Archive | 11:21 am

Coaches Corner: The Quest for Generational Solidarity, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Oct

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Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.   Franz Kafka

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.   Friedrich Nietzsche

I am the way a life unfolds and bloom and seasons come and go and I am the way the spring always finds a way to turn even the coldest winter into a field of green and flowers and new life.  Charlotte Eriksson

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.  Cormac McCarthy

Adolescence is like having only enough light to see the step directly in front of you. Sarah Addison Allen

As is so often the case now, there was an interesting, if sometimes uneasy mix of ages and age-related perspectives on display at the UN this week.

In the Security Council on Wednesday, current president South Africa led a good discussion on “Mobilizing youth towards silencing the guns by 2020” featuring three presenters (ages unknown but certainly not anywhere near their teens) who gave what most considered to be masterful presentations focused on the talent residing in young people across the African continent, the skills that are being cultivated in many quarters and that are increasingly impatient to find sufficient expression.

Youth briefers from the African Union, Uganda and Kenya skillfully pointed out the condition of “wait-hood” that many African youth feel trapped within, the sense that they are capable of more than their circumstances permit, forcing them too often to “hustle” as a precondition for being recognized, accepted, encouraged.  The Kenyan Peacebuilder was explicit in seeking “proactive” youth policies that resist “containing” the energies and aspirations of youth.  Recognize the good work we are already doing, she demanded, the responsibilities we already shoulder.  In a similar vein, the Ugandan youth representative noted that, as societies, we are getting more comfortable with the “language of participation” but not as much in identifying and sharing power.  He cited a certain kind of “exhaustion” from criticizing “war mongers” rather than engaging in peacebuilding, which he now believes is the “better way.”

As Peru rightly noted during this Council session, echoing the presentation by the AU Youth Advisor, we must all move beyond the flawed narrative and stereotypes that posits African youth as either instigators or victims of violence.  And as South Africa itself suggested, we must do more to release the “cultural expression” of youth as a contribution to peace and security, understanding that the creation and recognition of beauty is essential to peaceful societies.  Several Council members affirmed the need to take account of the diverse and altogether negative consequences for youth – including the many children considerably younger than these briefers – of armed violence and the trafficking in weapons and narcotics that often accompanies it.   As the Ugandan briefer rightly noted, war “turns everything upside down.” Violence isn’t by any means limited to conflict zones, but all violence has diverse and negative implications for the health, well-being and participation of youth, as of course if does for all in communities of conflict, those who participate directly and those who don’t.

Elsewhere in the UN, the Third Committee (human rights and social development) of the General Assembly also resumed its work this week, and one welcome feature of the initial social development- focused presentations was the presence of youth voices which, in many instances, punctuated this often dry segment of delegate statements with more passionate, impatient references to a world where sustainable development is not proceeding nearly quickly enough and is often not particularly “social” regarding achieved levels of inclusiveness.

The young people who spoke in Third Committee had many good ideas on promoting educational and employment opportunities for youth and, as Mexico’s youth delegate urged, “activities that promote a “just and democratic” society without discrimination.”   The Republic of Korea’s youth delegate garnered significant attention by proclaiming that, for her at least, “looking good” is not as important as “doing good.”  That same delegate, however, cited the many social development priorities, including employment, health and “marginalization,” for which youth have many suggestions and energies for change, suggestions which are too-often “heard but not listened to” by elders.

The youth in the Third Committee, much like those in the Security Council, did not represent what you would call a “random sampling” of their generation.  The UN tends to be highly-choreographed space and the voices given the floor were forceful, well-educated, on the older side of “youth,” and confident above all else. They rightly sought greater inclusiveness for their voices and recognition for the progress they are already making but in a manner that, ironically, seemed under-attentive to other dimensions of inclusiveness, including the aspirations of those younger than themselves and the needs and accomplishments of older persons also featured in that day’s Committee discussions.

Given this, it was the youth delegate from Thailand who made the biggest impact on me of all the young representatives we heard.  Not only did she make helpful distinctions between the “citizenship education” young people need and the “something less” they are likely to receive in formal classrooms, but she also referenced her chronological peers’ social responsibility in a kind and nuanced way, highlighting the commitment to “carry the torch” of sustainable development to succeeding generations.

This “carrying” is part of what we must locate if the elusive “intergenerational solidarity” called for during the week in this Committee is to be realized.  It’s not simply about resolving the “tug of war” between millennials and their elders.  It is more a struggle for the integration of aspirations across the human spectrum, from those taking their first steps to those breathing their last breath.  And beyond chronology, to open ourselves to the needs of those not in our own social groupings, to build more common interests that open safe spaces for migrants (as Norway’s youth delegate recognized)  and those (mostly other) persons habitually further from centers of policy influence than the youth speakers at the UN could possibly ever imagine themselves being.

Tendencies exist in our world now which impede the promotion of this highly-prized intergenerational solidarity: people who talk more and listen less than they think they do; people who judge the worth of “insider” groups by their best examples, and outsider groups by their worst; people keen to make too much of their own accomplishments and too little of the accomplishments of others. There is also the trend to be plaintiffs in only a limited, personal sense for the too-many ways in which people’s aspirations and ideas have been patronized or blocked altogether by those in authority; thereby abandoning the large majority of people (of all ages) to process the unsettling reality that leadership won’t fix what needs to be fixed and won’t let anyone else try to fix it either.

And there is a trend, one perhaps more toxic than the others, to “essentialize” groups of people, to blithely assume common characteristics for “youth,” or “women,” or “white men,” or “Mexicans” that tend to sweep away – often in a self-serving manner — the distinctive characteristics, aspirations, frustrations and failures that each brings to life, the unique “light” in others that we often can’t see because we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by our own erstwhile “brilliance.”

What has been clear inside and outside of UN conference rooms is the urgent need for an infusion of young energy, enthusiasm, determination, ideas and skills (perhaps minus the over-confidence and proliferation of Instagram photos).  Equally clear is that those of us who are older need to spend more time coaching and less time lecturing, coaching for character that encourages reliability and builds capacity to rebound from loss and failure; coaching in anticipation of long winters that eventually give way to a more bountiful spring; coaching others to “carry the torch” for generations to come rather than hording it’s light for themselves and their peer group; coaching that remains conscious of the need to “change the game” such that the mistakes of one generation are not simply camouflaged by the next under some clever new costuming.

My generation hasn’t always coached well; we have sometimes resisted too mightily getting off the playing field and allowing that space to be creatively occupied by younger others. But there is still time to fix this. We must start by recognizing that, literally and figuratively, it is “their time” now, albeit with many more young still to come, some already lying in wait, anticipating their own chances to be heard.  We older folks can surely do more to ensure that this “time” is well spent; that development becomes more sustainable and that social inclusiveness extends well beyond the age, race and social class of the “usual suspects.”  At this juncture in these unsettled times, this is quite possibly the best investment we can collectively make.