A recent subject on the CBC radio programme Ideas was the year 1848 - a year of revolutions across Europe that toppled dozens of monarchies and laid the constitutional foundations of modern states. The discussion touched upon the similarities between the political revolutions of 1848 and the cultural revolutions of 1968. Both movements were characterized by euphoria, unbridled optimism, and an overwhelming confidence in the capacity of young people to bring about social change.
The programme led me to ponder the potential for significant change in the current political climate, and in particular, the role of youth to enact such change. Unlike youth of previous generations, who were rallying either for political values or against events such as war, current "youth" activists tend to rally around the very fact that they are young, and as such, are discriminated against. Such discrimination is manifested in lack of power - economic, social and political - that young people hold in comparison to the "baby-boomer" generation. This is a significant point of convergence for young people, but is it an adequate platform for promoting substantial social change?
Young activists have been successful in creating political space for the "youth voice". They are often courted to represent "youth" on the board of directors of private foundations, on government advisory bodies such as Environment Canada's Youth Round Table, and as official delegates to United Nations conferences. There is also a growing demand for "youth" activists to educate the public on strategies for youth inclusion and "youth-friendly" processes in NGO, governmental and business structures. The emergence of visible and credible roles for youth within the political arena points to the success of operating as an identity group.
This process of recognizing collective disadvantage, organizing around a primary identity, and demanding representation strikes a familiar chord. "Youth" activism is following in the footsteps of feminism and other identity-based social movements. However, a platform based on issues of "youth" representation, voice, processes and identity has created its own problems.
The premise of such social movements is that "the personal is political." With day-to-day aspects of life representing a microcosm of larger oppressive forces, the power to make choices and changes resides in the hands of each individual activist. This moves the locus of political activism from challenging traditional political structures, such as the state, to the personal level. The result is a more fragmented, individualistic and dispersed movement for social change.
An identity-based approach calls on individuals to constitute their actions around a particular aspect of the self. The activist may be required to claim one aspect of her or his identity over another, such as race or gender, as a vehicle for action. …