It is inspiring to see high school students from Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot on Valentine’s Day, confront American politicians over gun policy in recent days. They are demanding that lawmakers finally correct the United States’ insane and dangerous gun laws, and rightly point out that adults have thus far failed to do so. If they succeed, it will be a rare example — at least in the West — of young people impacting contemporary politics. This is not for lack of trying, but rather because their parents and grandparents not only outnumber them, but selfishly ignore their views.
To push governments toward policies oriented on the future, today’s youth face the difficult task of convincing old people — who may not be around to see it — that the future matters. This has not always been the case. In fact, for much of the 20th century Western young people had more direct influence over the direction of their countries because they comprised a much larger proportion of the population. For example, in France, where students famously brought the country to a standstill in 1968, one-third of the population was under 20 years old at the time. Today it is just 24 percent, as compared to 38 percent who are over 50 (a full 9 percent are 75 or older).