• Jane Chen

Pay Me For My Labour: A Note on Youth Participation

I’m a firm believer in ‘nothing about us without us.’

This is the mantra I’ve sought to embody as a youth advocate – when I’m consulting with researchers or policymakers, presenting to audiences, tweeting, attending events and conferences, penning this very essay. I carry it with me when I walk into spaces as a young person, armed with my lived experiences of the local and global challenges that my peers and I grapple with. This is how decision-making needs to work: those who will be impacted need to be part of the conversation.

Luckily, there’s growing appetite for youth participation. Young people are increasingly being recognised for their creativity, determination, bravery, critical thinking and leadership, and more and more organisations are creating platforms for us to enter into the fray of their work. I see this when politicians take to social media to engage their younger constituents, when program organisers bring on young people as co-designers and co-facilitators, and when councils set up youth advisory committees. I’ve experienced this when I’ve been invited to be part of consultations, or contribute insights to publications and media.


Institutions are beginning to acknowledge the importance of youth participation, because it is us young people who will be uniquely affected by their actions. We have the capacity to help governments, businesses and organisations shape more effective and responsive programs, services and policies.

I’m very thankful for the many opportunities I’ve been given thus far to participate in discussions about issues that matter to young people, and to be included as a key stakeholder in big decisions. And going forward, I’d love to do more of it.

It’d just be nice to be paid for this work, sometimes.

 

When an organisation creates programs invite youth participation but are unpaid, they rely upon the ability and willingness of young people like me. They assume that there are young people out there who are bursting with passion and eagerness to make a difference, show leadership and be influential. For these energetic young people, youth participation roles are presented as favours – special opportunities to get a foot in the door and have a say.

What isn’t given enough recognition is the value of the inverse relationship: it’s organisations who need us. Our input is critical to their ability to create value. When this isn’t appreciated, attempts at youth participation become only performative, tokenistic engagement.

A failure to recognise the value of young people’s contributions to program, service or policy development is also responsible for how inaccessible youth participation opportunities can be. Take me, for example — I’ve dedicated a fairly significant amount of time to unpaid advocacy roles in the past few years. What you need to know is that I’ve been able to do that work because my parents ensure a roof over my head, food on the table and a financial safety net; because I had a lot of autonomy in terms of the scheduling of my coursework; because my part-time job in university was secure and well-paying and offered flexible hours, and as a graduate I now have salaried, full-time employment. Being able to do work — and don’t tell me advocacy isn’t work — that is unpaid is a possibility borne from privilege. It is an option that is only available to those who can afford it. The principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ is undermined when so many young people are locked out of the room.

Sure, I guess I could quit whining – it’s true, nobody’s holding a knife to my throat and forcing me to undertake this work. And yet I find it hard to say no to these calls for young people to volunteer their time because I have the capacity to, and that weighs upon me. I feel a sense of responsibility, because if I can’t be there to represent young people, then chances are we’ll miss out on having a say altogether.

 

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. There is more than a wage to be won from work, any kind of work, and volunteering offers many of those benefits. For young people especially, who often have limited professional experience, volunteering presents opportunities to explore budding interests and potential career pathways, apply the skills and knowledge we learn in our studies or training, and meet other members of a community to foster networks. These perks can help boost our future employment prospects, and as youth unemployment rates are soaring, that can only be a good thing. I absolutely think that volunteering is worthwhile – I’ve volunteered with a pretty extensive range of organisations since I was sixteen, and it’s played an incredible role in my development.

And yet, volunteering also has its costs. It is work, and that means it takes up time, energy and resources. This is especially burdensome for young people, by the way, who are leading ever-fragmented lives of non-stop work, study and play. Such is the rhythm of contemporary life – most of us are operating on erratic schedules, with competing demands on our time and mental loads. As a result, doing unpaid work isn’t just giving up a few hours after business hours. Rather, it often means putting in additional effort to make a schedule of work shifts, school, and volunteering commitments work; staying up all night to finish assignments; having to leave classes early to rush to another location, often depending on costly or unreliable public transport to do so. The constant attention-switching and juggling that young people often have to do can take a significant toll.

Particularly with regards to youth advocacy work, volunteering is also often a test of resilience, a demand for us young people to perform emotional labour. This often goes unacknowledged, so take note: when you’re asking me to give feedback on how policies or services might be failing young people, for example, you’re asking me to be vulnerable and divulge unpleasant, maybe even traumatic, experiences. You’re asking me to vocalise my very real fears about whether the human race will even be able to survive this climate emergency, or how the impending economic downturn might be dooming my generation to joblessness. Of course, I want to be able to share all these issues, so that my perspectives can be meaningfully taken into account — but that doesn’t mean the process is easy. I have to lay bare my heart and soul to you.

Being paid wouldn’t necessarily eliminate these costs and risks, sure, but at least it would signify genuine appreciation of the real sacrifices that young people have to make in order to support your work.

 

I’d rather go unpaid but have a seat at the table than not be allowed in the room at all, and I know that for many resource-poor non-profit organisations, those are the only two choices that they can really provide to young people. At the same time, I have to question: is it resources that your organisation lacks, or the willingness to re-allocate or acquire the resources necessary to pay young people for their labour? If youth empowerment, or youth participation, is truly a principle that you view as a critical part of decision-making and action, then putting a dollar value on it should be a priority – if not achievable today, then at least high on your list of organisational goals.

At the end of the day, inviting young people to have a say in your work falls short of true youth empowerment if it doesn’t materially acknowledge that young people incur costs when they do so, that our skills and knowledge are unique and valuable, and that many of us face barriers to participation. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure does help cover the expenses that we young people sustain through this work, and provide acknowledgement of the value we produce because of our capabilities and experience. It also goes a long way towards levelling a playing field.

It doesn’t matter that there might be other benefits that we’ll receive in exchange for the work – I learn plenty from my paid jobs, too. Ultimately, paying young people for our labour is fair, deserved, and vital to equity and genuine inclusion. The professional development and work experience, the free pizza you provide, or the certificates and social media shout-outs are great, but they should only be added bonuses.

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