The OECD's Power of Youth series showcases the perspectives and experiences of young people who are shaping the future. Exploring topics from gender equality and education to climate and careers, the series gives a voice to young advocates and activists who we met in different events, as well as members of Youthwise, the OECD's youth advisory board. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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My name is Miyu Sasaki and I am an art and literature student from Japan. In 2021, I served as an OECD Youthwise member. Reflecting back on my mandate, I can say that I am proud of how well my Youthwise peers and I would piece together our ideas and perspectives, regardless of our background, culture or home country. What united us was the fact that we were all young people trying to find our way in life and help others in similar positions. Participating in different OECD events over the last 11 months also made me realise that every perspective is welcome in the discussion on how we can improve our generation’s well-being and ultimately how we can reshape society. This realisation led me to question what exactly discourages young people from taking opportunities to voice their opinions and what we could do about that. I believe we need more places where young people’s voices are heard without prejudice, and a good starting point are classrooms.
To encourage as many unique perspectives as possible, I think schools should pay more attention to the nuances related to intersectionality and diversity. Schools are among the first places children are exposed to gender and minority inequality. They are also a place where children begin to compare themselves to others and notice socioeconomic differences. Looking back on my own experience in education, I realise that there were few women in positions of power at my school and discussions about diversity, accessibility and gender equality were rare. While female teachers tend to dominate pre-school and primary education, there are disproportionately more male teachers in tertiary education—a sector that is more respected and better paid. Furthermore, those with an immigrant background are less likely to become teachers. The lack of representation among teachers may mean that increasingly diverse student bodies cannot see themselves in the people teaching them and are by extension less likely to follow their path. In addition to gender equality and consideration for diversity, we must improve accessibility for students with disabilities. Disabled children have limited access to education in many countries, and I’ve personally witnessed that the topic of accessibility is often stigmatised. There is much work to be done in this area.
When we talk about climate change, youth unemployment or young people’s mental health in the digital age, the large-scale discussions often treat youth as one homogenous group. I believe that without education systems that embrace equity policies and frankly discuss how social categories such as race, class and gender overlap and create disadvantage, marginalised young people will continue to feel left out, discouraged to voice their opinions or aim for positions of power. Beyond education, OECD data shows that there is little youth representation in politics with 22% of members of parliament (MPs) aged under 40. When it comes to gender, only 31.6% of MPs are women across OECD countries. Minorities and marginalised groups are even less visible in the political sphere.
What can we do to address these issues?
First, to decrease the sociological and economic gaps, all young people must have equal opportunities in education. To dismantle the status quo in which mainly those with privileged backgrounds have access to tertiary education, we need to ensure all levels of education are free. In many countries outside of the European Union this proposal may sound radical, and the profit-seeking foundations of our societies push back against it. This is why young people must raise their voices and advocate for truly transformational policies.
Another way forward involves valuing teaching more as a profession. Forty-eight percent of younger teachers work with a limited contract; they are often overworked, increasingly so since the beginning of the pandemic. Such conditions make it more difficult for them to address issues like inequality and the lack of diversity. Saying that teachers should be valued is not to say that teachers should be stern, authoritative figures to be feared which, in my personal experience, only discourages young people from seeking change. It is that governments and society must value professionals in education in order to improve the quality of education and the teachers’ capacity to listen to young people, as well as implement recommendations from policy experts.
Young people often find role models and inspiration at school, whether from their teachers or their peers. If young people came to see that everyone could contribute to critical discussions in different ways, I am certain that they would feel free to voice their opinions more actively. Ensuring the classroom is a safe and accepting space where young people learn the beauty and freedom of open dialogue is but one way to nudge our society towards a more equitable and prosperous future.
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