• Young people distrust public institutions dominated by older elites.
  • Public institutions must stem the corruption that dilutes their legitimacy.
  • Building trust requires education about the role public institutions play in young people’s lives.

A striking number of protest movements have erupted in recent months across the globe, often exploding into mass demonstrations or lethal clashes with government police and militias.

Some have been triggered by seemingly minor grievances – to name only a few, the rollback of government gasoline subsidies for consumers in Iran, a steep hike in public transportation fares in Chile, Lebanon’s tax on internet services such as WhatsApp, rising prices of onions in India, an extradition law in Hong Kong, and rising fuel prices in Haiti. Others, like the Tishreen revolution in Iraq, started in response to persistent unemployment and government corruption.

These protests point to a widening chasm between youth and public institutions. Driving these people in their teens and twenties is a disgust for graft, and social and public institutions dominated by older, deeply entrenched elites who hold out little hope of addressing the increasingly common struggle young people face in finding job opportunities and long-term personal prosperity.

Image: UN Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth

As Ali H. Soufan, a leading security intelligence consultant recently told The New York Times: “It’s young people who have had enough. This new generation are not buying into what they see as the corrupt order of the political and economic elite in their own countries. They want a change.”

Sadly, for most governments, violent suppression of brewing or existing unrest seems to be the response of choice. Aside from their obvious immorality, violent crackdowns on protests will ultimately fail to cure the root causes of youth disenchantment, and will almost certainly make them worse. These governments would do far better to address the dismally low level of faith young people have in the public institutions that too often fail to serve them.

That means, first, public institutions must deliver something of concrete value and relevance to young people they are supposed to serve. Young people must find a direct benefit from providers of human services, law enforcement and courts, environmental protection agencies, public corporations, or government regulators. These organizations must also stem the seemingly endemic corruption that dilutes their legitimacy and fuels citizens' distrust in public institutions.

Second, they must deliver on the goal of inclusion, not only of people from marginalized communities but also of youth. That requires asking and answering: Are our youngest consumers receiving the services they need and deserve to thrive? And are public institutions open to their input and participation, or are they bastions of well-connected insiders who care mostly about perpetuating their hold on power?

Many public and civil society institutions talk about inclusion, but the reality is they rarely go beyond platitudes about “dialogue” and “collaboration”. It is time for systemic and structural changes. One of them revolves around age. Just as most societies have rightly erected thresholds that limit what young people can do (such as obtain a driver’s licence, vote, buy alcohol, get married or own a gun), we should likewise establish more limits on what others can do at the upper end of the age range.

In many places, the leaders making the big decisions for the rest of us are disproportionately old and do not have the mental or physical energy to cope with the velocity of change in our time. In some countries, they often operate with the tacit assumption that these are jobs for life. In the US, it is not only the most senior leaders who are old, the entire federal workforce is ageing. The federal government can’t attract enough young blood.

Young people perceive public institutions as oblivious to the challenges of youth unemployment and unable to control the staggering rise in the cost of living in many cities. So, it’s no surprise that they are increasingly cynical about them. If we truly want young citizens to shape and sustain these institutions for their future, we must radically transform them by introducing mandatory retirement ages, term limits for public officials, and public financing of election campaigns.

Third, shoring up youth trust requires that they recognize the role public institutions can play in their lives. At best, younger people might have an abstract, high school civics class understanding of how government works. In the US, for example, that could include the notion of three branches of government, basic constitution rights, and the value of voting.

Perhaps more important is that young people understand how to engage with the relatively mundane, yet essential public functions that can have enormous implications for their own wellbeing. Like the department of motor vehicles, which makes (legal) driving possible; utilities that provide clean water and reliable electricity; local licensing for businesses and construction; or health departments that ensure the safety of our food. If young people see and feel the value of these institutions, they’re far more likely to trust them.

Fourth, it’s paramount that we tackle head-on an emerging culture that calls for the private sector – businesses, foundations and NGOs – to shoulder more of the responsibility to enrich citizens’ lives, presumably because they can bring more efficiency and know-how to the task than government can.

The government has the primary role of delivering public goods. While there are many examples of how public and private sector collaborations have led to better delivery of public goods, ultimately government has far greater scale, credibility, and in some cases the needed legitimacy, to be the ultimate implementer of public services.

The point is not to exclude the private sector from the delivery of public goods, but to cement support for the public sector as their primary convener in the “supply chain” of producing public goods. Clearly, government institutions must improve how they deliver those services. But it’s time we give up fantasies that putting the private sector in charge will solve our problems.

Lastly, the ramifications of automation and artificial intelligence on jobs, productivity, the social contract between employers and workers, and broader social cohesion can be profound. While public institutions are themselves affected by automation and technology, they must be the primary convener of all debates on our policy choices for the future. Public institutions are best placed to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, those choices serve younger generations well.

These and other necessary fixes will, of course, require more resources. But, more importantly, they call for many, simultaneous, radically different ways of thinking, and breaking time-honoured practices that have not served young people and the rest of us well. The simple reality is that, unless leaders in many societies allow this kind of change, frustration with, distrust of and revolts against public institutions will only become more common.