Waiting to be heard
Contrary to popular belief, it's not entitlement or narcissism or laziness that defines millennials. If anything, it's probably a sense of disillusionment that's a defining characteristic of this generation.
This is definitely true for countless young Bangladeshis who feel trapped, voiceless and hopeless for a myriad reason. But, can you blame them? They have inherited a society and an economy shaped by preceding generations that have let corporate greed run amok and facilitated the politicisation of fundamental institutions. Of course, there are things that we luckily didn't have to witness: horrors of large-scale wars and famines that generations before us have had to endure. But that doesn't mean we have been spared the ills of poor governance, a shrinking space for dissent, and the consequences of the absence of essential elements for a healthy, democratic society.
What is so ironic is that on the one hand, there is widespread acknowledgement of youth empowerment in political speeches, roundtable conferences and award ceremonies. But, on the other, the voices of the youth, when it comes to some of the most pressing national issues, are either missing, suppressed or blatantly ignored. Despite these obstacles, it's the "spoiled" generation of "entitled" kids—as many would like to call them—who have courageously risen to the occasion time and again to protest all kinds of injustices. They are the ones who took it upon themselves, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, to demand something as basic as road safety in the country. It was these same kids that protested against the school administration of Viqarunnisa in the aftermath of a student's suicide. This is the same generation of students who tirelessly continue to fight for space and their democratic rights in the country's premier public university.
How are we to believe that the voices of the youth really matter when their demands have simply gone unheeded? Our roads are not any safer. Children continue to be abused in educational institutions. And educational spaces remain in the grip of student wings of political parties. But despite these odds, the resilient youth haven't budged; they are still at the forefront of movements and protests demanding change.
A tendency to buy into comfortable myths has also led to the marginalisation of young voices. One of these myths is that young people are disinterested in politics—again, simply not true. This has only served to legitimise the lack of youth representation in the media and in policy decision-making. There are hordes of young people who are just as concerned about elections and refugee crises and the climate of investment as seasoned politicians. So, why are their voices missing in op-ed columns and policy decision-making? (Although an increasing number of young people have begun to pen their thoughts in newspaper columns, it's not nearly enough, and an overwhelming proportion of writers belong to cohorts of bigger age groups.)
I can think of two reasons. One, they have learnt from past experience that their needs and concerns do not matter. It's the elites wielding political influence that will eventually overpower them. Combine that with a palpable sense of fear, it is no wonder that they choose silence over free expression. Two, in a society where "wisdom and experience" are associated with those who are older and therefore wiser, the voices of the youth can easily be drowned out because their views and perceptions are not considered as credible. Also, there seems to be little effort to try and engage young people at the grassroots in public decision-making which means that national policies are being designed for them, not by them.
For more than a decade now, Bangladesh has been witnessing the emergence of a demographic dividend, i.e. more people of working age than non-working age, the so-called window of opportunity, which will start to disappear by 2040. And there is no better time than now to make significant investments in human capital, especially in education and healthcare, if we are to utilise the potential of this large segment of young population and attain meaningful economic growth. Without adequate youth representation in policymaking, we risk leaving out the needs and demands of a large chunk of the population whose skills and intellectual development will undoubtedly decide the fate of the country in the coming decades. Frustration and hopelessness are already brewing among many faced with an economy of jobless growth, unable to find suitable employment, and among employers disillusioned with the low level of skills of candidates in the market. So, before stamping out the views and concerns of the twenty- and thirty-somethings from policy decisions, we should perhaps remember that it's the millions of young people who will be affected most.
All this rhetoric about youth empowerment will continue to ring hollow until and unless we make genuine attempts to give the youth a platform to voice themselves and to participate in conversations and policymaking. The fact that we have seen so many protests spring up lately, led by young people from all walks of life, isn't a good sign. It only points to the fact that there's simply no outlet for them to be heard because no one's listening.
Nahela Nowshin is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.