International Youth Day 2020

The message that institutions should be broadcasting on International Youth Day is that young people are already here. They’ve showed up. They’re doing the work. They’ve been doing the work for years.

Ottawa (12 Aug. 2019) ― One of the United Nations commemorative days, International Youth Day (IYD), is celebrated every August 12 to highlight the issues youth face worldwide. The theme for IYD 2020 is Youth Engagement for Global Action. The United Nations website describes the theme as seeking “to highlight the ways in which the engagement of young people at the local, national and global levels is enriching national and multilateral institutions and processes, as well as draw lessons on how their representation and engagement in formal institutional politics can be significantly enhanced.”

COVID-19 impacted everything in 2020

Young people have already experienced major upheavals due to the pandemic. Graduation ceremonies were postponed or held online. One of the last cultural milestones of youth — proms — were cancelled across the country due to state of emergency regulations.

Given the pandemic, it almost seems cruel to tell young people now is the time get engaged. Particularly in Canada, where, as Global News reported, post-secondary students were first told they didn’t meet the criteria to apply for the CERB, were then asked to work volunteer positions, which paid them less than minimum wage, and are now being told that attending classes online will cost the same as attending classes in person. And in some cases, tuition has actually increased for the 2020/21 school year.

School-aged children, too, have to deal with tumultuous uncertainty of how much time will be spent trying to learn in classrooms that don’t have enough precautions to keep them safe, and how much time will be spent trying to learn online with software teachers haven’t had any training on. Parents of young children have to debate the pros and cons of keeping their child home for an extra year or enrol them in the school system. While that’s a normal thing for all parents to consider, the added danger of COVID-19 potentially being present in schools adds fear and anxiety to the parents and teachers. Some of this anxiety will inevitably be transferred to the children.

And young people already in the workforce, or those who have freshly graduated, now have to go through the hell of trying to find a job in an economy that was tight before COVID-19, and has subsequently seen thousands of layoffs and job losses as a result of the pandemic. In every age bracket, children and young people have more pressure on them than ever before.

Young people facing more than one pandemic

Both in Canada and around the world, young people are dealing with multiple crises at the same time. The murder of George Floyd sparked a wave of anti-Black racism protests, which have been organized and attended predominantly by young Black people and other young people (Guardian).

Youth have also been at the forefront of the climate change movement. Greta Thunberg is the figurehead for the movement, but young people around the world were taking action and becoming leaders in the climate change debate before media started paying attention to Thunberg. And since then, millions of young people worldwide have organized strikes, walkouts, and days of action.

Media coverage stays fixated on whether young people will turn out at the polls. Yet no other demographic is targeted the same way as young people are with voting coverage. There are thousands of left-leaning voters in their 30s and over, yet no one questions whether those groups will show up at the polls. Being a young person does not remove the barriers that prevent older people from voting.

Young people are already active

The message that institutions should be broadcasting on International Youth Day is that young people are already here. They’ve showed up. They’re doing the work. They’ve been doing the work for years.

They don’t need platitudes telling them they can do anything they set their minds to. They need real support: fiscal support for their organizations, space made for them in existing institutions, mentorships to help them grow into new roles, and their policies picked up by politicians.

Unions, including the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), must do better to meet young people where they are. Back in 2017, NUPGE commissioned an extensive research project to better understand the needs of young Canadians (both unionized and non-unionized). The study found that the attitudes and beliefs of young Canadians are very closely aligned with that of unions. But if young Canadians don’t know that unions’ core beliefs are the same as theirs, it’s because we as institutions have failed to communicate effectively.

It’s meaningless to tell youth to show up and vote, or show up for union activities, if young people can’t see where they fit into our vision of the future. We must do better moving forward.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE