VIEW: Now, more than ever, we should be better listening to young people – Yasmin Poole

Age diversity is often discussed in creative and innovative industries, but what about sectors such as policy and government?

As the rate of change fastens – from digital technologies and climate change, to flexible ways of working and globalisation – experts say there is a drive among younger generations to tackle these challenges head-on and with an open mind, in comparison to older generations. Yet, representation of young people in parliament and, consequently, representation of issues they are passionate about, are lacking.

While it may seem inevitable that people of a certain age and with a certain number of years experience under their belt are better suited to politics, countries like Finland are showing this simply isn’t true and age diversity is not only possible, but also an effective way of governing.

Yasmin Poole is passionate about being and empowering the voice of Gen Z to be heard in parliament. In this interview, she shares why age diversity at the leadership level matters, and how governments and societies can benefit from involving young people in policy development.

  • Why is age diversity at the leadership level important to you?

It’s firstly important in terms of representation. It’s a rare sight to see a politician under 30 in Parliament House. Yet, young people are majorly impacted in policy. We were the first to lose our jobs after COVID-19 and will have to deal with the economic fallout for decades to come. We’re also affected in other areas of policy such as health, education, employment and housing. We’ll also be dealing with the looming impacts of climate change. Despite this, youth voices are often unheard.

Aside from that, I also think many underestimate how well young people can prepare us for the future. Younger generations are open minded, risk taking and curious. Those are traits we need more than ever – as 2020 has demonstrated, the business as usual approach is long gone. If we want to create a prosperous and forward-thinking society, we need young people at the table too.

Take COVID-19, for example. It has essentially forced the world to learn how to live online and think outside of the box. Yet, young people can be the leaders here. We’ve grown up in a time of rapid technological innovation. We’re poised to be the most entrepreneurial generation. Now, more than ever, we should be better listening to young people. Adaptation and change are our normal.

  • What are some examples where you’ve seen a positive impact from diversity of age in leadership?

I’d say a good example of positive impact was when I led the Victorian Government’s Youth Congress, which was their first ever youth advisory board representing over a million young Victorians.

We found that the mental health system in particular is poorly designed for young people. While the government had funded youth mental health support, services were largely only available 9am-5pm weekdays and closed on weekends. This was totally inaccessible for the majority of young people who were at school. It seems like a simple observation, but shows how youth policy is often created without understanding what young people want and need.

Since our recommendations, the Victorian Government has committed to ensuring every public school has a mental health counsellor – a really encouraging step towards making services accessible.

That example taught me the power of government co-designing policy with young people. I think a big part of youth disillusionment is simply because we feel unheard. If government can better engage with young people, it will only lead to better solutions.

  • Have you ever felt that sometimes age does matter in the workplace? Why or why not?

Definitely. I still think young people can learn a lot from older leaders – there remains a certain type of wisdom that comes with age. I was once told that “life is a marathon, not a sprint” and it’s always stuck in my mind. Older mentors have taught me a lot about leadership. A big takeaway has been that it isn’t always about how large your impact is or how fast you get to the end goal. One of the best bosses I’ve had used to check in with me every day and genuinely ask how I was going. Often, it’s the small things that make the very best leaders.

I’ve also found that, while youth can bring new ideas, we may not always have the connections to turn it into a reality. A big part of Youth Congress’ success was the support of senior government figures. They put us in touch with the right people to make sure we were heard – without them, our recommendations could have very well gone unnoticed. I’d love to see more programs like that which connect older decision-makers with younger people – it’d be a great way to turn ideas into action.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted your approach to leadership and role modelling today?

I’d say that growing up low income has played a big part in how I view the world. A question that’s always in the back of my mind is “whose voices are missing from the conversation?” I study in Canberra and, at many points, have looked around me and wondered who deserved to be here but couldn’t because of cost. While I feel really lucky to have the platform I do, I’m conscious that there are many young Australians that continue to be unheard and slip through the cracks.

To me, stepping into your vulnerabilities is crucial for authentic leadership. When I was 20, I was a panellist on Q+A – the first time I was ever in the public eye. It was pretty intimidating. But I realised that, in order to speak authentically, I had to share my lived experience. I talked about growing up low income and my parents’ story. Both experienced poverty over their lives – my mother used to sell food on the streets of Singapore and my father grew up homeless.

Stepping into your hardships, especially in a public way, is undoubtedly daunting. Yet, those experiences have given me the agency to stand up for what I care about. At the end of the day, I want to be the person that younger me would have wanted to see growing up. If I’m embodying that, I know I’m on the right path.

About the expert

Yasmin is best described as a ‘human megaphone for Gen Z’. She has represented millions of young Australians in advocating for youth policy reform, including being the 2018 Chair of the Victorian Government’s Youth Congress. She also led the global business development of 180 Degrees Consulting, a youth led social impact consultancy that spans across 30 countries. She is currently Plan International’s Youth Ambassador, focusing on engaging young Australian women in politics. In 2019, Yasmin was the youngest member of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence and Top 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians. Yasmin has been a panellist on shows such as Q&A and the Drum, with a focus on how we can include youth in the conversation to create change.