Youth Are The Worst Change Makers

According to an argument in Woroni’s last issue, young people are the “major domestic players” in poverty reduction and climate change activism. This statement is blatantly false. I’d wager the evaluation budget for a small AusAid’s project is larger than all the money youth groups have ever raised for “poverty reduction”. And youth groups do not “control the message” on these issues! For starters, more people read editorials in the Murdoch press than the Youth Climate Coalition’s blog.

There are two key reasons why young people are a weak force for social change:

  1. Young people know nothing

Youth barely have any education, so how can we make a meaningful contribution to the resolution of complex problems?

Perhaps we inform ourselves? Nope. Youth do not “ask questions when we don’t know something” because we are so certain we know everything. Any tutor can give you a ten minute rant about how undergraduates have too much conviction and not enough humility regarding their opinions.

Young people are reluctant to educate themselves when we can get publicity instead. Despite ”eating lots of sugar”, youths do not “digest vast amounts of information”, we gloss over it because it is too taxing. For example, youth campaigns for “action” on climate change without first being familiar with what cost/benefit analyses suggest is the most effective response to likely threats.

Older people are more likely to have education and knowledge, and they are not desensitised. Listen to any talk by William Easterly or Bjorn Lomborg and you’ll instantly see they care passionately about their fields; they’ve simply recognised that resolving complex issues takes sustained effort, not a YouTube video.

  1. Young people have no influence

Youth groups have no access to power, and even when their executive gets a photo opportunity with the PM they cannot arrive with a convincing articulation of the problem they want tackled or how to resolve it. This is because such articulations require expertise to create and even more expertise to see implemented.

But perhaps they can create momentum? Hardly. What was the impact of the last batch of “marginalised” middle class kids sent to the 3rd world by YGap? What did the people doing Yoga on the opera house actually want? These campaigns are so devoid of substance they fail to even raise awareness.

The enthusiasm of young people to change things for the better is admirable, but we do not have “awesome power”; to suggest so is disingenuous and misinforms youth about the realities of social change in a complex world. We need more informed, slow burning, committed champions. Ego massages don’t help this happen.

In our democracy, influence typically goes to those who have made the effort to become authorities – like Ross Garnaut. This is a good thing. It is counterproductive to have discourse controlled by people who know very little. Becoming an agent for change thus starts with getting educated, not with “activism”.

The author blogs at