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Young Leaders – Not just a vehicle for the norms of yesterday

By Lauren Mason

This blog is adapted from a speech given at the event “Leadership in the Face of Global Challenges” held at the UK Mission to the EU in December 2023

Question: How can we prepare young leaders for global challenges?

I am sure everyone reading this is guilty of having said at some point “young people are the leaders of tomorrow” or “young people are the future”. 

The first thing that was drilled into me when I joined the European Youth Forum was that young people do not want you to think of them as merely a vehicle for continuing the norms set by the previous generation; they want you to care about their opinions now and take them seriously today.

For context, the European Youth Forum was set up in the immediate aftermath of the 1968 student protests across Europe. It now comprises more than 40 national youth councils from across Europe, including in Belarus, where young people are working in exile. It also brings together international youth networks like student unions, political party youth wings or the Scouts and Girl Guides.

We should all think more about what it means to be working with young leaders and the balance between the notion of preparing them to do great things as future leaders and accepting the fact that they are already doing great and important things now.


Perhaps the most well-known example of this is Greta Thunberg. When her “School strikes for climate” spread rapidly in 2018, the world realised that young people had important things to say about the present.

Of course climate change is one of the major global challenges that our society has to face – as are questions around the future of work, mobility, transport and digitalisation.

In these challenges, and in their policy responses, we know that some will impact young people in unique ways. Here it’s important to distinguish between lifecycle effects and cohort effects. Some challenges that young people face today are the same ones that our parents and grandparents faced: getting a good education, making the transition from education to the labour market, or getting a foot on the housing ladder. These are lifecycle effects. But there are also challenges that are particular to the cohort of young people today, the generation that finished secondary school during COVID, for whom digitalisation and AI are changing the labour market faster than they can get career advice, and where climate change and its effects put their entire future at risk. 


If we look at the global picture for a minute, we know that demographics in Europe are not reflective of the rest of the world. Globally, half of the world’s population is under 30 (52%). In Europe, it’s around 25%. That demographic picture has implications for how we make policy and how we make decisions. 

Incidentally, a recent study by the Allianz Foundation, found that 8 in 10 young Europeans are unsure about having children as they feel too anxious about the state of the world. 

So the proportion of youth voices is getting smaller and smaller every year, which means, I think, that we need to be proactive in making sure that those voices get into our political spaces. There are a few ways to do that.

Several youth organisations – including the British Youth Council – advocate for lowering the voting age to 16, to increase that electorate of young voices. 

But we must recognise that youth voter turnout is an issue. Voting feels old-fashioned and irrelevant for a lot of young people. The alternative then, if not many young people vote, is to get more youth voices into Parliament in a more direct manner.

Those who work with young leaders, particularly political party youth wings, are ramping up efforts to get younger candidates on party lists, especially for the upcoming European Parliament elections.

In the last elections in May 2019, less than 3% of MEPs were under 30. Actually the European Youth Forum found out that there were as many MEPs called Martin as there were under 30. With some luck, we might see that figure rise to 5% for 2024. 

Inter-Parliamentary Union’s statistics for the UK show that almost 4% of MPs are under 30 so it’s doing quite well comparatively. With a General Election likely on the cards for next year, and parties confirming their prospective parliamentary candidates, it’s a good time to remind parties to value and promote their talented young members.


Let’s come back to the notion of what it means to empower young leaders. Leadership has many traits. Often it seems that a lot of energy – and resources – go into training young people in skills such as public speaking, debating and campaigning. Essentially the kind of skills that help a young person get elected. 

But what happens when a young person takes power? They need to hire a team, plan budgets, and negotiate salaries. They need to select political priorities, navigate unexpected obstacles and learn when to compromise. These skills are often lacking from youth leadership programmes, but foundations – and political parties – should think about focusing leadership training on these aspects too.


If I can summarise, it seems two of the many possible answers to our initial question are:

  • We need to be better at involving young people now – with their energy and ideas, learning from their realities, for the benefit of decisions being taken today, not just tomorrow.
  • We need to ask whether we are training young people in the right skills to succeed as leaders and consider programmes which address the behind-the-scenes skills of leadership.

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