Taking youth seriously
Intergenerational solidarity at the global heart of shaping a digital compact
“If you–people of a certain age–would make some effort to just stay in touch with sort of basic, modern-day events, then your kids wouldn’t have to take these drastic measures.”
Billions of young people will be dealt digital cards that people of a certain age are currently shuffling. A Global Digital Compact, widely recognized as “the highest-level-capturing of political will so far in terms of a comprehensive view of the digital world,” is in the making, and it misses a critical consideration: the vast majority of doing the capturing are not young. Consequently, it is plausible that we, the people of a certain age, do not have the slightest idea what the youth want, yet are building digital infrastructures that future generations might not trust to use.
Intergenerational solidarity should be anchored in the duties of today to not deprive future populations of their prospects for wellbeing. That policymakers “should consider the wellbeing of existing people and of people who do not yet exist” (Broome, J., 'The well-being of future generations' 2016) constitutes the premise of the sustainable development paradigm. This premise is challenged when the people of a certain age feel emboldened to chart the course of the future without the young people who constitute the generations to come.
Equity, youth, and technology share a common charge: they are not static. Equity is a constantly developing, shifting, and multidimensional phenomenon that must inform and evolve the policies of the sustainable development paradigm. Similarly, young people’s challenges, needs, and priorities are ever-evolving. Youth are increasingly heterogenous with multiple intersections of identity, including through the lenses of disability, gender, forced migration, and digital exclusion. Finally, technology is a dynamic function of several interacting domains, such as market, culture, and laws.
All this is to say that building an equitable digital future is fantastically complicated, including understanding the values upon which the next generations will anchor their wellbeing. Policymakers are at risk of conceptualizing false hypotheses of what might matter tomorrow; within the UN alone, staff who are thirty years old or younger stands at only 2.5%.
UNICEF’s commitment to intergenerational solidarity stems from core principles that technology:
- Affects children’s rights. Digital solutions are not neutral and can amplify positive and negative structural realities.
- Should be designed with the user.
- Can be an instrument of power: it can be devised in a way that gives or takes it away.
- Is (still) incapable of setting its own goals, and humans (still) maintain agency over its design.
Contributing to global consultations of the Global Digital Compact process with the youth, UNICEF polled nearly 80,000 people from low- and middle-income countries; more than 80 per cent of the respondents were under the age of 34. Among those surveyed, 41 per cent primarily worry about how technology will change the world. Only 28 per cent feel they have control over how technology will impact their lives over the next decade.
These numbers should put anyone involved in digital transformation on high alert. The lived expertise of young people must be valued to not only question our digital future choices, but also to provide their own. How can we assume that next generations will readily agree to use digital public infrastructure that we are so eagerly building for them, but so often without them?