"Young people are at the frontlines of change – it’s time the older generations listened up"28. Apr 2023
Young people take more responsibility for our collective well-being than ever before, says Head of Ungdomsbureauet Anna Asghari. But society leaves no time for them to shape themselves as human beings
This spring, we launched our mission, ‘A Future where Young People Thrive,’ to design a future for a thriving youth. This interview is the first in a series of conversations where we’ll explore key themes and new ideas and perspectives on mental health and well-being among young people.
Whenever we ask young people how they’re doing, they seem to be doing worse. Some argue that we simply don’t have an appropriate language for talking about the challenges of life, while others that those challenges are – and always have been – a part of life. Nevertheless, research shows that a lack of thriving in adolescence can cause ripple effects that affect education, friendships, careers, health, and parenting well into adulthood. We’ve asked Anna Asghari, Head of Ungdomsbureauet, which works to engage young people in democracy, about what young people themselves are doing to change the dismal outlook for their future.
Anna, let’s look at the numbers first. In the most recent national survey among 16-24-year-olds, every third woman and every fifth man report that they are experiencing dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Are these data telling us the full story about how young people are doing today?
“There’ll always be the question of how you should research well–being scientifically. And obviously, a portion of young people in all generations have been unhappy. But it doesn’t change the fact that the numbers about the levels of unhappiness, stress, and anxiety among young people today are extremely consistent. Moreover, they correlate with data from the healthcare sector: We have never had so many young people in the psychiatric system. This is not to say that all young people are unhappy – but we must take this seriously.”
She believes that the way society and older generations’ understanding and approach to the challenges of youth are a major part of the problem.
"Typically, older generations will try to understand young people through the lens of their own youth - because that is what they know. But the reality for young people today is vastly different than for previous generations"
Perfecting your performance
Anna Asghari points to three factors contributing to a reality that may foster unhappiness.
“Firstly, there’s an abundance of life opportunities and choices for young people today. This is, in essence, a good thing if you have learned to navigate all those opportunities, to listen to yourself, and sometimes make difficult decisions. This type of formative education – learning to be attentive to yourself and others – has disappeared from today’s educational system. There is no longer time to think about the big choices and ask yourself what you really want.”
Anna Asghari believes this educational approach begins as early as the first school years and continues throughout our education.
“Today’s schools are set up to both teach and measure performance and perfection. This has become more important than a formative human education, for example, learning to be a good friend.”
She believes the lack of human learning combined with technological developments, such as AI and ChatGPT, is a toxic formula.
“Technology is omnipresent, both in our schools and in our lives. It has given us tons of possibilities. But we still lack a way of creating a good life, both in our online and offline spheres of life. How social media push dopamine into our brains affects our social life online. And with the online reality of our lives, where are we then supposed to learn to focus and concentrate?”
Thirdly, Anna Asghari sees today’s young people as more willing to take responsibility than ever before – but for some, that comes with a mental load which, combined with constant access to negative information about wars, climate, natural disasters, etc., can become overwhelming for many.
“At Ungdommens Folkemøde (The Youth Democracy Summit) last year, we did a report with the bureau Cluster & Margin. Some of the quotes from the report show that young people very much understand and cope with the differences that they have experienced in the last few years. One guy said that he was worried because so much has happened from when he was a child till now. He is 17 years old today. Make no mistake: Young people today have a very clear understanding of the situation we’re in and the crisis the world is facing today. But how do you deal with an extreme sense of responsibility, knowing that you need to act when you don’t know where to start? For some, this can create anxiety about the future.”
"How social media push dopamine into our brains affects our social life online. And with the online reality of our lives, where are we then supposed to learn to focus and concentrate?"
Be young, dream big
Psychologists like Svend Brinkmann point to a mismatch between young people’s hopes and dreams for the future and the reality they face. That they’ve been taught, they can do anything and be anything, when in fact, that’s not true. And that every young generation faces difficult challenges in their formative years. Do you agree?
“Everybody has hopes and dreams! What would life as a young person be without naive and optimistic expectations for life? Sometimes they come true. And even if they don’t, that’s part of learning as well.
I wholeheartedly disagree with that hypothesis, and I think it is patronizing a very responsible generation of young people. All the young people I meet have a very realistic view of life, of society, and of their part in it. They simply want to change the status quo and make a positive difference.”
When we listen to decision-makers at Christiansborg and look at the series of plans and reforms for mental health among young people over the past few years, it seems that everyone agrees that there is a problem and that they have the will to change it. If you had them all in a room and could give them one piece of advice on where to start, what would you say?
“I’d tell them to flip their view of young people today on its head and to talk to the people they’re talking about. Go to a place like an average high school, and listen to a diverse group of young people in Denmark. Many of the reforms launched today – like condensing two years of graduate studies to one year – seem more like a way of cutting costs than reforming things. Adding pressure on young people to finish their education and enter the job market is not conducive to well-being. Students need more peace and time, not less.”
Ungdomsbureauet works to engage young people in democracy and society in general. What can young people themselves do to increase their sense of well-being?
“They must find someone to talk to, someone they trust. In one of our projects, young people created youth communities in towns that didn’t have any form of youth community. It is possible to build these platforms ourselves. If we look at the overall societal perspective, young people are doing a lot already. Some of the most significant social movements in the last decade were built and mobilized by young people. Take Klimabevægelsen (The Climate Movement) or when Caroline Besserman stood up at Danske Bank’s board meeting and made it about climate change. Others are trying to change the way we understand gender, social norms, and identity. Young people are at the frontlines when it comes to social change. Now it’s time for the decision-makers to listen to the younger generations.”
In our ‘Imagine if we…’-workshops, we debated how to shift the overall responsibility for well-being from the individual to the community. How do we do that if everyone turns their gaze inward?
“It must be cool to discuss how we’re feeling in groups. When I went to high school, the focus on the individual was cool: Me and my achievements. Talking about the community was a bunch of hippie BS – not cool. But look at today’s movements, e.g., Fridays for Future (Danish leg of school striking for the climate) – they are talking about solving things as a collective. There is a cultural shift going on right now, boosted by the pandemic, where we were forced to look beyond our own doorstep and take care of each other. It’s about building solutions together.”
"Young people are at the frontlines when it comes to social change. Now it’s time for the decision-makers to listen to the younger generations"
About Anna Asghari
Anna Asghari is a social entrepreneur with an in-depth knowledge about youth engagement in society. She is the CEO of Ungsdomsbureauet, an NGO working to further engagement of youth in democracy and the decision-making processes. Ungdomsbureauet works to build platforms and spaces for strengthening both engagement and diversity. Their largest project is Ungdommens Folkemøde, which takes place every September and gathers app. 30.000 young people.
Thriving Together – A new mission to design a future for a thriving youth
How can we create a future where young people can thrive while the levels of reported stress, anxiety, and loneliness are higher than ever?
At DDC – Danish Design Center, we’re mobilizing a range of actors to explore how to create a foundation for an entirely different future. This is not just another plan or reform: We’re using scenario design to make this future tangible and to spark substantial action and commitment across the board here and now.
A Future where Young People Thrive
Imagine this; Young people in Denmark are doing better than ever before. Even with the historic challenges facing this generation, they have never had greater influence or more opportunities to shape their own future. Collectively, we have taken responsibility for providing a framework for young people to thrive
Can’t get enough of design and innovation? We hear you. And we have you covered.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest from our world delivered straight to your inbox.Sign up for the ddc newsletter