07/24/2014 12:38 EDT | Updated 09/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Kofi Annan: Global Solutions Will Be Defined by Youth


Is it just us, or does the world feel a bit scarier lately? Eastern Europe rumbles like a warming volcano as the Ukraine and Russia trade gunfire and western nations rattle sabres. Israel and Palestinian militants are once again clashing in Gaza. In Syria, three-million people have fled to escape civil war -- the largest migration since World War II. And climate change increasingly threatens everyone, everywhere.

The world needs experienced leaders -- grizzled global firefighters with the wisdom to staunch the flames and guide us through turbulent times. One is Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. Backstage at We Day Vancouver, we had a chance to sit down with Annan, and heard his thoughts on how these global issues might be addressed.

But while we are looking to Annan for wisdom, Annan is banking on the world's youth.

"I talk to a lot of young people -- their attitude, determination to make a difference, innovative spirit and desire to change things give me hope," he told 18,000 youth at We Day to wild applause.

In his four decades with the United Nations, including ten years as Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, Annan saw it all -- an unparalleled perspective on global events and challenges. He persuaded world leaders to seek peace over national self-interest and initiated the Millennium Development Goals, the Global AIDS Fund and International Criminal Court.

Now Annan is looking to young people as another source of guidance, connecting with them via Twitter and Google Hangouts to seek their ideas about social change -- an area in which, he says, his generation fell short.

"You are inheriting the world from a generation of political leaders -- my generation -- who have actually failed to address the global imbalances that are the cause of so many of our failures today," he told youth participants in one online dialogue.

Historically, young people are not always happy with the world they inherit. Social change has always been led by youth: protesting the Vietnam War, standing up to the tanks in Tiananmen Square, rallying during the Arab Spring and Occupying Wall Street. It will undoubtedly be young people who will push issues like climate change, which Annan considers "the biggest challenge facing us and the future generation," to the forefront of the political agenda.

Annan is taking steps to get youth involved in climate change and other world issues, and giving them a forum to voice their opinions.

Last year, he hosted the Kofi Annan Dialogues: Live! and spoke with youth online from around the world on topics like youth unemployment rates, democratic responsibility and technology's role in education. His faith in these youth is matched by their faith in themselves. An online poll surveyed youth and 93 per cent said they believe they have more power and potential to create change than previous generations (Annan understands first-hand this youthful idealism. At 16, he organized a hunger strike at his Methodist boarding school, leading the entire student body to demand better cafeteria food).

But since Annan's first brush with activism, the tools and methods of the trade have evolved; social values now seep into seemingly separate life goals for youth.

Annan adds that social change isn't just about signing petitions or volunteering free time, but can now be integrated into work and home life. Youth can also influence change in the corporate world. By making conscious daily decisions about how they consume, young people can inspire a shift in lifestyle and spending habits that supports socially conscious companies. Recognizing the need for businesses to create positive social impact from within, Annan says youth also have a role here -- as employees and budding entrepreneurs.

Studies show Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are primed to do good and do it well, even at work. A Millennial Branding study found that 72 per cent want to have a job that makes an impact. In her 2010 study, Meet the Millennials, author Leigh Buchanon found almost 70 per cent of youth cite giving back and being civically engaged as high priorities for their personal achievement.

Annan feels confident leaving the world's problems with the next cohort, who will organize as a collective force, engage as global citizens and make conscious choices as consumers.

"It's your world now," Annan advised, coming to the close of his We Day speech. "Conversations I've had with you make me trust and believe that you can make this world a better place. So go out and do it."

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.