Youth Engagement: Gen Z and Global Development

As a new generation enters the international development workforce, what do they have to teach us about working with younger populations? Dexis spoke with one of our newest Gen Z team members, Maria Downey, about her views.

Q: International development practitioners have been talking about the implications of the “youth bulge” for many years. Well, now it’s here. What are some of the primary differences in the way Gen Z, meaning those born between 1997 and 2012, operates versus older generations?

A: I think that there are a few ways my generation has really been setting itself apart from previous generations. One of these is how we get and process information. Another is more of a general mindset shift and the way that we view the world around us.

Q: Can you say more about how youth get and process information?

A: First of all, it’s important to understand the implications of working with a generation that has never really known life without the Internet (speaking from my experience in the U.S.). The internet heavily influences the way we form opinions about the things happening around us, and we’re exposed to so many more perspectives than previous generations may have had–at least not with such ease and at such a high volume. Social media is not only used as a form of self-expression, but also where the majority of us get our news from.

But as we know, anyone can post practically any information they want, be it true or false–intentionally or unintentionally. This can make it difficult to tell fact from fiction, and those pushing a specific narrative into the media can use this to their advantage. As we form opinions and learn more about the world around us, it can be difficult for Gen Z to effectively navigate dis/misinformation. It can also be really easy for us to spread it ourselves, even without malicious intent. Social media will only play an increasingly larger role in the way that we shape our world views. Both we and older generations should understand the weight of this.

Q: In what ways do youth mindsets differ from other generations?

A: Gen Z around the world is more interconnected on a global level than ever. Because this discourse is so common online, it makes us more accustomed to speaking about difficult subjects like politics and conflict. Putting social media aside, I also get a sense that the overall culture is shifting. Gen Z has more activist, change-making, and empathetic tendencies than some generations before us, and these tendencies are often tied to a relatively pessimistic view on where the world is heading. When you look at what we’ve grown up around, especially in recent years, it can be difficult to think otherwise. But this also contributes to our generation questioning the status quo. Gen Z doesn’t have a predilection for doing things a certain way just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” It’s more about how we can do things better.

Q: What are the implications of this for the development sector?

A: The development sector should be consciously looking for ways to meaningfully engage youth early and often. This needs to be done intentionally, not just by checking a box but by providing real opportunities for youth to offer direction and leadership, in both programs and within their communities. But in doing this, realize that youth are not a monolith. We encompass every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and ability level. The youth you engage should be diverse as well.

It’s really powerful to see our generation all around the world engaging in discourse together on things like anti-war, climate, and human rights activism. Development practitioners can build on this momentum and create more opportunities for youth-led dialogue. It would be an important tool for understanding one another and sparking collaboration to invoke positive change. Being readily exposed to so many different perspectives from all around the world can open us up to so many new ways of thinking and methods of community engagement. Development should be prepared for disruption, as youth generate new ideas and perspectives about the way we communicate and collaborate with other communities, which may challenge conventional practices and place a larger emphasis on creating tangible change.

Q: Have you noticed anything that international development is doing particularly well in working with younger populations?

A: Dexis has supported dialogue that bridges the divide among youth in disparate communities by giving them the platform and skills to engage in difficult and sensitive discussions. These dialogues, both in person and online, have led to new connections and ventures, such as the start of small businesses. Dexis is also empowering emerging political leaders, which allows politically active youth across the political spectrum to work on solutions together to mitigate looming threats of violence. These young leaders were then able to return to their respective areas with concrete action plans filled with fresh ideas. Dexis has also engaged youth in monitoring social media for hate speech and trained them to raise awareness about the negative impact of inflammatory language.

Q: If there was one piece of advice you could give to development professionals to change the way we work with youth, what would it be?

A: Recognize that youth have something unique and valuable to bring to the table. We can offer a variety of different perspectives about the world that shouldn’t be dismissed because we might not have a certain number of years of technical expertise. The level of understanding we’ve been able to build with one another and our distinct communication styles can be a powerful force to propel development agendas forward. This makes it crucial that we increase opportunities and diminish barriers for Gen Z in the development space, in addition to foreign affairs.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share about working with youth and their views of development?

A: I’m excited and hopeful about all of the potential this new generation will bring. I think that some fresh perspectives can invigorate this space into making some positive, meaningful, and sustainable change in the world. Some of these perspectives might challenge beliefs and practices of older generations in the development space, but increasing Gen Z’s opportunities to enter it is extremely important. Eventually, we are going to have to mitigate conflicts and solve issues both domestically and overseas that began before we were even born. Our views on how to do this are as important as they are diverse. It’s impossible to tell how the coming years will go, but what we can do is make an intentional effort to engage and mentor youth, as well as understand and learn from our communication style.

Maria Downey is a Project Associate who supports the Center for Global Security and Stabilization and the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Practice Area at Dexis. Maria graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in International Relations, Economics, French, and a minor in International Development and Conflict Management.