Global Youth Activists Characteristics

Youth activists tend to be older teenagers and to mobilize at their schools or universities, as in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah and Apartheid South Africa’s South African Student’s Movement formed in 1968. British academic Karen Wells observed the term “youth” usually refers to boys and young men because many young women are not allowed to be independent adults and they’re defined by becoming married mothers. Young people are often in the vanguard of political campaigns such as Latin American uprisings against dictators in the 1930s through the 1950s, US Civil Rights in the 1950s to mid-1960s and anti-war movements, and Mexican student uprisings in 1968. Generally young people don’t feel hostile to older generations and are not more revolutionary than their parents (with exceptions such as the Red Guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution who attacked their teachers) and most are not activists.[i] Those that do become politically engaged often organize as unsullied moral guardians needed to clean up corruption and immorality; for example, China’s Red Guards, Iran’s Basiji Revolutionary Guards or Hitler youth. Their efforts to clean up society can lead to “spectacular excess and a politics of terror”, so it’s not accurate to stereotype all youth uprisings as progressive.

Educated youth expect they’ll have economic and social opportunities; when their goals are blocked, activism can result so they become more outspoken than their less educated parents. When educated youth do have opportunities, they’re less likely to be politically active. Long-term success of youth movements requires support by a larger movement. Revolutionary governments in China, Cuba, Iran and Ethiopia mobilized youth to shake up traditions such as obedience to parents by sending them away from home to the countryside to teach literacy and work.

[i] Karen Wells. Childhood in a Global Perspective. Polity Press, 2015, pp. 137-138.


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