Young people are not ‘citizens of the future’, they are citizens now

I was angered at the most recent Eircom billboards and television adverts. They portray young people going to music concerts and getting into trouble with security guards, as well as generally being unable to cope or be trusted in a variety of situations. The inference is that they’d be better off if they just went online, rather than experiencing the real world, which the young people in the ads are seemingly incapable of doing.

In a society such as ours where ageism exists that systematically excludes young people from meaningful involvement in social, political and economic life, youth work that justifies its existence by claiming to solve the ‘problem’ of young people contributes to a belief in young people’s inferiority and indirectly, the conception that they are a threat needing control. Youth work that panders to government by speaking the language of young people as victims or threats in order to receive funding unconsciously reinforces this status quo. Commendable as it is for the positive media coverage of young people, the TV show Ireland’s Top Teens is a patronising symptom of this ageism: where is Ireland’s Top 40 Year Olds? Yet it would be remiss of me to suggest that the projects showcased on the programme did not make a significant contribution to the lives of the young people involved. The problem, therefore, stems from the way in which youth work engages with young people and how this is perceived by society.

The National Youth Council of Ireland suggests that youth work is an empowering process and that it is one of the few places that young people have the power to make decisions. This qualification of empowerment as something that occurs only within youth work highlights the compartmentalisation of young people which is embodied by another NYCI supported initiative, Dáil na nÓg. Of course it is beneficial to those young people involved, and it is important to create spaces such as this for young people, but as a consultative body with no decision making power it belittles young people’s ability to make decisions in their own lives.

Young people will only be empowered if they are facilitated, not only to develop their skills, knowledge and attitudes, but to critically explore the society they live in- and be given the power to make real and meaningful changes to society. They are not, after all, future citizens. They are citizens now! 

The shelved 1980s Costello report on youth work advocated this model of Critical Social Education. Recognising that young people are equal citizens, the youth worker’s role must be to ensure equality of outcome for young people’s engagement with society both amongst young people and in comparison with those legally defined as adults. We have yet to achieve even equality of access.