From youth councils to ‘School Strike’: are kids taking over politics?
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager turned global superstar, has inspired young people around the world to get involved in climate-change activism. Thunberg’s ‘school strike’ has been mimicked by thousands of school pupils ditching classes to protest against adults who, they say, have ‘sold their future’ by failing to tackle climate change. In April, Thunberg herself scolded MPs at Westminster, telling them ‘many of you don’t want to listen to us – you say we are just children. But we’re only repeating the message of the united climate science’. Over in the US, the national debate about gun reform was taken over by young people in 2018 following the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Teenager Emma Gonzales and her peers began the #MarchForOurLives movement which has inspired teens and children across America to take direct action against gun laws – including staging mass ‘die-ins’ on Capitol Hill.
Many adults have applauded the young generation for their political conviction. Amnesty International gave Thunberg their ‘ambassador for conscience award’ on behalf of the school strike movement and she’s even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, the celebration of youth engagement in politics is a growing trend. From the campaign to lower the voting age to 16 to the growth of youth parliaments, young mayors and youth councils, politicians have long sought to speak to a younger audience.
On the other hand, there are those who argue that giving political weight to the views of under-18s calls into question the serious nature of politics and political activism. They argue that young activists are only parroting the views taught to them by adults, who hope those arguments will be shielded from criticism as a result. There are also questions about whether under-18s – who rarely work, pay taxes or live independently – are really in a position to consider the costs of the policies they espouse. Shouldn’t we let kids be kids and let adults deal with the often changing and fraught nature of political life?
Could we do with listening to the younger generation, whose idealism can perhaps reveal the shortcomings of their elders? Are children being politicised and used by politicians, or is that a patronising view of young people’s capabilities? What is the right age for a person to enter the political arena?