human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Young people are the future of Europe

International Youth Day

Young people are the future of Europe

The call for engaging young people and underlining their importance is everywhere. The European Union has its own youth strategy aimed at engaging, empowering and connecting young people from all European countries. Young people have been one of the priorities during Pope Francis’ pontificate. In the middle of the coronavirus crisis we can see clearly that young people can play a crucial role in the healing of our societies. They were the ones who could answer the call to action, being among the lowest risk groups. Young volunteers did groceries for elderly, organised support campaigns in social media, and did little gestures to show their support to people from risk groups. As the Caritas network we were overwhelmed and grateful for their support, and realised that we have to invest in those relationships even more.

What is exactly the state of engagement of young people (aged 15-30) in Europe, why is it crucial for our societies, and how can we organise it in a productive way – for youth themselves and for all of us? Let’s answer those questions to make sure that we treat young people in a serious way, and let them answer various social challenges with us.

Social engagement of young people in Europe and why it is important

Not only during the COVID-19 lockdown but also during the migration crisis young people decided to act. Large numbers of young people took to the streets to manifest solidarity and hospitality towards refugees coming to their countries. Many youngCaritas projects in countries like Germany, Austria, France, Greece and Italy took the form of intercultural activities. Young volunteers became welcoming “buddies” for migrants and refugees trying to build their life in a new country. Volunteers organised “living libraries” to raise social awareness on migration and many other activities aiming at supporting newcomers.

Studies confirm that young people want to be active. Research done by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency within the European Commission on European youth (aged 15-30) and their engagement shows that 53% of respondents have been involved in the activities of at least one organisation in the last 12 months1. The study shows that overall, youth participation has increased by four percentage points since December 2014. Additionally, “participation in voluntary activities has increased to almost one third of respondents, with most voluntary activities focused on local communities” (69%).

So why should we support this increasing trend? Answering this question, first we must take into consideration the perspective of young people themselves. A study done by the European Youth Forum2 shows that participation in youth organisations can have a positive impact on young people’s personal development. Young people can foster skills and dispositions like empathy, creativity, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Youth engagement in non-governmental organisations can also improve their position on the labour market. And last but not least, youth engagement may have an impact on young people’s well being by extending and deepening social bonds. Through civic and political activism young people get the sense of purpose and achievement and sense of community and belonging.

These benefits, which are in line with European values and the values of Caritas, show that we need to do all we can do to support and include young people in our organisations. Our goal is to be together with those in challenging life situations, and we must include young people in our mission – to let them grow as human beings by expressing love to others and to our planet.

But this is not only about serving young people and creating space for them. The relationship between youth and civil society organisations is entirely reciprocal and we must become aware of that. Without young people we would be greatly impoverished by a lack of their specific perspective and our ability to grow and develop our organisations would be severely hampered. Young people bring innovative approaches and challenge the status quo.

We have to make youth engagement meaningful!

It is very easy to admit that youth engagement is important, but much more difficult to organise it in a sensible and meaningful way. The Roger Hart’s Ladder of young people’s participation presents a spectrum of possible forms of youth participation3, from manipulation, where adults use young people to strengthen a cause and pretend that the cause is led by a young person, to situations where young people lead and share decisions with adults. While each organisation should decide on its own what level of youth’s involvement would work best in their situation, the possible mistakes and pitfalls shall be kept in mind. We should avoid situations like tokenism where young people appear to be given a voice, but in fact have little or no choice about what they do or how they participate.

How can we make sure that we involve young people in a meaningful way? Of course there can be a lot of ways to do so. Here I will mention just a few of them:

  • Clarity and partnership – it is important to be very explicit in defining the role and tasks of young people in the organisation. To be able to take responsibility for their engagement, young people must understand very clearly what is expected from them and how they can contribute.
  • Ownership – Empower, don’t overpower. Give young people responsibilities, let them create projects and make decisions. Most of all – make sure that their voice has a real impact on the organisation. Creating transparent structures (like youth councils or even seats in executive bodies) may help in proving that the voice of the youth is not only welcomed but also has an agency.
  • Capacity building – by maintaining a high degree of organisation professionalism we can provide opportunities for young people to gain new skills and develop personally. We should also continuously educate ourselves on the best ways to cooperate with young people.
  • Inclusion – European youth is extremely diverse in the sense of their life situation and personal context. Therefore while creating opportunities for young people to engage, we should make sure that we will reach those various groups. That we listen and adapt to the needs of the youth and raise awareness about their circumstances.

Realising the importance of youth involvement, Caritas organisations in Europe expressed the will to work on increasing and creating opportunities for young people to serve. Already many valuable youth projects have been implemented but our dream is to have young Caritas volunteers and activists in all European countries. We will include youth engagement as one of the priorities in our coming strategy for next eight year to develop and mainstream it in all fields of Caritas work. We prepare opportunities for Caritas employees to gain new knowledge and skills to build sustainable and empowering relationships with the youth. Our next step would be to let young people have a real impact on our work – on a diocesan, national and also European level. In this way we aim to be an organisation where young people can flourish, and act for a more just world together with representatives of all generations.


  1. Research was done in 2017 your and published in 2018,
  2. Study On The Social Value Of Youth Organisations
  3. Roger Hart’s Ladder of young people’s participation
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Agnieszka Zarzynska

Institutional Development Officer
Caritas Europa

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