking up. Are you sure to be listening?

chooseFollowing a resolution passed by UN General Assembly back in 1999, International Youth Day is annually celebrated on August 12th. The aim behind it is to shed light on youth-related issues in economic, political and legal contexts. This year’s theme focuses on ending extreme poverty and achieving sustainability by 2030, which makes it impossible for anyone writing on IYD not to mention the 21th century plight affecting millenials: unpaid internship.

If one looks at the statistics about youth participation over the last years, the scenario doesn’t seem that discouraging. An ever-growing attention is being paid to youth empowerment and youth participation in decision-making processes, and this can be seen through the expanding platforms where
young voices can resonate. Yet, no correspondence can be found between youth participation and improvements in young people’s conditions in the labour market. According to some World Bank data, unemployment rate has consistently increased among 15-24-year-olds as can be seen here.

The worrying market situation has led many youth organisations to engage with the unemployment issue in an attempt to voice young people’s concerns. The Graduates of Democracy, for istance, have launched a project called #ChooseYoung whose objective is that of investigating into different forms of (un)employment within EU countries and portraying the bigger picture, as resulting from the surveys taken by young people who have had a first job experience.

Against this background, internships have been progressively taken into consideration for their role as primary bridge between the young and the labour market. Unfortunately, what could have represented a win-win solutions for both young workers and employers (acquired professional experience for the former, fresh ideas, renewed energy for the latter) has ultimately resulted in work exploitment. In a more and more competitive market, the possibility to gain professional exposure and hands-on knowledge has led younger generations to accept internship offers, even if no pay or insurance was provided. It has been argued that this kind of programs represent a learning opportunity and no employers should pay for unprofessional labour force. However this doesn’t depict reality: in fact, young people are usually asked to carry out the same tasks as an official employee, with the lack of salary being the sole substantial difference between the two categories.

Last summer the story of David Leo Hyde – the UN intern who set up a tent in Geneva during his internship – made the international public aware of this much-debated issue which was yet to be faced seriously (here a TEDx talk he gave earlier this year at LUISS,  Rome: ). This created a momentum for protests and high-level talks between UN officials and activists; but even though some improvements are on the go, the future looks far from rosy.

Economic stability and civic empowerment go hand in hand: one cannot expect the young to be actively involved in their communities while, at the same time, their work force is being exploited and underestimated. Countries like Tunisia have perfectly shown us how democracy and civic participation in one country’s politics are necessarily intertwined with economic stability: when the latter is absent, scenarios like marginalisation and radicalisation become a reality.

Although it is clear that economic underperformance, youth unemployment and empowerment are issues which require time and structural reforms in order to be addressed properly, one thing can be immediately done by the ‘intern generation’. Not only should we continue to ask for wider and more inclusive youth-related platform, but it is essentially important that we will strongly advocate for effective involvement in decision-making. In short: not just fancy conferences, but substantial impact on the political agenda.

The curtain over the political window dressing has fallen: now it is high time to make the voices of 1.8 billion young people reverberate in the political arena. Not just because it sounds good, but because it sounds fair.


Federica Giordano

2015 School of Democracy Participant 

On twitter as @FGio16





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