History of Youth Movements

      History of Youth Movements

Since the advent of democracy, waves of revolution have occurred every 50 years or so after the American and French Revolutions in the late 1700s, then in 1848, the 1910s, and in the 1960s as with the 1968 student uprising in Paris, followed by Latin American revolutions in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Eastern European overthrow of Russian rule starting in Poland in 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The USSR dissolved in 1991.

Youth movements are defined as protests against authority by people ages 17 to 30 in an attempt to create change —usually for democracy or to oppose a threat such as environmental destruction or war.[i] For the past 200 years they’ve been at the forefront of extending the concept of citizenship. Youth movements began in Germany in 1815. Students formed an association to encourage nationalism and unification of German states. They marched and sang, “We fight for the day when the fatherland shall have liberty! In rank and class all equals be!” Their movement spread to universities in other European countries and to Russia.

Youth were involved in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia with its slogan “Land and Freedom;” however, their leader Lenin was age 47. Later, the Nazi youth “Brown Shirts” were influential in the 1920s in ushering in Hitler, using slogans like “Step down you old ones,” and “National Socialism is the organized will of youth.” Thus not all youth movements are pro-democracy. Youth were involved in the 1949 Communist revolution in China when Chairman Mao was 56. Fidel Castro was one of the youngest revolutionary leaders when he led the Cuban revolution in 1959 at age 33. The US experienced large youth movements only in the 1930s and 1960s. World-wide protests against government oppression occurred in 1968, as against the US war in Viet Nam, a huge general strike in France supported by students, Czech protests against the Soviet invasion of their country, and Brazilian protests against the military dictatorship for killing a high school student at a demonstration. Their issues included civil rights, Apartheid, and women’s rights (such as a feminist demonstration at the Miss America pageant). Youth were also active in the overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979, when their leader Khomeini was 72 and young people were active in Latin America’s Marxist rebellions of the 1970s.

Perhaps the largest and most explosive youth movement was the Chinese Red Guards of 1966 to 1967, active during the Cultural Revolution fomented by Chairman Mao. The Red Guards shut down schools and encouraged students to destroy bourgeois influences of the “four olds:” old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. The Communists believed, “The young people are the most active and vital force in society. They are the most eager to learn and the least conservative in their thinking.”[ii] With Mao’s Little Red Book in hand, the young Red Guards traveled around the country and made authorities do self-criticism sessions with dunce caps on their heads. University funding decreased and discontent with Party officials’ corruption increased. Activists posted posters and essay criticisms on the “Democracy Wall” near Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Chinese youth organized again in 1989 to demand democracy, with over two million students and other citizens repeatedly gathering in the Square from April to June. About 3,000 students also held a hunger strike. The students, unemployed workers, and others occupied the square for seven weeks demanding political reform, free press, and an end to government corruption.[iii] They were encouraged by the Solidarity Movement in Poland and Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) policies in Russia. The government declared martial law and sent in tanks and armed soldiers. The students shouted, “Fascists stop killing,” and “Down with the government.” Many were shot in Tiananmen Square on June 3; the exact numbers are not known, but the estimates range from 300 to 10,000 killed. The official death count is 241 and thousands were wounded, extinguishing the student campaign for democracy. The government bans reference to this event, so most Chinese young people don’t know about it today. A decade latter, Indonesian students were more successful in overturning their autocrat, President Suharto, after 31 years of rule.

College students are among the most educated people, trained to think critically, looked to as elites who will to lead development of their countries, bonded by their student organizations—sometimes international–and informal networks living in dormitories and other student housing, not constrained by family responsibilities. These characteristics all make university “students potentially one of the most highly mobilized groups in society.”[iv] Unemployment added to the mix provides current motivation to demand change. The editors of a book about student activism in Asia ask why student activism waxes and wanes over time. They concluded that as “massification” occurs as more students are able to attend university, they lose both special status and a sense of social obligations.[v] A dictatorial ruler galvanizes student protests as seen in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, and China, while democracy quiets them. This leads to “the fading in most of the [Asian] countries of the image of the student as a rebel.”[vi]

Writing about youth movements, Professors Richard and Margaret Braungart noted, “the phenomenon of the youth movement had been launched, and the world would never be the same.”[vii] The Braungarts identified five main historical cycles of generational activism, often triggered by a large youth cohort.[viii] Youth are more likely to organize for change when there’s a generational bulge as in the 60s and now with the Millennials, and a perceived threat to their future such as increased college tuition, an unpopular war, nuclear power, or environmental destruction. The leadership and awareness about a youth issue required to initiate a youth movement are facilitated by young people clustered together as they are on a college campus. Artists also help shape a sense of shared culture, like the Beat Generation writers who influenced the 1960s youth movements and hip-hop rap singers who encouraged the Arab Spring.

Asked to comment on recent activism with an even larger generation than the Baby Boomers, Richard Braungart emailed me in 2010:


Youth culture today is highly fragmented, and especially in the United States not very oriented to the public sector and civil society. Young people volunteer for a lot of things, but this activism is not translated into public policy. Of course, the mass media all too often neglects or distorts youth dissent and what is really going on in society. Young people today seem to feel they can make more of a difference at the individual level than at a collective level. There is no political party or political mechanism to help or represent them. A few more global catastrophes could change things quickly. [It did in 2011 with the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements]. Most young people want to be integrated into society, not overthrow or destroy it, even when resources are lacking and youth are exploited.

[i] Richard Braungart and Margaret Braungart, “Historical Generations and Citizenship: 200 Years of Youth Movements,” Research in Political Sociology, Vol. 6, p. 170.

[ii] Yang Erce Namu and Christine Mathieu. Leaving Mother Lake: a Girlhood at the Edge of the World. Little Brown & Company, 2004, p. 25.

[iv] Meredith Weiss and Edward Aspinall, editors. Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest and Powerlessness. University of Minnesota Press, 2012, pp. 12 and 13.

[v] Ibid., p. 17.

[vi] Ibid., p. 296.

[vii] Richard Braungart and Margaret Braungart, “Why Youth in Youth Movements?” Mind & Human Interaction, Youth in Conflict, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall 1997, p. 149.

[viii] Richard Braungart and Margaret Braungart, “Youth Movements in the 1980s: A Global Perspective,” International Sociology, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 1990, pp. 157-181. A theme is youth search for more independence in their lives, with most willing to “live within existing boundaries of society,” with the exception of environmental destruction. See their article, “Youth Problems and Politics in the 1980s,” International Sociology, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1986, pp. 359-380.


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