Young people have long been incubators for radical thought. Just ask sitting Rep. John Lewis, who before entering politics, spent his early twenties mobilizing young people to join the movement for civil rights. Students who participated in those early demonstrations were independent but young enough to afford to get into some “good trouble,” Lewis noted in his 1998 memoir, Walking with the Wind. Because they were untethered to the rippling consequence an older person might face, the students were the ideal voices to amplify the harsh realities of the current state of the union (or more often, the lack thereof).
History shows, however, that students in particular are not great institutional navigators. The ambition of their ideas is often impeded by bureaucracy and stifled by generational divides. Lewis and his contemporaries encountered similar roadblocks in their dealings with the members of the old guard, especially those who were willing to make concessions on basic rights. The movement became more than tensions between black and white, but between the old generation and the new.
Still, the young people’s ideas are often, if not always, included in the bedrock of the new and improved institutions. Generally, to get to that point, there had to be some palatable, possibly sanitized, moderate brokering the big demands on their behalf.
At the insistence of whichever institution, that fire, that passion, that impatience which defines youth, does not fare well in areas of discussion and compromise. Radical ideas are defined by their very refusal to be compromised. But unfortunately, the way progress has always been made, whether it began at the hands of violent revolution or “bloodless” transfers of power, is in small steps along a long path, littered with small victories or disappointing compromise, all in the name of progress.
Youth is not the answer, but it’s an essential part of the solution.
The influence of student and activist-led ideals is already apparent in the 2020 presidential election cycle. The early competitive landscape has largely been shaped by a next-generation agenda: a policy dedicated to combating climate change is non-negotiable, failure to address the student-loan crisis reads as economic illiteracy, and committing to gender equality or racial diversity is no longer an exciting differentiator but a necessary parity.
At a private fundraiser last month, presidential candidate Kamala Harris made a pointed disavowal of “the White House’s current occupant,” noting that prior to becoming president, Donald Trump never really had power. Now that he does, he has no idea what to do with it, she said.
Harris compared his (lack of) experience to the early days of her career, when she was just a 22-year-old prosecutor. She was forced to quickly understand the power that could be wielded by her own hand. With a swipe of a pen, she had the ability to change someone’s life with the sentencing of a misdemeanor, she said. A few short years later, she could charge someone with a felony and send them to prison. That was power, she said, and it was meaningful.
Harris’ story was striking because of its rarity — young people are seldom afforded institutional power of this magnitude, as an individual working within a system that can shape the lives of others. Most often, though, their work is done from the outside.
Just look to Alaa Salah, a Sudanese engineering and architecture student, who was catapulted to the uniquely modern form of anonymous-recognition when an image of her giving an impromptu speech from the top of a car in Khartoum, Sudan, went viral in global media coverage. The image — taken by local photographer, Lana Haroun — captured a moment in time that would have historically gone unnoticed: the revolutionary force of women. It helped to thrust the nation’s toppling of Omar Bahir’s 30-year regime into the mainstream. For months, the voices of Salah and her peers had been so loud that when forced into silence, all could still hear the echoes.
Like Harris when she experienced power for the first time, Salah is just 22-years old. But the power she’s wielding couldn’t be more different. She is dressed in a thobe, a cotton robe worn by professional women in the workforce, a nod toward being a modern working woman, empowered but still deferential to her culture. The scene itself is symbolic of the presence of this heritage: traditional and modern, elder and youth, past and future.
The spirit of that revolutionary heritage, driven by youth movements and activists, is imminent around both the world and diaspora. From student-led efforts to equitably rectify the stains of apartheid in South Africa, to civil insurrection and political demonstrations in Venezuela, young people demand that we ambitiously imagine what is possible in our lifetimes. Though they may dissent from one another on the method of making change, there is one paramount goal shared: the commitment to the creation of a better future than the one promised to them.
In all fairness to the critics, our society does place an undue premium on youth. The new-millennium obsession with “30 under 30” lists props up young professionals on a pedestal before their ideals are contested. Glowing magazine covers profiling the college-aged wunderkind are pervasive within the aspirational marketing landscape. Social media celebrates prodigious displays of young talent, rewarding people with influence or recognition that historically would have taken a lifetime to attain.
After decades of this fascination, we might finally be seeing the glimmer of youth’s shine dim. It’s finally starting to sink in that maybe a nineteen-year-old with no lab experience should not be at the helm of a multi-billion dollar biosciences company. Or, that the social networking site created by college hackers to rate hot girls was not, in fact, the Greatest Invention of All Time. And perhaps, it was because we allowed these things to run themselves that they eventually ran wild.
Young people are often unable to fully conceive of power — and getting punished for abuses of your small doses bestowed power is the foundation of “growing up.” Or, more accurately, “maturing.” Maturity is the cognizance when one abuses the power endowed by freedom of words, agency, and choice — there are consequences and externalities that extend beyond the actor and its beneficiaries.
To exalt the idea of a very young leader is to fall into our old traps and to miss the point
This brings me back to youth movements, and the ways they revolutionize our ideology from the outside-in, or upend our institutions from the bottom up. To exalt the idea of a very young leader is to fall into our old traps and to miss the point.
Age limits were placed on the presidency, for example, for this reason exactly. Not necessarily to slow the process of generational change (though it definitely helps), but to provide a minimum period in which a person can build a demonstrable record over time. While an older person taking on the demanding office has its obvious disadvantages, the overwhelming benefit is this track record — a veritable record of where they stood on issues, whose interests they advanced, what causes they championed at the inflection points leading up to this moment .
Quite simply, there is no substitute for decades of experience, but true leaders — good leaders — know the value and understand the importance of intergenerational coalitions and community. They are valued for their ability to find the common ground in the midst of moving forward, looking backward, and imagining a future beyond the scope of our lives and our children’s lives. A bright future reaching into forever — and even after that.