Its relevance at stake, UN reaches toward a new generation

By Sally Ho

The Associated Press

At the United Nations this week, the pandemic-era rules of engagement for General Assembly week are strict. Entourage sizes are tightly regulated, and there are no exceptions for kings, presidents or other “excellencies.” Yet somehow, in the middle of it all, the U.N. made room to fully embrace the diplomatic soft power of seven young Korean pop stars.

While the mega-popular BTS may croon that they don’t need “Permission to Dance,” the decision to allow the K-pop band to both give a serious speech to world leaders and film a sunny new music video at the U.N.’s distinctive headquarters was another of the many signs that the elders are ready — eager, even — to turn to young people for diplomacy and relevance.

In this era of kid icons and social media activism, the contrast was evident: globally cherished musical juggernaut fronted by the youthful South Korean men in perfect makeup on one hand, and the famously bureaucratic — stodgy, even — 76-year-old diplomatic institution built in the aftermath of WWII on the other.

The paradox was captured by Trevor Noah, the millennial late-night talk show host: “Old people were probably watching this, like, ‘What the hell is a BTS?’” he said. “And young people were watching it, like, ’What the hell is the U.N.?”

In his General Assembly opening address on Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres practically scolded world leaders for disappointing young people with a perceived inaction on climate change, inequalities and the lack of educational opportunities, among other issues.

“Some 60% of your future voters feel betrayed by their governments,” Guterres told the gathering of world leaders. “We must prove to children and young people that despite the seriousness of the situation, the world does have a plan and the governments are committed to implementing it.”

Rather than initiating a sentiment, Guterres clearly was channeling one that already exists. Other world leaders from Slovakia to Maldives, Latvia to Costa Rica took a similar conciliatory tone toward the estimated 1.8 billion human beings aged 10 to 24 — a cohort that the United Nations claims is the largest generation of young people in the history of the world.

“A new generation has grown up in the last 30 years,” said Latvia President Egils Levits. “In Latvia, like elsewhere, youth are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and about disinformation. They want to build inclusive societies where people of all generations, backgrounds and communities can feel included — not only formally, but in practice.”

To this end, Guterres also announced the creation of a new U.N. Youth Office to “bridge the generational divide” in global affairs. While details are sparse on the actual functions and budget of this new office, it is designed to tackle issues distinctly tied to the activism of people between the ages of 15 and 29, including climate change and worldwide inequities.

“If we want to ask what kind of world do we want to have, 15 to 29 is kind of the age that’s doing it,” said Connie Flanagan, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies youth activism. “Those are the years when you’re taking stock of your life. And as a result, you’re taking stock of your world.”

Flanagan said the United Nations must find a way to include young people in initiatives but not tokenize them, and in the process harness the strengths of late adolescents and early adults, who are generally less jaded about the pace of change and more collaborative and eager to make it happen.

“Whatever the motivation may be, it’s good they want to remain relevant with young people,” Flanagan said. “It’s always hard for people who have power to give up power.”

The new office will be an expansion of the current U.N. youth envoy’s work, which has been slowly building up over the past decade just as a generation of young people have established their agency online — earning corporate deals as entrepreneurs, developing loyal fans as entertainers and spearheading social movements, often using just their words, charisma and smartphone.

The current appointed envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake said young luminaries like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg have brought mainstream visibility to young people’s agenda, and social media has democratized the work of activism and what it means to influence public policy.

Yousafzai was a Pakistani schoolgirl when she was shot in the head for advocating for girls’ access to education, and the Swedish Thunberg has been an outspoken — and sometimes confrontational — force on climate change. Both were teenage girls when they, to much fanfare, addressed the United Nations in recent years.

By paving the way for other young people to take on weighty issues, Wickramanayake said, the two have also helped shatter preconceptions that young people lack experience to deal with world leaders and expertise on issues like education or the extremes of climate change.

“Having those icons with really global outreach and also the power to reach out to the world’s most powerful people have destroyed those stereotypes … about young people having leadership positions and being able to lead movements,” said Wickramanayake, who at 30 years old is the youngest person in Guterres’ cabinet. She was first hired at 26, making her the youngest person ever to serve in the top ranks of the secretary-general’s administration in the history of the United Nations.

The sensibility is spreading. In Denmark, a children’s nonprofit on Tuesday also convened 20 “delegates” between the ages of 11 and 16 years old from across the globe to deliver a manifesto to the United Nations. They called themselves the “Children’s General Assembly” — an initiative sponsored in part by the Lego toy company — and discussed a range of issues from children’s rights and bullying to refugees and development goals.

“If you really want to do something about (injustice), it has to start with you,” said Mankgara Maime, a 16-year-old girl from Johannesburg, South Africa, who participated in the Denmark presentation. “You can’t feel sorry about them and not think about how to help.”

There is already evidence that this week may prove to be a milestone for the U.N.’s engagement with young people.

Nearly a million people tuned into the U.N. YouTube channel livestream on Monday to watch BTS discuss young peoples’ resilience, COVID-19 vaccines and the earth’s well-being. To date, that BTS music video — which could easily be mistaken for a U.N. promotional reel — has 16 million views on the same channel. The U.N. institution itself has just 1.7 million regular subscribers.

“I’ve heard that people in their teens and 20s today are being referred to as COVID’s lost generation, that they’ve lost their way at a time when they need the most diverse opportunities,” RM, the leader of BTS, said in their speech. “But I think it’s a stretch to say they’re lost just because the paths they tread can’t be seen by grown-up eyes.”