Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” However, in a world where most people believe that the system is broken, is that still the case?
The short answer: maybe, but only some young people believe it. Half of American teens ages 13 to 17 say they can make a difference in how the U.S. is governed, according to a new Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers campaign. By comparison, just over one in three American adults agree. American youth are also more optimistic than adults here about the future of their country and the world.
These results closely mirror the global trend, though teen peers in Brazil, India, Kenya, Mexico, and Nigeria are slightly more optimistic in their social and political influence.
Half of youth polled across 15 countries believe they can make a difference in how their country is governed, compared to 40 percent of adults. What’s more, young people in lower income countries are most idealistic that they can make a difference.
“They know that they live in a period of rapid change and that this presents a significant opportunity for them, their families, and their countries – especially if they can secure a good education,” says Meghann Jones, senior vice president, Ipsos Global Affairs. “The question is, how do we support them on making this vision a reality?”
Look no further than the March for Our Lives and #MeToo movements or recent surges in youth voter registration; the post-Millennial generation is taking their future into their own hands. Though this likely does not translate into immediate governmental change – keep in mind, most of this group is not yet eligible to vote – we can expect to see youth harnessing their power just in time for the 2020 presidential election.
Optimism in face of leaders not caring
Perhaps driving youth to believe they can make a difference is simply the desire to change the face of political leadership in their country. Just three in 10 youth globally, and slightly less in the U.S., believe that the political leaders in their country care about people like them. Just under half of American youth say their generation has it better than their parent’s generation. Among their biggest concerns are security, education and unemployment.
“Globally, young people are fed up with the status quo and demanding more from their leaders,” says James Stannard, associate director, Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute in London. “Dissatisfaction with the political establishment and the hope the next generation can fix things, is a common thread that binds together youth from all corners of the world.”
Parallels to the late 1960s
It could be easy for people to chalk up this optimism to the naiveté of youth. Yet this current wave of optimism has strong parallels to the late 1960s and early 1970. Students then were directly affected by the civil rights abuses, desegregation and the Vietnam War in ways that adults weren’t, says Kathryn Schumaker, assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma who teaches courses on social movements. The students “thought they had an imperative to speak out.” She sees a similar dynamic today with school shootings and the #MeToo movement.
An Ipsos/USA Today poll conducted in the months after the Parkland, Florida, shooting shows how deeply this anti-establishment streak runs among American youth. Nearly two-thirds of Americans ages 13 to 17 agree that “traditional parties and politicians” don’t care about them, and nearly half believe it will take a leader willing to break all the rules to fix America.
People could also say that social media plays a role in today’s youth activism. “But these ideas tend to be powerful on their own,” says Shumaker. “They circulate in social media, but they circulated in the past too. Ideas are powerful, ideas travel and young people are attuned to that and tap into that.”
So, can one group really change the world? It depends on who you ask, but the youngest generation of global citizens is certainly going to try.