We are struggling to get out of bed, but we still demand a seat at the table

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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[JEF Europe]

This article is part of our special report Young Europeans take federal Union into their own hands.

While the coronavirus pandemic has left a scar on an entire generation of young people’s mental health; a youth-led political simulation game has exposed the failure of governments to support its young people.

Rebecca Gaff is a Project Assistant at the Young European Federalists (JEF Europe).

Y-FED: Europe is what we make of it

‘This is what I think of your European federation’, a young participant representing a far-right political group stands up and rips his voting card in half, following the adoption of the amended legislation on the European Green Deal.

As part of the 22-month long youth-led project ‘Y-FED: Europe is what we make of it’, currently being implemented by the Young European Federalists (JEF Europe), the simulation game of a large-scale model European federation is the largest and most ambitious event of the project.

The simulation game requires young participants from all over Europe to step into the shoes of decision-makers, analysing legislative texts through the lens of their assigned political group and/or Member State. This makes for an interesting game: young people are pushed to think about a set of issues outside of their own worldview and, in the process, better understand the democratic machine into which legislative proposals enter.

This is what Y-Fed participant, Robert Schuppan, describes as ‘‘subtle-politics’’, pointing out that ‘‘it does not matter as much whether you are able to concede and deliberate on the content of the bill, but rather ones’ strategic skill to bend the procedural rules to the best of their ability and to create the (from their opinion) best result’’.

If the event served to show anything, it demonstrated that the ability to critically evaluate any given data through a variety of competing perspectives, to effectively communicate in a multicultural and multilingual space, and to exercise compassion and compromise is not a skill-set reserved only for adults with 30 years of experience under their belt. Yet, young people remain a portion of society which is rarely listened to, or actively ignored, especially when they are not yet at voting age.

According to the Youth Progress Report 2021, if the world were a country, 55.3% of young citizens would be underrepresented in politics and would face barriers in accessing their personal rights.

This age-bias within the decision-making process perpetuates a noxious cycle. Cyprien Bettini, another Y-FED participant, feels as though youth activists are shouting into the void, ‘‘for the last few years, I have seen more and more young people advocating for a better representation of their generation’’, he continues ‘‘nowadays, politicians are telling that young people are lazy and do not care about politics. […] And for many who tried, they quickly abandoned when they felt that their actions had no impact on society. In other words, the older generations are still reluctant to yield power to younger ones.’’

The ‘‘proper means’’ for youth activism

Reflecting on what the model simulation taught him, Cyprien concludes that, if equipped with the right tools and support, young people can be the force society needs to prosper, ‘‘From my perspective, Y-FED participants have sent a clear message to policymakers: young people can still understand politics and produce change if they are given the proper means.’’

Yet, the ‘‘proper means’’ have never been more compromised than in our current global context. Many young people no longer have the ‘‘proper means’’ to survive, never mind participate in politics.

The large-scale model simulation coincided with the publication of a new study by the European Youth Forum on the impact of the ‘‘pandemic scar’’, a term used to describe the adverse socio-economic wound borne by the youth of today as a consequence of the global pandemic.

The study was divided into the three key areas where young people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: employment, education and mental health.

With youth unemployment on the rise, young people are struggling to support themselves during the pandemic and beyond. One young participant of the study observed, ‘‘students were the first to get fired because the owners were keener on firing young people than those who are in higher functions’’. As the study points out, periods of inactivity, an inability to become financially independent or put a university degree to use, all produce a collateral ‘‘scarring effect’’ on young people that extends into later life.

One of the most concerning parts of the study is the pandemic-induced education loss on marginalised youth, who are already massively underrepresented in the decision-making process. With the shift to digital education, young people from immigrant heritage backgrounds highlighted that digital learning was not accessible for them. One young refugee remarked that many families from the refugee community cannot afford the transition to digital education, ‘‘with everything switched online, families with maybe five children or four children that are in school are hoping on or banking on, your Mum’s one phone that she has’’.

The link between education loss and unemployment to mental health is bidirectional, meaning that poor mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic is also likely to worsen their employment and educational prospects after it. The study showed that nearly two-thirds of young people are now affected by mental health issues. The so-called ‘‘laziness’’ of youth, then, is symptomatic of a much wider concern— declining mental health.

Towards a youth-inclusive recovery

With rapidly deteriorating mental health, the ability for young people to build a fulfilling and secure future for themselves is forecast to be one that only a select and privileged few can bank on.

Concerningly, the European Youth Forum study identified no responses from national policy-makers to support young people’s mental health during and beyond the pandemic. In fact, only 12 of 1,283 policy measures identified across the EU-27 countries and the UK target young people in general.

This self-perpetuating cycle only disempowers youth more: the more the youth are excluded from politics, the more they bear the brunt of its negative consequences.

It is extremely clear that our governments need to act today to deliver a youth-inclusive recovery, paying particular attention to digital accessibility for marginalised youth, increased income support and social protection, and promoting a more holistic approach to mental health which takes socio-economic factors into serious consideration.

Young people may be struggling to find the motivation to get out of bed, but giving them a seat at the decision-making table is an alarm clock that demands to be heard.

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