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Many amongst the RSA Fellowship are concerned about youth empowerment. David Burns FRSA, Trustee of Peace Child International reflects on the empowerment agenda and the rise of generational friction.

When I was young the world seemed to be ruled by men over 80 whose names ended in ‘O’. At university in the seventies I had the opportunity to learn from Jack Goody and others from the great generation of social anthropologists about the lengths to which primitive societies will go to codify the relations between older and younger generations: generally, though not always, in the interests of the former.

New generations of social anthropologists have, for better or for worse, no appetite and no opportunity to conduct fieldwork on primitive societies; but our own society is just as full of these hidden codes.

We all know that the pincer movement of medical, demographic, technological and economic change is making generational friction more acute. This has become the elephant in every room. When was the last time you dared to say to anybody that he or she was too old to do something, or too young?

Take Strasbourg, my home for many years. Strasbourg has a university and a collection of European institutions. On the university side of the street, where I perform a modest pro bono role as treasurer of the popular education structure, Lucien Braun occupies a suite of offices in the main hall of the ‘Palais Universitaire’. Former President of the University, he is now President of the University Press and of the Popular University. He will be 90 this week. Lucien does a great job, is fighting fit, does it for free, and the institutions concerned do not have ageist provisions in their statutes; it would be foolish to propose that he retire.

On the other side of the hill so to speak, Bob Palmer FRSA was until recently a senior official in the Council of Europe (CoE): Director of Culture and Cultural and Natural Heritage to be precise. When Bob reached the CoE official retirement age they gave him a party and that was it. The rules. Bob is not noticeably less fit than Lucien, and not necessarily in a mood to retire, so he has moved off to continue his influential work in contexts where age does not act as a guillotine.

But that is not all. Bob was telling me recently about an ‘intern’ (sic) who was a very promising and energetic member of his staff; the kind of person who can get things done. He had excellent qualifications and so on. He was on his seventh internship in different organisations. He‘s 35 years old. But the CoE is shrinking. Our ‘young’ intern stands as little chance of being allowed to do something here as on the other side of the street.

The reader may be shocked to see me name names and give ages. But I don’t believe in ignoring elephants in the room. I’m 58, I’m me and I don’t care who knows it as long as we respect each other’s capacities. From my experience with Peace Child International (as if we didn’t all know it already) I know for a fact that many 20-year olds can write books, set up businesses and chair meetings. So why would your daughters or mine (MAs, mid-20s) be confined to book-stacking and photocopying whilst I (MA FRSA, pushing 60), my brother-in-law (MA FRSA, pushing 65) and my brother (MA FRSA, pushing 70) are all still giving instructions to others and offering people our opinions? Is there some ritual dance, some conch, some gift-giving ceremony that we have overlooked?

So there is the problem: how do we solve it? Well, first let’s focus on youth empowerment. That is not to ignore Old People Empowerment; but one thing at a time.

As a Fellowship we worry a lot about youth empowerment. Take a look at recent issues of the RSA Journal. The issue is often implicit in articles on other subjects, such as James Dyson’s remarks on engineering (Winter 2011); it is more prominent in the Trilling/Fadel article on skills (Summer 2012); in the same issue Tamara Erickson argues the case for how much young people can contribute. In Autumn 2012 Adam Lent and Madsen Pirie tackle the issue head-on using recent research data. Meanwhile anyone familiar with the RSA knows that it is a hive of young-person initiatives. But young people who come into direct contact with an organisation like the RSA are likely to be the privileged few. So what, if any, is the joined-up thinking in this area?

In the UK, we have the independent National Youth Agency and the government-led National Citizen Service initiative; in Europe, we have Council Resolution 2003/C 295/04 of 23 November 2003; the United Nations has its Youth Assembly, and even had its Youth Year. Youth empowerment is in fact an industry and a profession.

At Peace Child International we believe that the industrialisation of youth empowerment is not an entirely convincing institutional response to the elephant in the room. We need somehow to free up much more work of a non-automatable kind in which an expanding population can find a sense of purpose and contribution. And we need to encourage young people in considerable numbers to acquire the psychological reflexes of true empowerment: a belief that they are allowed to decide and do things, allied to a willingness to decide and do them in a sensible and non-conflictual way. When I meet (notably but not only through Peace Child) a young person who has broken through this particular glass ceiling, it is a very heartening experience.

PCI’s Be The Change Academies such as the one in Kisumu, Kenya, are pushing microfinance techniques to a new frontier. The perspective of tiny amounts of finance being used efficiently by youth workers, themselves in their twenties, to allow teenagers with training and support to set up their own businesses in attainable things like dressmaking and motorbike delivery (you have to be able to get your hands on a bike) is tremendously encouraging. There is a message that can spread here.

As current CEO David Woollcombe moves towards retirement, we are currently ramping up to recruit a CEO who can make as much impact with as much joined-up thinking as David has done in the last 30 years. If you know people of any age who could be right for this, point them our way. Well, perhaps not any age... let’s say under 80, and with a name not ending in ‘O’...


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