Can the youth speak?

January 06, 2023 12:12
Photo: Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups

A specter haunts the way we think about the youth in our city.

The specter is a fundamental failure to take their agency seriously.

The most obvious means by which this failure manifests, of course, is the dearth of pathways through which the youth can access and engage with the powers that be. Despite the best attempts by some in the establishment, the government and power elite remain fundamentally enveloped by a veil of mystique that is oft-difficult to penetrate or pierce, especially for those who neither come from well-to-do backgrounds, nor are capable of navigating the complex quagmire of bartering and politicking that constitute the present state of Hong Kong politics.

The standard remedy, then, is one that calls for more consultation. But consultation with what ends? Consultation with what fruits? Can consultation alone truly transform and enable individual citizens – deprived of hopes and aspirations – to become active members of this polity once again? Could politics be de-politicised in a way that incorporates, as opposed to erases, the voices of those who beg to differ from the status quo? Consultation for the sake of procedural and nominal inclusion is little more than tokenism, at best.

Then there are more deeply rooted issues pertaining to socioeconomic agency. Individuals are unlikely to feel that they could be in control over their own lives – that they are in possession of the Nietzschean will to power – unless they are given a modicum of basic skills and equipment with which they can take on the challenges of everyday life. In practice, this looks like a decent shelter to live under, a reasonably mobile and dynamic job, and a salary that is not wholly consumed by exorbitant rents and/or extravagant mortgages. It also looks like diversifying our industries to ensure that youth need not follow well-trodden paths of law, medicine, or consultancy in order to earn a comfortable salary. Now that’s real agency.

True redress here must go above and beyond material welfare and housing subsidies. Yes – these mechanisms, these means matter as necessary components of a minimally decent life. Yet they are by no means sufficient. Many youths crave work and job opportunities, room and windows for self-expression, and the chance at leading innovation through transforming existing structures. These disruptive openings cannot materialised under economic structures that are both ossified and structurally obsolete, as well as captured by entrenched interests. Youth problems are social problems. Social problems are far more than just class problems.

I’d in fact go further, in arguing that the way we talk about our youths is inherently depriving them of the agency that deserves to be recognised and spotlighted on their part. We portray youths as needing “counsel” and “advice”, or that they are “in need of aid and money and funding and [insert random catchphrase that manages to gain thirty seconds of airtime”. The youths are always needy, and the more seasoned and experienced members of society there to “provide” and “help” the youths.

This whole set-up is a prime exemplar of innate infantalisation. We are infantalising the youth as we speak of their lacking these resources and “needing” our aid – and, in so doing, producing the very controlling images and stereotypes that undermine the self-confidence and capacities of our youth. If we want our next generations to lead, as opposed to follow; to guide, as opposed to blindly adhere, then it falls upon us to recognise their heterogeneity, their varying competences, and that not all youths are the same – some youths are more endowed and capable than others; some are more proactive than others. Whilst all youths matter, it is not the case that they are all equally powerful (or powerless). Society at large must learn to see youths as disparate, distinctive individuals with their own stories to tell and ideas to sell.

And it is on this note that I ask, in a quasi-Spivakian fashion, can the youth speak? We’ve had dozens of academics, columnists, politicians, and ‘political leaders’ seeking to shape the narrative – to define the “answers” before the questions are even put to them – concerning the youth. But where’s the youth in this all? Where are the 20 and 30 year-olds on panels over sustainability and international relations, the future of health and of work?

I trust that we must and should empower youths to lead, to step into positions of responsibility, and to shape and steer policy discussions on dimensions where their interests are acutely affected. I trust that we can do so without tokenising them or reducing them into “that young person we picked to meet the quota”. I trust that as a cosmopolitan city that is wounded – but not broken, Hong Kong can do much, much more in emancipating not just young individuals, but also the way we think and talk about them.

Let the youth speak for themselves. Let them ask the questions that are inconvenient and jarring. Let them disagree and dissent freely – provided that they do not perturb the fundamental social order. Let them be the necessary gadflies asking the probing questions that few others would dare posit! Let them be.

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Assistant Professor, HKU