RegenerAction 2022: The European Year of Youth

School dropout, unemployment, and gridlock: The challenges facing young people

School dropout and unemployment are among the biggest challenges facing Europe, and Italy in particular, when it comes to the younger generation. In 2020, in Italy, 543,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 dropped out of school after the middle school diploma, according to ISTAT. This is a significant number when we consider the fact that Italy is at the tail end of the European average (which records an average early school dropout rate of 9.9 percent compared to Italy’s 13.1 percent) and the fact that 25.3 percent of young people are unemployed in Italy.

In light of such data, how will these young people be able to inhabit and lead the world of the future with enthusiasm, courage, and perseverance? A danger that risks bordering on stalemate. In fact, our country holds the sad European record for the number of NEETs: young people between the ages of 15 and 34 who are not working, not studying, and not involved in training. Giving young people a clear role in the world, valuing their position, and offering them the chance to enter and stay in the world of work, understanding the range of possibilities ready and waiting for them is the challenge of the coming years.

Youth potential: values (more or less) evident

After two pandemic years, rethinking the role of youth at the center of European and national policies is a priority. Young students and workers, more than anyone else today, feel the need to start again. A desire that benefits not only the well-being of the individual, but also the regeneration of the territory and communities of which these young people are part.

The data showing that the new generations are more sensitive and attentive to environmental issues are now well established. According to 69% of Generation Z, sustainability is an important goal, for 71% of Millennials it is essential to reduce their ecological footprint, to the point that, according to research conducted by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, between 65-90% of them describe themselves as “concerned” or “very concerned” about the environment.

Increasingly in recent years, young people have been leading the way for change. From Malala Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to the affirmation of civil rights and women’s right to education to Greta Thunberg, a Swedish activist for sustainable development and against climate change, from the Fridays for the Future that occupied Italian squares to make their voices heard to youth representation within major international events, such as the COP on climate. However, the achievement of a new awareness on the part of young people must also be accompanied by new tools.

We have an indispensable value in our hands. It is the value of openness, imagination, and freshness of young minds, which, naturally inclined to the concept of impermanence, are the epitome of flexibility and adaptation: two crucial requirements for overcoming current challenges.

Yet, the current educational system is still too often anchored in exaggeratedly rigid, vertical, theoretical, sectoral, and hyper-competitive forms and methods. Even in terms of skills, many universities still struggle to adequately equip their students with real skills required by the world of work. The chilling data on the “brain drain” of thousands of Italian students at the end of their studies reveals our current inability to offer young people decent paid employment opportunities to support their human and professional growth, and to guarantee them a future free from precariousness.

Schools should be the first place to form knowledgeable and responsible citizens, prepared to face the challenges and complexities that characterize this age, enabling them to critical thinking, dialogue, collaboration, and the power we can exercise daily through our choices and decisions. Schools should be the first, but not the only, landing place to spread the culture of sustainability in its full complexity and wholeness, as structured by the 2030 Agenda.

Young people are incredible levers of social change. Activating the seeds of sociality and solidarity in them is central to ensuring the activation of entire communities.

A Europe for young people, with young people

One of the main objectives of the European Union, in line with the goals of the United Nations, is to work with young people to strengthen their role in the world, making them aware of their possibilities, not only with a view towards a sustainable and green society, but above all to make them understand their potential in ensuring peace and security in tomorrow’s world.

In recent years, the EU has been increasingly attentive to the vision, ideas, and participation of the younger generation in building a more inclusive, green, and digital future. The EU Youth Strategy is the framework within which to maximize the potential of youth policies between 2019-2027. Mobilize, connect, and empower: these are the three keywords that sum up the strategy, which consists of 11 targets, referring to the cross-cutting challenges that young Europeans face on a daily basis. These include gender equality, a green and sustainable Europe, youth development in rural areas, and a stronger connection between the EU and young people.

As part of the strategy, the Union has declared 2022 the European Year of Youth, with the aim of honoring and encouraging the younger generation to become active citizens and agents of positive change. This is an opportunity to build a bridge of dialogue with its youngest citizens, through sharing encouraging ideas and proposals aimed at the younger generation but also providing young people with inspiration for change.

This is a strategy that is beginning to find support in activities and actions. This year, the Union has started organizing discussion tables with young people to disseminate new solutions designed by young people, for young people. This is a different and innovative way of achieving the objectives of European policies by making targets the very protagonists of their conception. An example of such an approach is the webinar organized by the EU last April entitled “Energy for Europe’s Green Deal,” in which young Europeans aged 18 to 34 discussed the issues of ecological and sustainable transition and youth involvement.

The NextGenerationEU, conceived by the Commission as a European recovery plan focused primarily on the needs of the younger generation, is also not just an economic fund from which to draw. Instead, the goal is to give young people the tools they need (809.6 billion euros total invested and a long-term recovery plan) to make Europe more green, digital, inclusive, healthy, and strong through active youth participation. Goals such as lowering the school dropout rate to 9 percent by 2030 or reviving Europe’s agrifood supply chain, starting with a revival of agritech and making the sector more attractive to youth, have thus become part of the Union’s plans for the coming decades. Suffice it to say that in 2016 only 11 percent of EU farmers were young people under the age of 40.

Seeds of the future: when young people are protagonists and co-authors prosperity

New generations are the beating heart of a development that engages People and Planet toward the regeneration of the territory and its communities. For this they need care, attention, skills, and motivation.

For Future Food, change starts with education: cultivating the knowledge and curiosity of future generations is the only means by which they can learn about, understand, and re-evaluate the beauty and complexities of today’s world. Through education, it is possible to re-spread key values for humanity such as cooperation, trust, reciprocity, and respect. Without these values, it would be unthinkable to pursue a process of co-design-necessary to solve current challenges-and to create a foundation for conscious and sustainable forms of leadership.

Since its very early years, the Future Food Institute has trained hundreds of Climate Shapers (young people mainly) in the various Boot Camps co-organized together with FAO. A new way of conceiving education, starting from the value of food, the challenges of the entire food supply chain, and the dense network of blended consequences that enables the implementation of an integrated educational-behavioral approach that involves students and educators, doers and thinkers, and that has recently been internationally recognized with an award for innovation, originality, and creativity applied to the field of international education.

A commitment that continues in the desire to create new foundations for schools, to make them capable of providing tomorrow’s citizens with the right tools to know how to live in today’s complexity. The introduction of new learning methodologies in Italian schools, as well as factual and interactive hackathon experiences, pursues this purpose: to give voice and power to children, making them aware, sensitive, bold, and real advocates of change. The Hackathon in schools, organized in cooperation with Cosmopolites, is only the latest in chronological order.

Transitioning towards real youth empowerment is a mission that the Future Food Institute pursues daily and directly through its Living Lab in Pollica, a small village in Campania: a region among the hardest hit in Italy by high dropout rates (17.3 percent in 2020 alone). Preventing the abandonment of hamlets – which in Italy means counting 5,383 small towns and 2,381 municipalities in an advanced state of abandonment and many more already completely depopulated – is still possible, and to do so, we have chosen to start again from their roots: from the land, food, and young people.

“Agri-culture Youth Welfare,” the entrepreneurship school to revive youth entrepreneurial skills in Pollica, and the Rareche Academy, a training program to bring young NEETs into the world of regenerative agriculture for the first time to provide skills, and create regenerative business models to repopulate and regenerate rural areas and communities are just two examples of reviving youth potential in Pollica. But young people also need new spaces for gathering and culture: involving future generations in the conception, design, and construction of the area itself is an effective way to get them to decide to stay and develop their potential in a familiar place.

The challenge organized last April by Future Food for the construction of the new playroom in Pollica is an example of how young and very young people have immersed themselves in the role of designers for the revalorization of the territory. Beginning with a place as simple as the toy library, the design challenge was for these children and youth, the seeds of change capable of making not only the individuals who participated in the event, but the entire community, flourish.

These are the seeds of the future that should be sown more often, capable of generating collective and shared prosperity. During Agrifood Week, young people will again be featured in a design challenge in the hackathon “The One Health Hack – Agriculture, Food, Sport, And Tourism In The Mediterranean Diet Framework.”

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