A criticism of explanations of recent youth uprisings in Youth Uprising? (2015)

In Youth Rising? (2015) Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock argue that neoliberal interests fed the emphasis on youth empowerment as a way to deflect attention from increasing structural inequality caused by the capitalist system. The authors point to neoliberal institutions like the World Bank (its 2007 development report centered on youth), the World Economic Forum, and the US State Department increasing interest in youth issues as evidence of their nefarious intent aiming “to promote and sell neoliberal ideology and agendas.”[i] Focusing on youth hides the real causes of the economic crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a youth conference in Tunisia, February 2012, “I have fought to put women’s empowerment on the international agenda. I think it’s time to put youth empowerment there as well.” She created an Office of Global Youth Issues, a Global Youth Jobs Alliance, and new youth councils sponsored by US embassies and consulates in order to apply youths’ “entrepreneurial spirit by collaborating to create youth-led responses to concerns they face in their communities.”[ii] The category of youth, Sukarieh and Tannock maintain, is often used “as a universalizing and depoliticizing euphemism” that hides real differences in class, etc..[iii]

The neoliberal emphasis on individuals pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and newness is reflected in academic youth studies. Sukarieh and Tannock observe that scholars in the last several decades often studied either youth in transition to adulthood in large quantitative studies focusing on the individual (often North American young men) or else on youth sub-cultures using more qualitative and ethnographic approaches. Interest in youth subcultures was acierated by the 1960s student movements and England’s Birmingham Schools’ sub-cultural studies during the 1970s, leading to the disappearance of study of youth political movements.[iv] Both approaches emphasize “individual perspectives over structural ones,” neglecting the economical and political influences constructing concepts of youth by global neoliberal capitalism in “an often exaggerated celebration of individual agency and subjectivity.[v]

Recent youth studies focuses on culture and consumption, and since the late 1980s on “positive youth development” in a reaction to a century of negative approaches, neglecting macro economic influences such as the use of youth as a reserve labor force. Lawrence Grossberg maintains that a “war on youth” has been waged in the US since the 1990s.[vi] Sukarieh and Tannock argue that youth employment is one of the most neglected topics in youth studies. Academics focused on youth rebellion in the form of their sub-cultures and style rather than political activism until the Arab Spring, which generated interest in youth-led rebellions and sometimes glorification of youth as leaders of a global revolution. This romanticization neglected the role of adults in the uprisings including trainings of youth leaders by US government and other organizations.

Sukarieh and Tannock argue that the youth revolts of the early 20th century, the late 1960s, and the current post-crisis neoliberal era have three characteristics in common.[vii] They reacted to global social and economic changes, exaggerated claims of youth power, and surprise over youth activism after a period when they were accused of being apathetic. Also, these claims of youth leadership ignore the roles of adults and adult-led organizations for youth. Focusing on uprising as a generational issue obscures the foundational problems. The authors suggest that neoliberal interests manipulate this interest in youth to deflect from systemic problems of inequality. They point out the difference in the geography of the demonstrations from organized and formal youth movements, to the university, to the public square with rejection of nationalism and organized political parties and youth organizations.

[i] Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. Routledge, 2015, p. 8.

[ii] Youth Councils: Empowering Young People as Agents of Change, May 3, 20103. http://www.state.gov/r/ppr/gyi/releases/press/2013/208953.htm

[iii]Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. Routledge, 2015.

  1. 5.

[iv] Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. Routledge, 2015, p. 100..

[v] Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. Routledge, 2015, pp. 6-7.

[vi] “Why Does Neo-Liberalism Hate kids?
Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2001, pp. 111-136.

[vii] Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. Routledge, 2015, p. 83.

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