From Hong Kong to Chile, young people are rising up to fight injustice and inequality. Their elders should be grateful
A spate of large-scale street protests around the world, from Chile and Hong Kong to Lebanon and Barcelona, is fuelling a search for common denominators and collective causes. Are we entering a new age of global revolution? Or is it foolish to try to link anger in India over the price of onions to pro-democracy demonstrations in Russia?
Each countrys protests differ in detail. But recent upheavals do appear to share one key factor: youth. In most cases, younger people are at the forefront of calls for change. The uprising that unexpectedly swept away Sudans ancien regime this year was essentially generational in nature.
In one sense, this is unsurprising. Wordsworth expressed the eternal appeal of revolt for the young in The Prelude, a poem applauding the French Revolution. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven! he declared. Wordsworth was 19 years old when the Bastille was stormed.
Yet while younger people, in any era, are predisposed to shake up the established order, extreme demographic, social and political imbalances are intensifying present-day pressures. It is as if the unprecedented environmental traumas experienced by the natural world are being matched by similarly exceptional stresses in human society.
There are more young people than ever before. About 41% of the global population of 7.7 billion is aged 24 or under. In Africa, 41% is under 15. In Asia and Latin America (where 65% of the worlds people live), its 25%. In developed countries, imbalances tilt the other way. While 16% of Europeans are under 15, about 18%, double the world average, are over 65.
Most of these young people have reached, or will reach, adulthood in a world scarred by the 2008 financial crash. Recession, stagnant or falling living standards, and austerity programmes delivered from on high have shaped their experience. As a result, many current protests are rooted in shared grievances about economic inequality and jobs. In Tunisia, birthplace of the failed 2011 Arab spring, and more recently in neighbouring Algeria, street protests were led by unemployed young people and students angry about price and tax rises and, more broadly, about broken reform promises. Chile and Iraq faced similar upheavals last week.
This global phenomenon of unfulfilled youthful aspirations is producing political timebombs. Each month in India, one million people turn 18 and can register to vote. In the Middle East and North Africa, an estimated 27 million youngsters will enter the workforce in the next five years. Any government, elected or not, that fails to provide jobs, decent wages and housing faces big trouble.
Numbers aside, the younger generations have something else that their elders lacked: theyre connected. More people than ever before have access to education. They are healthier. They appear less bound by social conventions and religion. They are mutually aware. And their expectations are higher.
Thats because, thanks to social media, the ubiquity of English as a common tongue, and the internets globalisation and democratisation of information, younger people from all backgrounds and locations are more open to alternative life choices, more attuned to universal rights and norms such as free speech or a living wage and less prepared to accept their denial.
Political unrest deriving from such rapid social evolution is everywhere. Lebanons WhatsApp revolution is a perfect example. Yet some protests, such as those in Hong Kong and Catalonia, are overtly political from the very start.