The long-term success of youth movements requires support by a larger movement and older people, such as the political parties, unions and lawyers who maintained order after the ouster of Tunisia’s corrupt president in 2011. Generally today’s young people don’t feel hostile to older generations and most are not activists.[i] A Pew Research survey of US Millennials reported that eight in in ten respondents think older people have better values, compared to nine in ten Baby Boomers with the same view.[ii] Millennials get along better with their parents than when the Boomers were young in the 1960s, partly because they’re more dependent on their highly involved helicopter parents. In the US the number of multigenerational households increased to 54 million and nearly one-quarter of preschoolers are cared for by a grandparent.
German sociologist Karl Mannheim explained that a generation is uniquely different from its parents’ generation if it has different unifying experiences, such as the large size of the Baby Boomers or Gen Y’s access to ICT.[iii] Some sociologists find that studying youth as a unique generation is more useful than the focus on youth transition to adulthood, a developmental stage common among various generations. They think that Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y and Z don’t grow out of their special characteristics even as they age. The current globalized generation has experienced environmental crises and terrorist attacks, government cuts to social services, increased tuition costs and precariously high unemployment. Generational characteristics hold true internationally and override class, but are mostly likely to influence middle-class youth.[iv] As Yara (17, f) emailed from Egypt, “It wasn’t a revolution made by the hungry, but led by well-educated people like myself.”
The focus on youth development as influenced by their particular generation’s history is called the social generational paradigm criticized as the “new orthodoxy” in Youth Studies.[v] Although some scholars discount generational differences to focus on common themes in the development to adulthood, today’s youth believe they’re different in their technological skills and global connection through the Internet. Indeed, they’re nearly half of the world’s Internet users.[vi] When I ask students in classrooms around the world (China, India, Indonesia, Turkey and the US) both youth and elders agree technology and their beloved phones is what makes them unique. Young Egyptian activist Jawad Nalbusi reported a “huge gap between us and the older generation because we saw the revolution happen. The Internet exposed us to so many ideas so we could make our own analysis and our own decisions.”[vii]
The youth politics of the “global generation” is more open and collaborative, as shaped by ICT, in comparison to the New Left of the 1960s, and the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s such as feminism and environmentalism.[viii] They’re different from earlier generations of rebels in their focus on direct democracy, abhorrence of hierarchy and pride in being leaderless, and their egalitarian acceptance of women and people different from them in ethnicity, class, religion, etc. Youth value equality but often lobby for it individually online rather than collectively and politically, unlike the rebels of the 1960s with hierarchical organizations like SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). Another difference is the 1960s activists thought of their youth culture as socially liberating, while young activists today are motivated by the inequities of the economic system. They don’t automatically distrust someone over 30, although they’re not a generation with a high trust level in other people. (Canadian author Chris Dixon provides a bibliography of social movement research.[ix])
Generation differences, according to other Pew surveys, describe Millennials as more liberal than their elders about social issues, more skeptical about religious and political institutions, and they marry later, according to Kim Parker. Educated youth feel they deserve economic and social opportunities; when their goals are blocked, activism can result and they become more outspoken than their less educated but more prosperous parents. When educated youth do have economic opportunities, they’re less likely to be politically active.
Many young people are defensive about criticisms of their generation, calling them apathetic and self-involved. Californian Sabrina Osborne (18, f) posted an essay on Medium.com where she lists common insults suggesting that hers is a lost generation, “a broken generation, lost in technology and helplessly unaware of our surroundings.”[x] She attributes the condemnations to older people’s fear of youth power; “We scare the older generations because we have a voice and know how to use it. We know that a 30-second video can go viral within hours.” Because her generation speaks up about sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and rape culture, Osborne predicts that her generation will change the world with their passion and will raise their children in a new culture of love and tolerance.
German Sociology professors Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim critiqued social sciences for not looking at global interactions and global generations, bound by “methodological nationalism” rather than using what they call a cosmopolitan framework. [xi] They point out that almost one-third of German young people come from immigrant families and that global migration flows will increase as unemployed youth seek jobs in other countries (see photos of intercultural interactions globally.[xii]) The flow of migrants accelerated in 2014 and continued as a result of civil war in Syria and Afghanistan. The professors give the example of a young waitress in rural Latvia who lives in a small wooden house and said, “I would like to have a normal life,” meaning the kind of life portrayed on TV and experienced by her sister who migrated to Poland. Generally youth are the “losers” in the globalization process because of their high unemployment, thus increasing insecurity is becoming “the basic experience of the younger generation.” Their economic precariousness leads them to collective solutions, living in multi-generational households, bartering, sharing resources like cars and gardens, and co-ops. Socialism therefore makes sense to them, more so than competitive capitalism, as evidenced in young people’s support for US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Aware of environmental changes, many understand that capitalism’s short-sighted emphasis on economic growth is harmful.
The British newspaper Guardian reported on the disadvantaged economic situation of Millennials compared to older generations due to recession, unemployment, increased housing costs, and declining salaries.[xiii] The Guardian researched data about Generation Y in eight of the largest developed nations, concluding they didn’t delay adulthood because they were indulged by their parents—as often said about them, but because they are betrayed by the economic hardships they face. They did as they were told, obsessed with achievement, they went to university, but graduated burdened by student debt and unable to find well-paying jobs in their fields. Jane, 29, from England told The Guardian, “I did all the things we were told to do…but on a single income, housing is my nightmare.” Not being able to afford a house also makes it difficult to raise children. Lauren, 23, reported from Scotland that she has temporary jobs so she can’t sign a lease on a flat, living with her parents, stating, “I yearn to escape and begin my adult life, but I feel like a reluctant Peter Pan.” In Germany, Generation Maybe is “sleepwalking through a networked world of opportunity and feel insecure in the face of the plethora of options… We no longer know what to do. We want to be there and not miss anything anywhere,” wrote German journalist Oliver Jeges.
Beck and Beck-Gernsheim stated in 2009 that a self-aware global generation didn’t yet exist, but now educated youth share the Internet as a common framework for viewing the world. Writing five years later than the German professors’ statement, Yara (17, f, Egypt) does think self-aware middle-class youth are similar globally, explaining, “I have 900 friends on Facebook. I know people around the globe who agree with me about wanting to change tradition, maybe we’re right.” From the first day, she was active in the Tahrir Square demonstrations that toppled President Hosni Mubarak (our interview is on YouTube[xiv]). The older generation was shut down by their parents and didn’t have the opportunity to connect with each together, while her generation is ambitious and connected.[xv] She said her generation abhors the tradition of go to university, get a job, and start a family, a common complaint. Her generation “hates that cycle. We don’t want to be just another generation in the history book” or repeat their parents’ and grandparents’ failures, as other students told me in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “We want to write the book,” Yara said.
Yara observes her generation is characterized by ambition and courage; “We don’t settle for the normal half-filled cup. We ask, ‘Is that all life has to give?’” That questioning applies to educated girls as well as boys for the first time in Egyptian history, with some exceptions as described in the autobiographies of Dr. Nawal El Saadawi (born in 1931), discussed in my book Brave. When I asked Yara why her peers are so courageous, she said it’s because their communication systems provide them with support and information, an important insight as support is a resource for social movement success. Today’s youth movements are more global and more open and collaborative than earlier generations, as confirmed by a study of global justice activists in Barcelona, Paris, Mexico City and San Francisco.[xvi]
College students are among the most educated people in their countries, trained to think critically, looked to as elites who will to lead the development of their countries, bonded by their student organizations—sometimes international–and informal networks living in dormitories and other student housing without family responsibilities. These characteristics make “students potentially one of the most highly mobilized groups in society.”[xvii] Unemployment added to the mix provides strong motivation to demand change. The editors of a book about student activism in Asia explored why student activism waxes and wanes over time. They concluded that as “massification” occurs when more students are able to attend university, they lose special status and therefore a sense of social obligations.[xviii] Another influence, dictatorial ruler galvanizes student protests as seen in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, and China, whereas democracy quiets them. The increase of democracy leads to “the fading in most of the [Asian] countries of the image of the student as a rebel.”[xix] Hong Kong is a hotbed of student activism, having had more freedom under British rule eroded under Beijing’s control, discussed in Chapter 6.
Generation Y and Z Compared
Even larger than Millennials globally, Generation Z, called “Millennials on steroids,” is growing up during the war on terror and the Great Recession. In contrast, the Millennials raised in the 1990s were shocked by these new problems.[xx] Gen Z sees films like Hunger Games and Divergent where teens are killed by authorities. I talked with Aldebra Schroll, a physician at the student health center at California State University Chico, in 2016.
In my five years here, I have observed a substantial increase in the anxiousness of our students. They have many wide-ranging fears, social anxieties. I have students who are afraid daily about being gunned down on the campus. The world they are growing up in with so many tragedies always being reported is a scary and overwhelming place for them. We also are looking at the issue of trauma-centered care for many survivors of childhood abuse and other traumas.
Seimi Park, a high school senior in Virginia, observed, “I definitely think growing up in a time of hardship, global conflict and economic troubles has affected my future.”[xxi] She thinks pragmatism replaced optimism for her generation, leading to a large majority who want to become self-employed entrepreneurs and get jobs while still in high school.
A Sparks and Honey report titled “Meet Generation Z: Forget Everything You Learned About Millennials,” found they value being mature and in control.[xxii] The report stated that 26% of people 16- to 19-years-old are volunteers who want to make a difference, but their efforts may be lessened due to the finding that their attention spans are getting shorter. A Unilever Project found 76% are concerned about human impact on the environment, 78% of youth are concerned about world hunger and 77% worry about children dying of preventable diseases.[xxiii]
While Hannah from the HBO series Girls typifies self-absorbed Millennials, Alexandria Dunphy from Modern Family represents Generation Z, according to Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the Innovation Group.[xxiv] She describes Alex as “conscientious, hard-working, somewhat anxious and mindful of the future.” An overachiever, Alex (born in 1996 at about the start of Gen Z) gets straight As, is class valedictorian, plays the cello and lacrosse, and was accepted by the very selective science university Cal Tech, which she attended in Season 7. She’s very different from undisciplined Hannah who dropped out of graduate school after being unable to complete her assignments. (More on Gen Z on the book webpage.)[xxv]
Very Young Activists
Younger than ever before, brave activists for equality are in the news, the most prominent being Malala Yousafzai who began advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan when she was only 11. (The only girls’ demonstration in Pakistan was against a proposal to name a girls’ college after her in Swat Valley, where the demonstrators threw mud at her photograph.) Other girls, not famous, make similar contributions. A young Brazilian black rapper, age 12, fights racism with her music. She sang at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony. Her stage name is MC Soffia; she sings about liking black dolls more than Barbie and encourages other black girls to confront racism; for example, when someone criticizes her pink dreadlocks she says, “My hair is not kinky, it’s coily.”[xxvi] She experienced racist bullying but reported her school now has an anti-bullying group. Her role models are international: Beyoncé, Willow Smith (the teen daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett), and Brazilian singer Carol Konka. Another 12-year-old, Oli Ahmed campaigns against child brides in the Dhaka slum where he lives in Bangladesh. A viral video shows a 12-year-old Egyptian boy explaining the need for revolution against theocracy and for equality for women.[xxvii]
Youth-Leader Magazine reports on many other young changemakers. Ryan was only six when he started raising money in Canada for wells for drinking water in Uganda. Mayerly was 12 when she started a children’s peace movement in Columbia. Teenager Kimmie started Golden Kids’ Radio in Liberia, which airs in nine countries. Erica, a Mexican-American girl, led a campaign against installing liquid gas pipelines in her Los Angeles neighborhood. At age 12 American Craig created Free The Children to end child slavery, starting in Pakistan, and his group builds schools there as well.[xxviii] Children in Malawi aged six to 12 marched to protest teacher strikes about non-payment of their salaries in 2014, chanting “We’re not learning,” barricading one of the main roads, and damaging classroom windows and cars. Police used tear gas to disperse the children.
Zoe describes how she became an activist in fourth grade in California, seen in our video.[xxix] She started her activism when she felt left out by the girls in her class and her mother gave her something interesting to do. “I read the biography of Julia Butterfly Hill [The Legacy of Luna] who lived in a tree for a year in order to save the ancient redwood trees. It empowered me; it was so great to have a role model. It shows how just one person could give something to their community and the world just by caring.”
Kids are interested in bicycles as their independent mode of transportation. Thomas Hircock, a 12-year-old boy from Philadelphia traveled with his father to India where outcaste Dalit (formerly called untouchables) students told him they needed bikes to ride to school 20 miles distant from their homes. In response, Thomas started a Bike Club at his school; by the time he was 16, they’d shipped 400 bikes to North India. A BBC video shows him talking about his volunteer work.[xxx] An earlier youth movement with bicycles occurred when Dutch primary school students campaigned for safer streets and bicycle lanes in the 1970s, shown in a video.[xxxi] Now Amsterdam is safe for bikes and kids, as I experienced riding a bike there in bike lanes that traverse the city. I felt very relaxed and safe riding on busy city streets along the canals cycling with other people of all ages.
Another bike NGO was organized in Uganda where around 42,000 AIDS orphans are raised by a sibling younger than age 18. One of those orphans, Chris Ategeka cared for his four younger siblings by building a hut made from reeds and the children traded work for food from neighbors. Ategeka was fortunate, as he is now a graduate student in the US. He formed CABikes.org to teach Ugandans how to make bikes from local materials in order to give them to orphans. He also designed a “bike ambulance” designed to attach a carrier to a bike to take a sick person to hospital. Other examples of young activists are profiled on Free Child, Youth Leader magazine, Youth Action Net, Youth Activism.org, TakingITGlobal, Idealists: Organizations Started by Kids & Teens and other websites.[xxxii] Many other very young activists are described on the book webpage.[xxxiii]
A Large Poor Rural Generation
Generation Y and Z are the largest in human history. In many developing countries, the youth bulge is over half the population and in the US the 80 million Millennials are larger than the Baby Boomers. Global young people ages 10 to 24 are a quarter of the world’s population; their median age is 29.[xxxiv] The UN reports that most youth (almost 85%) live in developing countries, with about 60% of them in Asia.[xxxv] By 2025, the percent growing up in developing countries will increase to 89.5%. With the spread of global media through cell phones, radio, and battery-powered television, they become increasing aware of consumerism and the growing inequality between the rich and poor. Youth are frustrated by the unwillingness of adults to tackle problems such as climate change and poverty that jeopardize their future. This generation is the best educated ever with access to electronic communication that provides them with information and empowerment from their peers. Such a large discontented population threatens the established order. Melody (20, f, California) is fearful, “The current state of the world is terrifying. What will the future be like? Climate change, drought, the 6th mass extinction, the economic crisis, etc. I don’t foresee any of these issues disappearing any time soon.” Her response is to be a leader in environmental activism on her campus and to volunteer to assist refugees in Greece.
For the first time in history, more people lived in cities than rural areas in 2007. In 2015, 46% of the world’s population lived in rural areas: The percentage rose to 65% rural in poor indebted countries. The World Bank data provides the country and regional percentages.[xxxvi] The large majority of young people live in developing countries and the majority of them live in rural areas in Africa and Asia. In Chinese villages people still sleep on a kang heated by burning rice husk and use an outhouse and public bathhouse, as described in Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China (2015). Global youth live in rural areas, urban slums, or urban and suburban middle-class neighborhoods—in that order.[xxxvii] Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, often mentioned by young European activists, pointed out that “the explosive growth of slums in the last decades . . .is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times.” Young people write and photograph life in their rural villages in Africa and Japan in Next Generation Press’ books, but overall rural youth “remain marginal” to Youth Studies, according to Australian David Farrugia. He is author of Spaces of Youth, using a spatial approach to youth and globalization.[xxxviii]
The only peasants I’ve found who led a large social movement were farmers in Southern Brazil who organized a women’s movement that became national and who also were active in the movement to take over unoccupied land.[xxxix] Gessi Bonês and other teenagers living in rural Brazil started a women’s movement in 1996, despite the patriarchal tradition of fathers’ restricting daughters’ ability to go outside their homes and husbands’ controlling their wives. The rural young women’s lives were similar to Mashal’s in rural Pakistan (discussed below), spending long days doing work at home with very little or no education or freedom of movement. What made the difference for the Brazilian women was the encouragement of educated Catholic nuns and priests who espoused Liberation Theology, which aims to help the poor. They organized youth groups and visited parents until they consented to let their teens attend meetings. Many of the youth groups members went on to become leaders in the landless worker movement, lead union reform, as well as start a women’s movement.
The young villagers I’ve surveyed and interviewed in China, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Brazil have very limited knowledge because they may be illiterate or only have access to local radio stations that mostly play traditional music. They’re not exposed to global issues such as global warming or options for women; when I asked Pakistani village girls on Skype about what jobs they would like they usually answered nurse or teacher. One mentioned becoming an NGO worker. My conversations with these village young people indicate that if you’re poor, you work long hours trying to feed your family. You’re tired after doing manual work and don’t have the time, energy, or confidence to organize. Additionally, if you’re illiterate, you don’t have access to many other people to recruit to a cause unless you have access to radio broadcasting.
Felix Mewe (age 24) a university student in Zambia emailed confirmation of the necessity of education for changemaking and that urban youth are more likely to have access to schools. A reason children don’t go past primary school in Zambia is that secondary school costs around $100 for a three-month term, plus books and uniform.
Internet and news access is limited to levels of education and one’s income. Even in urban areas most university and college students do not even know how to surf the Net and use computers. About careers, people here in Zambia know only of medical doctors, lawyers and teachers, most get to know about other courses when already in college or after high school. There is limited access to information in poor countries.
I Skyped with Felix (you can see part of the poor quality video[xl]). Felix has lived in both rural and urban areas:
I have lived in two different rural areas, and came back to the city [Lusaka]. My dad was a street food vendor before his death, but due to challenges in the city we moved to rural areas to depend on farming, and it never worked out as the rural areas are infested with mosquitoes and hence, lots of malaria. So when we came back to the city dad and mum continued to vend until dad died. Mum has continued to hustle, and that’s how we survive, so we are hoping when I finish next year I will get a job and help out my family and take my [six] siblings to school also.
He said most of the university students in Zambia are from urban areas, because in the rural areas where about 44% of Zambians live, children usually don’t progress past primary school. Felix said their lives in villages revolve around home, farming, caring for animals, and learning about traditional culture. They’re not as exposed to media, and don’t know about problems like global warming and HIV transmission. He said most of the HIV+ Zambians are rural young people, ages 15 to 25. I asked him since dating is forbidden, how is HIV transmitted? He said, “People still sleep around despite culturally its wrong to do so before marriage. And besides, due to the fact that here we cannot freely talk about sex, dating, marriage, taboos, etc. with parents, we have more AIDS cases than western countries.”
Felix reported that most Zambians are Christians, either Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. Some will follow tradition and have an arranged marriage and some will pick a spouse for themselves. Traditionally you were supposed to marry a member of your tribe, but now young people in urban areas are likely to choose for themselves. Feliz’ parents were nontraditional, a love marriage from different tribes that produced seven children who struggle to get educated. Feliz teaches some of his younger siblings because his widowed mother, a street vendor, can’t afford to send them to school. Felix and his girlfriend started the Love for Humanity Foundation to encourage children, especially AIDS orphans children to continue with their education (see photos on their Facebook page.[xli])
Taika (age 18, f), a high school student in Ethiopia, shared that urban areas still retain traditional values:
I really don’t know how kids from my corner (Ethiopia) can be categorized. The thing is, we are not affected by natural disasters, shootings and attacks and terrorist activities. Technology isn’t really part of the movement except phones. Yes, we are really into tech but it is not that much part of our lives. Friends and playgrounds have been where our world revolved around. Family is always part of our existence. Relations between parents and kids aren’t open, but this is changing a little more these days. They still hold the strong bond with the family. Education and a better life style are still the goals of every person. Religion still holds an important part in our values.
In the novel Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, city dwellers look down on “country bumpkins” who don’t have the money to pay for school fees for their children, but rural traditions persist.[xlii] A general with a lot of power and money who lives in Lagos refers to himself as “a village man,” entitling him to spill his soup and burp after eating it. The lower a person’s status, “the more tribe matters,” states a newly rich man in Logos. Other attitudes and traditions persist for city people, such as a groom paying a bride price, retaining ties to the ancestral village, and respect for elders. Aunty Uju yells as the main character, Ifmelu, to scold her for giving advice to her elder, “Am I your agemate?” A newly rich man, Obinze observes that even rich city people have a “mentality of scarcity. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.” Obinze reports he pays school fees for 100 children in his village. He compares Nigerian Third World people with the West, saying Nigerians are “forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past.”
Danielle (19, f, Bangalore) reported attitudes are often backwards in rural areas; “I’m afraid people in rural areas are often uneducated and have little to no idea about the reasons behind religious rituals and customs. They follow a ritual blindly (often to the point to impoverishing themselves to afford lavish celebrations for religious festivals!). They rely on a local priest to direct them on religious matters, and so very often receive a misinterpreted altered version.
In New Delhi, I interviewed a villager who works as seasonal house servant in Delhi (see our video[xliii]). Babloo is 21. His family home in the village has five bedrooms, where three to four people sleep in a room by gender. They have lots of room, but no toilets, leaving their fertilizer in the fields. Comparing generations, he said young people want to earn more money, while their parents are satisfied to stay in their village. Life is interwoven with relatives, as all the relatives should be there at weddings or funerals. A nice person lives near relatives; you have more social status if connected, which is more important than money. He feels responsible for his siblings. He’s fourth among five children. His two sisters went to grade 12 and then had arranged marriages at ages 17 and 18 respectively. Although people used to get married younger, Babloo would like to wait several years. He only wants two kids as it’s difficult and costly to raise children. Praying to gods helps him, so he prays to Shiva and offers flowers to other deities.
Babloo went to grade 10 and understands Hindi as well as his local language. Tuition was 300 rupees for six months, while he said that some private schools in his area charge 200 rupees a month. He said nobody wants to go to school because the standard of education is so poor. Usually teachers don’t come, or are in classroom for a few hours because teachers in government jobs have security. Babloo has no knowledge of the Internet, but says things are changing with TV cable. He knows about pollution but not about global warming.
His father is a farmer. They get fresh vegetables from the garden and neighbors give away buttermilk left over from making curd. They eat rice and vegetables and survive by the brothers doing odd jobs in Delhi, especially during the busy wedding season. A famous Indian environmentalist, Vedana Shiva explained that globalization harms rural farmers like Babloo’s father, as when Monsanto tries to make farmers dependent on purchasing seeds each year rather than being able to grow their own. Shive observed, “The biggest issue we face in India is the destruction of sustainable small-scale economies such as agriculture and food production. The entire threat of globalization is basically wiping out these diverse, localized systems–wiping out their biodiversity.[xliv]
Babloo said young people enjoy village life with activities segregated by gender and caste; for boys playing cricket is the most popular. Girls don’t play outside; instead, they stay at home, watch TV, sing traditional songs, and learn how to sew and work in the household. The village doesn’t have an elected council; instead, the male elders come together to make decisions. Dalits don’t eat with or mingle with higher castes. Students sit in the classroom together but different castes don’t eat together. In Delhi they know people’s caste background by their last names, but don’t care so they eat with Dalit friends. He plans to earn more money and then settle in his village with a small business because living in the city is costly.
Young people in developed countries also commented on differences between rural and urban living. Akhénaton, (19, m,) lives a small town in France surrounded by a mountain. He wrote on the feminist book club Our Shared Shelf in 2016: “Everybody knows everybody, and every time you met somebody new, you could be sure that at least three of your friend know them. It’s horrible, because everybody judges everyone and the rumors are very frequent about the people.” He said sexism prevails,
We talked about girls, calling them sluts, only thinking about sex and doesn’t even recognize them as human beings. After all, they just here for us to have some fun and sex, right? I begin to hate this town to be so small and to be the source of so many problems. So, as soon as I finished high school, I moved away in a much bigger town, Montpellier, to study. I want to run away from this town.
Most of the “youth bulge” live in developing countries where their aspirations are frustrated by lack of resources. High unemployment rates for educated young people indicates a time bomb of future unrest and continued upheavals. Approximately half the world’s population of seven billion lives in cities and towns, many in slums. Around one-third of urban dwellers in developing countries live in slum conditions, the fastest growing human habitat.[xlv] Globally, about 150 million children live on the streets, some without any parents to care for them.[xlvi] Global youth are divided by an economic inequality that keeps the haves and have-nots in different worlds. Low-income children often lack access to the good education and Internet connections, making it harder for them to be aware of social movements let alone organize them. In referring to global youth activism we’re often referring to trends led by educated urban young people.
A World Bank survey in 2011 reported that about 40% of people who join rebel movements say they are motivated by lack of jobs.[xlvii] The highest youth unemployment rates are the Middle East (28%), North Africa (24%) and the European Union (23%).[xlviii] Greece has the dubious honor of the highest rate at 65%, followed closely by Spain, Italy, and Portugal. In North Africa, about 20% of university graduates are unemployed. East Asia has the lowest youth unemployment rate at 9.5% and also low levels of youth activism. Globally, about 13% of youth are unemployed, compared to the overall unemployment rate of 9%. Almost a quarter of global youth (almost 290 million) ages 15 to 29 are NEETs not working or studying.[xlix] The World Bank puts the actual number of NEETs at closer to 621 million. We would be wise to address their needs and utilize their talents.
Most of the facets of daily life that we take for granted are a daily struggle for people in developing countries and urban slums, such as access to clean water in our homes, a variety of healthy foods available in our neighborhoods, and a nearby private place to defecate. These issues are compounded for women who fetch water from a distance (women generally do this errand in developing countries as well as cooking and cleaning) and can’t squat by a railroad track or urinate on a city street like men. A must-read interview with Mashal, a rural Pakistani teenager who lives in a mud brick house, conveys the pain of spending all your time working to try to feed the family, being illiterate and having no control over your own life.[l] She only saw her fiancé once, doesn’t know how old he is, and hopes he won’t insist on gold jewelry for her dowry that her family can’t afford.
Katherine Boo reports on the grim details of children’s lives as trash pickers in a Mumbai slum in her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012). Rubina Ali, the child star of Slumdog Millionaire also grew up in a Mumbai slum. She told her story to a French writer when she was nine (although she doesn’t know her exact birthday).[li] Rubina described the children playing along the railroad tracks, because their shacks are dark and damp, so close together they don’t allow sunlight, similar to Rocinha slum I visited in Rio. Her extended family slept next to each other on mats in one small room with no window, and their only luxury was an old black and white TV. Filmmakers paid for her to go to school and move out of the slums, shown in the Spanish documentary, La Alfombra Roja (The Red Carpet) that chronicled her life after Slumdog Millionaire. Another video interviewed the child actors five years after they made the film.[lii]
Rubina explained in her book there is no privacy in the slum and people insult and shout at each other all the time. Boys harass and chase the girls. Kids have to get up early to wait in line to get water for the day before the water stops at 10 a.m. so they can’t go to school. During monsoon season, the slum floods with dirty water, just as it does in Rocinha. There’s a toilet area with three holes that don’t get pumped out. Rats and mosquitoes cause diseases; “every year children die of malaria in our slum,” Rubina reported. A fire burned their tin-roofed shack so they moved into a flat provided by the film director. Some shack dwellers are organizing like South Africa’s Abahlali baseMjondolo for shack dwellers and a network of community organizations in 33 countries called Shack/Slum Dwellers International.[liii]
Photos of the one-room apartment I visited in Shanghai convey what life is like for poor urban families.[liv] The little girl I interviewed, age eight, said her parents argue all the time over lack of money. They can’t afford to get medical care for a burn scar on her leg that embarrasses her so she never wears dresses. She goes to a private school for immigrants because public schools are reserved for children who have a residence permit in that area. They don’t have a toilet, they only cook on a hotplate and rice cooker, have one bed as the main furniture, but they do have a TV.
About 20% of Brazilians live in favelas, where a study found the average school attendance was only four years.[lv] Photos of the Rocinha favela I visited in Rio de Janeiro reveal bullet holes in walls from gun battles between the police and the young drug lords who control the slum community.[lvi] As I walked in the entrance on a narrow road, young men sat on their motorcycles guarding the favela, knowing they will probably die in their 20s. The woman who showed me around Rocinha has staph sores on her legs because of the human waste in floodwaters that flow in the narrow alleys between houses when it rains. As shacks are built on top of each other, they block sunlight leading to more diseases. My photos show informal electrical wiring that doesn’t look safe. Because of poverty and drug use, families are unstable with children growing up without their fathers.
Growing up in an urban Kenyan slum called Kibera, Kennedy Odede (age 29) reported that the life expectancy in Kibera is 30, compared to 64 for the country average. He said the psyche of the poor is characterized by feeling hopeless, coupled with anger because there is no escape. This anger can fuel Islamist terrorism. He points out more than half of the people living in African urban slums are youths between the ages of 15 and 24 who lack access to education and hope. It follows that the most effective way to fight terrorism is not with drone attacks but with education and hope.
Around one billion children live in extreme poverty and almost one quarter of them are not enrolled in secondary school. About 40% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day (2.7 billion people)[lvii] and more than one billion of them are extremely poor. Some youth leave their countries to seek work or to find safety so that 30% of the world’s international migrants are under age 29.[lviii] The poor don’t have the resources to pull themselves out of poverty and their governments are in debt. Economic development moves from agriculture in rural areas to light manufacturing in urban areas, to high-tech services in cities, but poor counties don’t have the basics to get the economic evolution started, as economist Jeffery Sachs explained.[lix] His break down of the categories of global poverty is summarized on the book website.[lx]
Only a fifth of youth live in upper-middle and high-income countries, but poverty is a problem even in wealthy nations like the US where 14.7 million children lived in poverty in 2013, representing a total of 14.5% of Americans.[lxi] The US has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world and almost half of black children under age six live in poverty.[lxii] The number of homeless children doubled in less than a decade and the US is near the bottom of developed countries in the percent of four-year-olds in preschools, Head Start funding was cut in 2014, along with other programs for low-income people, and some schools in inner cities shut down.
The US lost 15 million jobs since the Great Recession of 2008, so that many Americans also struggle with food shortages—14% of households in 2014.[lxiii] Former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich explained why there’s not more outcry against inequality in the US although 20% of our children live in poverty.[lxiv] While the working class and their labor unions led reforms in the past, now workers are afraid to lose the jobs they have when 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and fewer than 7% of private-sector workers belong to a union. In the past students were active in the Civil Rights Movement, Free Speech on university campuses, anti-war and the women’s movements, but now he thinks their huge debt load makes them afraid to rock the boat, especially those who live with their parents.
Improvement is occurring in some areas, however. The UN reported that the extreme poverty rate (earning less than $1.25 a day) fell from 46% in 1990 to 27% in 2005, and fell to 13% in 2011, mainly because of gains in Asia.[lxv] About half of the poor don’t have electricity.[lxvi] Many of the very poor live in Africa and India. Deaths among children under five years of age have been reduced from 12.5 million per year (1990) to 8.8 million (2008).[lxvii] However, hunger and malnutrition are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and gaps are widening between rich and poor and between urban and rural areas. Looking for solutions, the World Bank published a report about behavioral economics titled “Mind, Society and Behavior” about the psychology of global development.[lxviii] An example of a behavioral economic incentive is Kenyans given a metal box with a lock saved more than double the usual amount saved for health care by people without the boxes. Insurance claims for car accidents fell by half after signs were put in Kenyan buses asking passengers to yell out the window at dangerous drivers. Solutions are available for world problems; what’s missing is the will to eradicate poverty. We need to invest in this large well-educated generation as a talent pool to solve
[i] Karen Wells. Childhood in a Global Perspective. Polity Press, 2015, pp. 137-138.
[ii] Tom Dunkel, “A War Between the Old and the Young?,” AARP Bulletin, April 2014.
[iii] Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, chapter on “The Problem of Generations,“ Routledge, 1952.
[iv] Graeme Codrington, “Detailed Introduction to Generational Theory,” Tomorrow Today, July 2008.
[v] Alan France and Steven Roberts, “The Problem of Social Generations: a Critique of the New Emerging Orthodoxy in Youth Studies,” Youth Studies, August 20, 2014, pp. 215-230.
[vi] Nicole Goldin, The Global Youth Wellbeing Index, Center for Strategic & International Studies and International Youth Foundation, April 2014, p. 13.
[vii] Leila Khalil, “Jawad Nabulsi Discusses the Role of Egyptian Youth on Campus,” The Independent, April 3, 2012.
[viii] Jeffrey Juris and Geoffrey Pleyers, “Alter-Activism: Emerging Cultures of Participation Among Young Global Justice Activists,” Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, February 2009, pp. 57-75.
Colours of Resistance Archive: http://www.coloursofresistance.org
Institute for Anarchist Studies: http://www.anarchiststudies.org
Punch Up Collective: punchupcollective.tumblr.com
Upping the Anti: http://www.uppingtheanti.org
[x] Sabrina Osborne, “We Are…..” Medium.com, June 29, 2016.
[xi] Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, “Global Generations and the Trap of Methodological Nationalism For a Cosmopolitan Turn in the Sociology of Youth and Generation,” European Sociological Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2009, pp. 25-36.
[xiii] Carmen Fishwick, “Five Markers of Adulthood Millennials Have Had to Give Up,” The Guardian, March 10. 2016.
[xv] Joel Stein, “Millennials: the Me Me Me Generation,” TIME Magazine, May 20, 2013.
[xvi] Jeffrey Scott Juris and Geoffrey Henri Pleyers,, “Alter-Activism: Emerging Cultures of Participation Among Young Global Justice Activists,” Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 12, Issue 1, February 2009, pp. 57-75.
[xvii] Meredith Weiss and Edward Aspinall, editors. Student Activism in Asia: Between Protest and Powerlessness. University of Minnesota Press, 2012, pp. 12 and 13.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 17.
[xix] Ibid., p. 296.
[xx] Alex Williams, “Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z,” New York Times, September 20, 2015.
[xxiii] “Unilever Project Highlights How Children Inspire Sustainable Behavior in Adults,” JWT Intelligence, August 2013.
[xxiv] Alex Williams, “Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z,” New York Times, September 20, 2015.
Adora Svitak, 16, TED talk, “What Adults Can Learn from Kids,” over three million views.
Logan Laplante, 13, received over five million views on his 2013 TED talk, “Hackschooling Makes Me Happy.”
[xxvi] Kamille Viola, “MC Soffia,” Women and Girls’ Hub, October 26, 2016.
[xxx] BBC News, April 16, 2013.
[xxxii] Jonathan Daniel Harris, “Adolescent Activists,” The Huffington Post, March 18, 2010.
http://www.freechild.org/youth_activism_2.htm (list of activism organizations)
[xxxiv] Population Reference Bureau, “The World’s Youth 2013 Data Sheet.”
[xxxv] UN Youth: Social Policy and Development Division
[xxxvii] “Global Trends in Urban Youth Development,” UNICEF, 2007.
[xxxviii] Cyrus Rolbin, editor. Art and Life in Life in Rural Japan, 2010.
Barbaba Cervone, editor. Boto, Ethiopia Through the Eyes of its Youth.
What Kids Can Do, editor. In Our Village: Kambi ya Simba Through the Eyes of its Youth (Tanzania), 2006
[xxxix] Jeffrey Rubin and Emma Sokoloff-Rubin. Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration. Duke University Press, 2013.
[xlii] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah. Anchor Books, 2014, pp. 95, 533, 98, 544, 539.
[xliv] Vandana Shiva, “The Violence of Globalization,” in Neva Welton and Linda Wolf, Global Uprising: Confronting the Tryannies of the 21st Century. New Society Publishers, 2001.
[xlv] “5 largest Slums in the World,”
[xlvi] “Street Children”
[xlvii] “World Development Report 2011”
[xlviii] Katherine Carter, “Idle Hands May Be the Devil’s Work,” Fund for Peace World Square, November 8, 2013.
[xlix] “Generation Jobless,” The Economist, April 27, 2013.
[li] Rubina Ali. Slumgirl Dreaming. Delacorte Press, 2009.
[lvii] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p. 21.
[lix] Jeffrey Sachs. The End of Poverty. Penguin, 2005.
[lxi] Robert Pear, “Number of Children Living in Poverty Drops Sharply, Census Burear Reports,” New York Times, September 16, 2014.
[lxii] Paul Buchheit, “The Six-Step Process to Wipe Out the Poor Half of America,” Common Dreams, December 15, 2014.
[lxiii] “Hunger in America,” Hunger Notes, 2015.
[lxiv] Robert Reich, “Why There’s No Outcry,” Robert Reich blog, January 25, 2014.
[lxviii] “Mind, Society, and Behavior, World Bank Development Report 2015”