Protests following the judgment of the Constitutional Court on abortion in Poland. Katowice, 26 October 2020. Image ©

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June 2021

Young people may be disengaged from formal political processes, but their generation is far from apathetic.

By convening and connecting across borders, cultural relations programmes amplify the voices of the ‘next generation’.

We won’t get away with ‘youth washing’.

For their insights to be brought meaningfully to bear on the challenges of today, young people must be given genuine influence over policymaking.

The British Council’s Next Generation research has underscored the concerns that 18- to 30-year-olds in the UK share with their peers around the world. The climate crisis and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of our lives are challenges that unite attention.

But our research has also signalled a desire for change, the potential to be an active part of the processes that will lead that change – and a recognition that there is no time to lose. International cultural relations, with youth voice and participation at their core, have a significant role to play here.

This article looks at how a youth-focused cultural relations approach can support the UK and its global partners to navigate a period of rapid change and uncertainty. 

Next Generation research

Next Generation is a British Council research programme that analyses the conditions that support young people around the world (usually those aged 18 to 30) to be fulfilled and active citizens.

The research examines views on education, skills, employment and lifestyle. It uncovers the hopes young people have for their country, their degree of international engagement, and the values that shape their lives. 

Over the past five years, we have conducted research in countries including Nigeria, Myanmar, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Our European strand of the programme has looked at the UK (2017), Ireland/Northern Ireland (2018), Germany (2019), Italy (2020) and Poland (2021).

In the process, we have surveyed over 9,000 young Europeans and consulted hundreds more through focus groups and other qualitative and participatory research approaches. 

In April a further series of focus groups assembled 18- to 30-year-olds from each of the above European countries to revisit this research and to reflect on its findings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We discussed the outcomes of this process in our online roundtable, Stronger together: Working with young people in Europe (May 2021).

‘There is power in young people’, as Tom Matthew of the European Youth Forum put it simply at this event. 

The voices of young Europeans

Where can we see the signs of this ‘concentrated pot of power’ to support positive change? Not by focusing solely on formal political processes.

Across Europe (and beyond) Next Generation research has revealed disengagement from and dissatisfaction with political systems and policymaking structures. To take the most recent example, 80 per cent of those surveyed for Next Generation Poland felt they had little influence on government, institutions and corporations. Over 75 per cent rejected the idea of active involvement in politics in future altogether. 

But this is a politically active and socially engaged generation. Events in Poland in 2020, where young people joined the largest street protests in the country since the fall of communism, bear witness to this.

Globally, Black Lives Matter and the growth of Fridays for Future and the pre-pandemic climate strikes are two clear examples of how young people mobilise on the issues they believe in. 

Our European focus groups suggested a remarkable consensus on what these issues are. Climate change, according to our participants, is the challenge of our time, a potentially unifying, existential global concern.

Today’s 18- to 30-year-olds are acutely aware that they may be the last generation that has the opportunity to tackle climate change before it is too late. 

The ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19 and its longer-term, intersectional impacts on other societal challenges was also highlighted. As research from the OECD underlines, while people of all ages are experiencing the impact of COVID-19, it is young people, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who have been most adversely affected.

There was common dismay in our focus groups at the perceived failure of the international community to adequately respond to these and other crises. We also heard alarm at social polarisation and the rise of populism, and concern that the years ahead may see new barriers to international trade and mobility. This is a generation that values international cooperation and actively seeks cross-border experience and connectivity. 

Perhaps the most striking area of dissatisfaction to emerge from the Next Generation research (in Europe and elsewhere) was education.

A common refrain across the countries studied has been that young people feel unprepared by their education for adult life and the demands of the modern job market. Systems are seen to be inflexibly built around examinations and conventional academic routes, at the expense of greater vocational options. Young people want more teaching in key life skills and greater support in making decisions about future academic and career paths.

It will not all come out in the ‘youth wash’

For a cultural relations organisation such as the British Council, these voices are important not simply as sociological observations but as a call to action. Nurturing the potential of a unique group of individuals to help solve the world’s problems is at the heart of our cultural relations strategy. 

We can (and do) apply Next Generation research insights to our own programming, connecting young people in the UK with people around the world through arts and culture, education and the English language. This includes longstanding work in non-formal education and skills, including programmes such as Future Leaders Connect that support global networks of young people to have a voice and effect change.

Youth voice is also one of the principal areas of focus for The Climate Connection. This new British Council initiative is bringing people around the world together to take positive environmental action in the run-up to COP26 and beyond. 

What these and other cultural relations programmes have in common is an ambition to convene and connect young people with policymakers and other stakeholders – artists, scientists, educators, business and community leaders, to name a few. 

Cultural relations are a platform for cross-border, cross-cultural and cross-generation dialogue from which new ideas, energy and innovation may emerge.

They combine sensitivity to local context and need – an essential factor if trust, the bedrock of cultural relations, is to be retained – with the capacity to draw out global trends and values. 

The lesson from our Next Generation research, reinforced at the Stronger together gathering, is that young people want to be part of this conversation. But they want a proper seat at the table. Our Stronger together participants warned firmly against ‘youth washing’ – tokenistic consultation with young people for the purposes of public image alone.

Youth voice means nothing without opening proper channels for genuine influence over policy or decision-making processes. 

New experiences, new perspectives

It is a core aim of our Next Generation research to support policy makers and other stakeholders actively to involve young people in the decisions that will affect their lives. Indeed, we might ask whether we can afford not to tap into the distinct experiences and insights that young people can bring to bear on these and other global challenges.

Next Generation is aligned with wider trends in research and practice that have moved away from ‘deficit models’ of youth leadership. 

Rather than treating young people as problems to be overcome or as people who have to be ‘taught’ how to become active citizens, we should foreground the distinctive, positive contributions that young people can make to societal or developmental questions.

As Next Generation research has emphasised, this is a digitally-savvy, globally-connected and socially-conscious generation with its own values, experiences and expectations. We should be looking for ways for everyone to benefit from the insights this affords. 

Indeed, as an important provocation from the Stronger together event reminded us, the term ‘next generation’ is itself arguably problematic. We cannot wait for what comes ‘next’ to tackle the urgent questions facing us all now. The generation to which the research programme gives voice are not ‘adults-in-waiting’ but active, engaged citizens with the power to drive change in the present day.

This point is also driven home in the forward to the Next Generation Poland report. As Antonina Lewandowska, a member of the 2019 British Council Future Leaders Connect cohort and part of the Next Generation Poland youth advisory group, writes: 

‘The best possible tomorrow will not be created without dialogue and mutual respect, and that includes decision makers and wider society listening seriously to the voices of young people today …  listening to the world of today is crucial for the creation of a better tomorrow.’

James Perkins, Interim Head of Research with thanks to Christine Wilson, Interim Director, Research and Policy Insight, Maria Nomikou, Sector Lead Youth, Skills and Communities, Europe and Ellie Buchdahl, Senior Communications Manager EU

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