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Talking About This Generation

Rachel Roberts — Former Director, The Rockefeller Foundation

In the summer of 2017, The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center brought together a group of residents around the theme of “Youth as Agents of Transformative Change.” Participants hailed from eight different countries, representing academia, the private sector, civil society, activist organizations, and the arts including novelists, composers, and musicians. And while the focus of the residency was on the subject of youth, the residents themselves ranged in age from those in their 20s to those in their 70s—with every decade in between represented. Over the course of two and half weeks, residents engaged in a unique intergenerational discussion about what motivates and inspires youth, the challenges they face, and how people of all ages can collectively enable transformational change.

Three key themes emerged from that discussion:

1. Frustration with the status quo is an important motivator leading youth to clamor for transformative change—if it’s harnessed productively.

Young people have both a tremendous capacity to envision a better future and the energy to make that vision a reality. Bellagio Center residents discussed how a sense of injustice can be highly motivating for youth, but that unless older generations and the wider society are open and encouraging, that motivation can be too easily lost or misdirected.

2. Young people are more connected than any previous generation, and that impacts the way they demand and realize change.

The impact of technology is particularly relevant when talking about youth today and how they interact with one another. While young people of every generation have taken action to push for change, today’s youth have more information at their disposal than ever before. They also have access to tools to connect with others across the world around shared values and interests, inspiring new modes of activism.

3. Change involves everyone and to do it well, all generations—including youth—need a seat at the table.

Young people are open to change and innovation, but when the systems and structures that they interact with aren’t set up to channel or capitalize on that, there’s a risk that society at large might miss out on what youth bring to the table. The Bellagio Center discussion highlighted that solving this problem is not about figuring out a better system to impose upon young people, but rather reshaping systems like education and politics together with youth—so that youth have a voice when it comes to decisions impacting their lives.

A hallmark of the Bellagio Center Residency Program is the bringing together of diverse perspectives to unlock new ways of thinking. Beyond just thinking, diverse perspectives also lead to new ways of doing things, and of enacting change—something that seemed particularly poignant during this Thematic Residency. This group of residents embodied the kind of intergenerational dialogue and relationship building that is critical to the work that they all lead individually, and to the wider question of how we can all support youth today to enable a better future for people of all ages.

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