Don’t show disdain for youth -- cooperate with them

May 22, 2011, Sunday/ 12:19:00/ AYŞE KARABAT

If you repeat a word too many times, it loses its meaning, and this country is full of those kinds of words, one of which is “youth.”

They are everywhere; the lucky ones are at schools and at universities; some of them are working, but most of them are spending their time finding a job. The young men are trying to prove that they are men with all kinds of odd behavior, while most of the young girls feel they are imprisoned at home. Despite the fact that there is a national day for them, May 19, everybody pretends they are talking about them; they are the majority of the population but youth are not visible.

Turkey has one of the youngest populations in the world, with about 20 million people between the ages of 15 and 30. About 60 percent of the total population of Turkey is under the age of 30.

A 2008 UN report on Turkish youth indicates that after 15 years, about 70 percent of Turkey’s population will be of working age and that the working-age population will be increasing, though at a decreasing rate, until 2040. According to the report this is a golden opportunity, a one-off opportunity in a country’s history. It states: “If Turkey can give the right opportunities to its youth today, to invest in their education in order to prepare them for higher value-added jobs in the future, the demographic window of opportunity can be utilized effectively. But if this opportunity is mismanaged, unemployment, poverty and social unrest may lie ahead.”

So far, the indications are that this country is about to waste this opportunity.

The report, launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and titled “Youth in Turkey,” offers guidance on how employment, education and health policies for youth need to be reshaped to ensure that these policies are people-oriented and better prepare the country for the coming demographic challenges.

But in the three years since this report, we have not seen that much on the ground. Despite the fact that in the upcoming elections almost 5 million new voters will cast their preference, the political parties are not offering youth-oriented policies; they are just trying to dictate what youth should do.

When it comes to the subject everybody is willing to use big words, but all these words are missing the core of the issue. Developing an applicable youth policy requires the full cooperation of youth, and there is only one way to achieve success: let youth speak for itself.

Despite this golden opportunity, Turkish youth is facing many problems at varuiys levels. The unemployment rate for young people currently stands at 20 percent, almost twice the national average. According to the UN report, nearly 40 percent of them – almost 5 million people – are idle, neither working nor attending school.

Gender discrimination, curtailing the prospects of young women, has not been tackled with sufficient strength. The report says that special attention must be paid to these young people who are currently “invisible.” These include the 2.2 million young women who are neither in school nor seeking jobs, the physically handicapped, those who have given up hope of finding a job, juvenile delinquents and street children. Education does not mean finding a job for youngsters. Their special health needs remain unaddressed, too.

Under these circumstances trying to plan the future for them without being in touch with them will not bring any results. Even the most detailed plans to benefit from this golden opportunity will not fulfill its aim if youth is not actively participating in the process.

Not the “big guys” who consider youth as a “transitional period,” but the young themselves can really design a comprehensive policy of their own. This can be achieved only if they are given the opportunity to be active in politics at all levels, from civil society to universities, from local administrations to education.

This also requires a different mindset than the dominant one that we have now. Any approach perceiving youth as an instrument of a policy rather than the beneficiary of it is doomed to fail. To approach the young only as future workers will not bring any results, either, as long as the other needs of youth are not taken into consideration.

However the dominant perception about youth is based on biased values. “Grown ups” and most of the decision makers of this country have a tendency to see youth as “dangerous,” “selfish” and impossible. They have this perception because they are not able to see themselves and their mistakes through the eyes of youth. If they were able to listen to them, they would discover that youngsters for many valid reasons consider their “elders” as repressive, unable to solve problems and lacking in understanding. If they were able to listen they would also learn that youth is not apolitical but simply is thinking that the political realm is very old and not open to change.

Turkey does not lack the abilities and resources to design a real, comprehensive youth policy. But for it to happen, first there should be a dialogue mechanism between youth and policy makers. The only way to reach this point is to let the young have their own organizations.

When it is allowed once, everybody will see how easy it is to benefit from the golden opportunity.

If not, we will not only waste our time and opportunities but our youth, too.