From vulnerable or dangerous to contributors and reformers:

How to refocus the conversation and the risks of not doing so.

Young people discussing civics engagement at a CCYP young leaders consultation

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of risk management people about diversity and how risk management is coping with it. Some might consider this a left field topic for me to speak on, and others may be questioning my connection to diversity or risk.

From my perspective the connection is more obvious if you take a big picture view of the topic and consider the risks for society if we continue to systemically treat our young citizens as ‘less than’ or ‘unimportant’ and not involve them in decisions that impact on them.

If we want better decision making, more representative governance structures, inclusive workplaces and cutting edge thinking then we must engage with young people at all levels. If we want to see engaged young people who transition to adult life feeling prepared, who have a strong identity and a sense of hope and optimism for the future then we must engage with them. They offer a diversity of perspectives and thinking and if we don’t include them in our thinking about diversity then we face a number of new individual community and business risks that must be addressed.

For community to not develop the skills of tomorrow and for business to not engage young people as stakeholders, it’s a risk. I have come to this opinion through reflecting on my many conversations with leaders, bureaucrats, advocacy groups, non-government organisations, unions, academics, creative industries and sports groups on children and young people’s place in society. As you might expect views were mixed.

My overall impression is however that children and young people are seen by most adults as either vulnerable and requiring care and protection or dangerous and requiring adult control. This flip flop between vulnerable and dangerous is however doing our children and young people a great disservice and is not the picture I get from them. They are telling me that they want to contribute, to be included, to share their views, to work alongside adults, to learn from their experience and to share their thinking.

Our children are living in some of the most volatile, uncertain and complex times in history, they are forming their identity in the midst of a maelstrom of mixed messages about who they are, and where they fit. This vulnerable or dangerous message is dominant. Children and young people are rarely portrayed as competent contributors, stakeholders and citizens. Their future value, as adults seems more important than their present status as children. This means they have few meaningful opportunities to have a say on issues that affect them.

Young people are also worried that if they don’t get to contribute in this way then they won’t learn the ‘adult’ skills they need. They are an experiential generation. They are hard wired for hands-on learning and doing it themselves. Therefore if they don’t get to experience being involved in the institutions and systems of democracy, leadership and community now, they may not value them in the future. Young people will not learn by osmosis and they won’t value things just because previous generations have. This generation needs to be connected, engaged and participate; if they don’t get these opportunities then this is a risk for us. Through participation children and young people develop greater awareness of their rights, improved self-confidence as well as heightened self-esteem and leadership skills.

This participation extends to children and young people’s relationship with business. Many conversations in regards to business relate only to consumer protection and legal age of consent and labour laws. These are important topics but we also need to look at young people as consumers of goods and services now and in the future, as citizens impacted by business and marketing decisions. We need to look at them as brand ambassadors able to influence sales and productivity of business through purchasing power and product reviews.

This relationship with business has grown in recent years as trust in government and public institutions has reached all-time lows. Young people have been growing up amidst scandal and crisis in major institutions, including religion, sports, banking, and government. It is not surprising therefore that who they ‘trust’ has shifted and trust has become a major currency for business.

October 2017 — some young people that helped work on a CCYP video to celebrate International Day of the Girl

Young people will reward business as long as the business remains trustworthy i.e. how the business behaves and lives its values and where they stand on things like LGBTQI issues, racism, child exploitation and fair treatment of workers.

Smart business realises this relationship and will look to maintain relationships of trust with young people and understand their motivations and values. They must develop relationships with them and include their thinking and diversity of views in all aspects of business, leadership, strategy and operations. This requires a genuine belief that young people are capable as contributors, innovators and reformers who can help take on thinking to a new level.

I have been asked for practical examples of what participation and contribution of young people in business could look like. In the governance space young people have suggested that ideas like bringing young people onto boards are probably not the best ways to include them. They have said that “old fashioned” procedural boards aren’t that appealing. Perhaps however a ‘virtual board’, or ‘smart board’ where the big values based/cultural decisions that a governance board are making are put to a group of young people who consider the issues and debate the decision. They can provide their deliberations and outcomes to the board as part of the governance decision making process. These young people would be bound by codes of conduct and confidentiality like others but they could meet, debate and decide in their own space and time. They could make a significant input, without the restrictions of having to physically be there.

We are looking for partners from the business community who we could support and work with to trial a pilot to develop the ‘smart boards’ idea.

We could also look at ideas like reverse mentoring where CEO’s and executive teams could be mentored by young people who have vastly different experiences, views and opinions that can influence leadership practices and decision making. Shifting some old power dynamics and embracing new thinking could be a relatively easy way of refocussing the conversation from vulnerable or dangerous to contributors and reformers.

Implementing a change to enable the mainstream participation of children and young people in decisions about their lives, involves a profound and radical change, both in the status of children in our community and in the nature of relationships between adults and children. Businesses that look long term at where its workforce will be in the next ten years — engaging young people and working in the community will see that the flip side of risk is opportunity. We need to start believing in children and young people as capable citizens who are able to meaningfully contribute to the decisions that impact on their lives.

Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Friday 27th July 2018