Left holding the bag: Age should not dictate our responsibility for change

Commentary, Editorials

Youth is glorified as a time of great mobility, energy, and blissful ignorance. This has long been the case; our views of youth extend from the mythological (the fountain of youth, the philosopher’s stone) to the technological (alleged age-repelling products and Photoshop flattery). When we imagine the quintessential young person, some of us see her walking blithely along a row of trendy boutiques holding a compostable coffee cup: a perfect Instagram snapshot.

Afterward, Youth returns to her cramped living space, washes away the make-up, and skims another article about lazy, entitled “millennials” who aren’t buying houses or new cars. Brought up on the falsehood that success is the inevitable result of hard work, Youth is working harder than ever. But so far, she hasn’t reaped any tangible rewards, like the job security or the health benefits her progenitors enjoy.

On the one hand, youth is highly coveted: politicians scramble for the elusive “youth vote”; increasingly, businesses do the same for the youth dollar. Institutions attempt to pepper their ranks with youngish people. We laud youth accomplishments in “30 under 30” lists and bestow effusive praise on people who succeed early in life.

Conversely, youth are patted on the head, invited to the table only as a token representative of their peers, and their ideas are often disregarded. Why is it so remarkable to accomplish great things by the time one is 30? In my experience, it is because it is extremely difficult to achieve anything wading through the bureaucracy, discrimination, and dismissiveness in which our society is entrenched.

I started volunteering in the community in elementary school. By high school, I had a wealth of experience with local arts organizations, literacy initiatives, office and event assistance, and politics. I attended leadership retreats and workshops, and was part of leadership, arts, and community groups at school. I earned youth representative positions on two local society boards, one of which was a provincial initiative focused on municipal community-building. Yet I accomplished little in that capacity, and struggled with the frustration of being the token young person. These boards that verbally encouraged my success smiled generously at the ideas I brought to the table, nodded approvingly at my reports on the youth committee I spearheaded, and ultimately took no action on any of them.

Now an adult, I am still considered a “youth” under 30, and feel even more aware of the resistance of long-established institutions to new ideas, inclusiveness, feminism, environmental mindfulness, and experimenting with more sustainable social and technological systems.

I recently spoke on a panel where an older male organizer boasted of the event’s inclusiveness and supposed range of representation. I was the only woman, and the only young person. Before I spoke, it was asserted more than once that “now we would look at what young people are doing to change things.”

Why do we place the burden of change almost exclusively upon the young?

The people who should make the greatest changes, who have the greatest responsibility to participate in addressing the deeply ingrained flaws and injustices of our society, are those who benefit from those flaws the most. It’s so tiring to hear people at the top of social strata lauding youth for our contributions in a way that suggests we alone must bear the onus of creating a better world.

If that’s you, stop absolving yourself of the responsibility for change. Stop expecting that, without any effort from you, the least powerful and respected will claw their way forward, dragging the heavy chains of your deadweight behind them.