As the light outside dimmed, I sat in the back of a conference room, packed with adults dressed in their business wear and bristling with self-importance. The closing speaker directed his eyes towards the small pocket of young people, sitting at corner table at the back that we had been relegated to for a good part of the day. With a practiced beam, he acknowledged us. “I especially would like the young people that were here today. They’ve contributed some really valuable ideas”. He paused. “Who would’ve thought?” He chuckled to himself. Laughter rippled around the room, a hundred adults bathing in the superiority of age. Young people once again the punchline.

His statement – ‘Who would’ve thought?”, disguised as a joke and a thank you, revealed his true attitude. He came into that conference fully believing that the young people in attendance would contribute nothing; have no valuable ideas, would just be taking up space, and wasting the fancy catering. That we were just tokens, invited to tick a box.

This disconnect between the older and younger generations is a major feature of New Zealand today, and nowhere is it more evident than in the world of politics and civic engagement. The number one step of tackling issues is understanding what the issues are. It is at this vital step that most MP’s are failing. They fail to grasp that in order to understand what young people’s issues are – they need to talk to us.

There is a gap – nay, a chasm – between young people and Members of Parliament. So many incredible youth today; thinkers and change makers and activists, are doing their absolute best to construct a bridge to cross this chasm with the limited resources we have. We’re trying our best to reach them because we know that they are the ones who can make profound change. We know that in order for them to start tackling issues that are important to us, they need to understand what these issues actually are.

But the thing about bridges is that they’re much more effective when built from both sides. It’s a team effort – if young people continued to do their part, and MP’s reached out, we could meet in the middle and be able to connect and have valuable discussions about issues that are important to us. We could make our voices heard. But that’s not what’s happening here.

Some MP’s are working on building connections, they’re really trying, but it’s slow progress because it’s not their priority. The way that our political system works, politicians have zero need to appeal to young people. At the end of the day, tackling our issues is not what will win them votes and not what will get them another term in power. They are forced to focus on maintaining their connections with businesses and pensioners and farmers and workers, which uses up most of the time and resources they could otherwise put towards us.

Some are reaching out to youth, but not effectively. They do it on their own terms. They hold youth events at 8pm on a school night, that have only been advertised on their government website, and seem surprised when no one turns up. They post on their governmental Facebook page with only 38 followers, asking for youth to comment, and seem surprised when none do. Instead of considering changing their approach, the lack of response is put down to the ‘youth of today’ being an apathetic, entitled bunch that have no interest in civic engagement.

Some MP’s can see our value and they want to connect, but they have no idea how, and neither does anyone on their governmental team. Lots of meetings are held to formulate an action plan to ‘connect with the youth’. Perhaps they form an advisory group (of over-50’s exclusively, of course). They could ask young people how to best connect with us – we’re the experts – but none of them have thought of that.

Some pretend to engage, but in reality they’re just ticking the box that they have talked to youth, and making a big show of it too. “LOOK”, they brag to the public. “I’m ENGAGING with YOUTH”. The thing is, we are not given channels in which to make our voices heard in return. If we’re given the opportunity to speak, our voices are not heard – which really doesn’t solve the problem that we actually have.

Some MP’s are looking in the other direction with their fingers stuck in their ears. They don’t think our issues are important enough to tackle. They don’t even think that we’re smart enough to know what our issues are.

Whether Members of Parliament are trying, or not so much, not enough is being done to connect with youth to understand the issues that are truly important to us. Our issues cannot be tackled if they are not understood. At present, policies overwhelming cater to – well, anyone that’s not us, leaving the youth of New Zealand with soaring debt and crashing mental health.  Even if it is not ideal politically, MP’s need to make the effort to connect with us.

We are the future. We will be at the forefront of worldwide change, the innovators of the next generation, the bright minds that will lead humanity forwards. If we are given rights, given power, given a way to speak, then we have the capability to change the world. If however, we continue to be ignored and disempowered, society will struggle. We deserve every opportunity to participate and contribute, to shape our future.

‘Have confidence in the young people, give them a chance, and they will surprise you’ – Kofi Atta Annan

Kate is a Year 12 student from Canterbury. She enjoys music, languages, sunny days, and a good book.

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