Youth as the Miner’s Canaries of Democracies!
In Peter Coy’s article the Kids Are Not Alright, he quotes that democracies are “much better at managing large numbers of highly educated people” than are nations with an official leader who has absolute authority (read: autocratic countries). Leaders of autocratic nations face the dilemma of needing an educated work force to grow their country’s economy, but with increased levels of education the possibility of political dissent grows. This point is most elaborated in the recent youth revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. A large part of what drove Egyptian and Tunisian youth to take action were the high unemployment rates. Across the globe youth in democracies also face high (or even higher) unemployment rates, yet, they aren’t toppling their respective governments. In democratic nations like Spain and the United States, where the youth in Spain and American minority youth’s unemployment rates are the equivalent or significantly higher than those rates seen in Egypt and Tunisia, why are the youth not carrying out mass political demonstrations?
Democracies seem to respond differently when nearly the majority of youth are unemployed. We can look at Spain, where the youth (16-24) unemployment rate is 42.9 percent, the highest in Europe. Spain spends 30 billion euros a year in unemployment benefits. These benefits are meant to ease the lack of opportunities faced by youth while the job market recovers. In addition, these benefits placate many of the 42.9 percent of jobless young Spaniards, effectively keeping youth precariously patient despite the recent austerity budget protest by Spain’s college students. However, in the United States, we see how a democracy uses other methods to keep disillusioned minority youth docile.
As a way to talk about how democracies ‘manage’ their minority populations, let us focus on American black youth. In the early to mid 20th century black youth led a successful movement that transformed the United States. Yet today, despite being legally included, problems persist with obtaining economic, political and social equality. For instance, according to a November 2009 Washington Post article, 30.5 percent of black youth between the ages of 16-24 were jobless. Please note two things: 1) this statistic for black youth unemployment rates is from two years ago and 2) that this is after the peak for American youth unemployment rate of 19.2 percent in September 2009. Given that black youth in the 20th century were willing to take their concerns to the streets, how do we or do we care to explain this 21st century silence?
This quote speaks to the invisible hand of the state in shaping how marginal groups fit into their society and view themselves. Democratic nations have developed methods and processes that limit the ability of groups to drastically change the social, political and economic landscape of the democratic country in which they live. One way to create docile bodies, from a group prone to taking action, is to strip them of their social and political capital through several methods: inclusion, alienation, over-exposure to the state and popularize ideologies of self-reliance. By and large black youth suffer from an acute over-exposure to the government: be it through the “school-to-prison pipeline;” or the over-policing of black youth and their neighborhoods through formal and informal means (e.g., laws for anti-loitering, the criminalization of sagging one’s pants, dress codes in schools, etc). Moreover, black youth are force-fed ideologies that would have black youth believe their problems are solely about their behaviors and choices. In addition, high profile “exceptions” like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama are used to persuade the average person that there are no systemic issues that cannot be overcome through hard work. As a result, American black youth face an impressive array of structural, political, and social forces that render them docile and alienated. It is this crucible of political, economic and social forces that demobilizes disaffected youth populations in democratic nations.
I would like to focus on the word ‘manage’ and what it means in a democracy, where the will of the majority rules. As such, when a particular minority wants to advance its case, there is some kind of effort made to change the commonly held beliefs of the majority about the desires, needs, behaviors, or appearance of that particular minority. This process is what I call inclusion, which is a tool that democracies use to regulate the rate at which a group is moved from the peripheral to being a part of the majority. Democracies use alienation to expel – all or portions of – ideas or groups that are too undesirable even if those ideas were once held by, or groups that were once a part of, the majority. The significance of inclusion and alienation is that with these tools a democracy can include the elite leadership from within a particular minority group while alienating the bulk of the low to no skilled members of the minority group. Thus allowing the democracy the ability to de-claw a movement, to create, at least, a bifurcated minority group of the halves and the have nots, and to maintain the status quo.
Are democracies better at managing large numbers of highly educated people, or are there other forces at work? What are your thoughts?