In two years’ time, nearly half of Southeast Asia’s population will be under 30 and more than 55 percent of its working-age population will be comprised of tech-savvy millennials, according to a prediction by global management consulting firm, Accenture.
Why then does the potential of millennials in the sub-region go as untapped as it does?
That was the question under discussion when I met with former US President Barack Obama along with nine other southeast Asian youth leaders in March this year.
And to answer it, it is necessary to understand the potential of young southeast Asians like myself, and where it comes from.
Imagine that you’re in the middle of a tea plantation beneath a huge mountain. Far on the horizon, you see a group of children running around. Some look dirty. Some hold a fishing rod and a bucket of fish while others run around flying kites.
If you look closely enough, you might see me. A young boy, running around of the tea estate in Kayu Ayo, a small farming village at the base of Mount Kerinci in western Sumatra, Indonesia where I was born and bred. The town is home to many farmers and migrants who moved here for farming opportunities. My parents were teachers, so were keen for me to receive a good education. I was one of the lucky ones fortunate to do so.
I saw poverty and inequality everywhere growing up. It was not rare for my friends to get married and pregnant at a young age. When this is happened, continuing education was out of the question, whether boys or girls. I don’t blame them, I can’t blame them. Continuing to higher education was beyond their reach. They might have left school because they suddenly had a family to raise, or their parents or community didn’t think education was important.
There’s sixty-five million people between the ages of 16 and 30 in Indonesia, millennials born between 1980 and 1996. The children of baby boomers. The Indonesia’s population of young people is actually the same as the total population of the United Kingdom, and 12 times bigger than that of Singapore. Singapore has done a lot with the population of only five million, while Indonesia has 65 million young people. Indonesia can do more if the millennials are provided with space to participate, opportunity to develop their skills, and investment made for their future.
Sadly, 19 percent of young Indonesians are still unemployed – a high rate compared with other G20 countries like Australia, which has 12.5 percent unemployment, and Mexico’s 7.3 percent.
Indonesia also ranks in the top ten countries with the world’s largest number of child brides. According to Indonesia’s Socioeconomic Survey (SUSENAS) in 2016, about one in every nine Indonesian girls marry before the age of 18. Addressing child marriage is one of the keys to unlocking millennials’ potential.
Let’s go back to my friends in Kayu Aro. Just imagine if they’d had the opportunity to learn about reproductive health, and their families had learnt the importance of education, this could have positively affected their future. I was lucky because my father bought a computer in 2000. Ours was the village’s first. My mother told me we’d spend all the money if it is for education, but my family was one of the only ones that did.
This computer really helped me in shaping who I am right now. It allowed me to learn how to use the latest technology and introduced me to Star Wars and Harry Potter but also helped me to find volunteering opportunities, like a role with UNFPA Indonesia on their 2011-2012 Youth Advisory Panel, which led me to my current position. At age 26 last October, I became the UN Youth Adviser for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Implementation in Indonesia, becoming the youngest person to hold such a position in my country.
When I left Kerinci at 21, and moved to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, I realised that I was living in a rapidly changing country. To keep up with these changes, youth need to not only act as if we are a subject to development or public policy, but we need to contribute and partner more to shape those policies. It shaped my passion for youth development.
I am struck by the fact that not all millennials in Indonesia can access the same mediums to communicate as I’ve been given. About a quarter of youth still have no internet access. In 2017, more than six percent of rural households still lived without electricity.
We are also thwarted by another problem: stereotypes. Instead of talking about millennials’ potential, people often speak negatively about millennials. References in entertainment – from Hollywood to Nollywood and from Bollywood to K-Pop – often portray millennials as selfie-taking narcissists who are unsure about their future.
Yes, we take selfies. But we also use our phone to bridge connection, looking for opportunities, and broaden our horizon. I've used it to create and join social campaigns like MYWorld 2030 and Youthnesian, and to reach thousands of young activists in Indonesia.
Having a view of millennials as the unproductive generation will further limit their opportunity to participate fully. Young people are extremely diverse. Yes, they are leaders, workers, investors, innovators, but some are also living with limitations. Reinforcing the idea that millennials are the same leads to policies that exclude people who don’t fit the stereotype.
I’m now 26 but in my current role I still experience ageism. I, and many others like me, often hear “you are too young” and “your experience is not enough” from (adults?) and policy makers. If I’m hearing that, with the opportunities I’ve had, imagine what others who haven’t been as fortunate are hearing?
Sometimes I feel unmotivated, but mentorship is important for millennials. I always remember what one of my mentors said: whatever you do in your life, remember three things: think like an academic, speak like a diplomat, and plan like a strategist. This is my mantra.
We frequently hear about the need for “meaningful participation” of millennials. But it’s not enough for people to only consider us as voters during a political campaign. Youth need to be considered as development partners, who can shape the future of their countries.
Young people are about to inherit an enormous responsibility for resolving many long-standing complex issues, ranging from poverty to climate change, yet they have mostly been excluded from participating in the decisions that will determine what the future looks like. We need to empower young people and give them opportunities to participate in shaping development, particularly in implementing the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development (SDGs). Young people are demanding effective and full participation in policy making processes, including in the governance, decision making and development of their communities and societies. The implementation of the SDGs provides young people with an opportunity to be more meaningfully involved in mainstreaming the goals at all levels.
When meeting with Obama, we agreed that active participation of young people will remain unfulfilled unless they’re considered true partners by policy makers in shaping policies and development priorities. We also talked about how intergenerational discussion is critical to building society and to fight populism now.
If millennials’ challenges and potential are seriously considered – if they are brought to the table, mentored, given space and invested in, and their dreams validated – they can change the world, no matter where they are and where they come from. Even if they live in the shadow of Kerinci.
Angga D. Martha is a UN Youth Adviser for the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, in Indonesia, and a member of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team (YAT). Follow him on Twitter @angga_dm This is an edited extract of a speech given at TEDx Ubud.
This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.