A former president who listened to the young

During her 16 years as president of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir did something many political leaders fail to do - she paid attention to young people. She heard them talk about their problems, their expectations, their dreams. She also helped them understand the importance of political awareness.

"Leaders of the world do not talk enough to young people," President Vigdis observes. "Young people say, 'They never listen to us.' "

That indifference can be costly for everyone. Because young people feel ignored, President Vigdis says, many remain uninterested in politics. Yet whenever she sought them out and listened to them, she watched attitudes change. As soon as they realized her attention was serious, their interest in politics increased.

President Vigdis made headlines - and history - in 1980 when she became the first woman ever to be elected a head of state. She also broke new ground three years ago when she helped to found the Council of Women World Leaders, a group bringing together female presidents and prime ministers.

It was during a summit of the council this month that President Vigdis expressed her concerns about young people. She and six other current and past heads of state - four women and three men - gathered at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government to outline the challenges facing leaders in the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, the environment and overpopulation ranked high on their lists of urgent global problems. So did education, aid to poor countries, and global economies.

But it was this interest in young people that ran as a refreshing new theme through the remarks of three leaders, all of them women. It is attention that includes not only caring about economic and social well-being but also recognizing the essential, irreplaceable resource the next generation represents.

Kim Campbell, prime minister of Canada in 1993, notes that because political leaders tend to be middle-aged, an "enormous gap" exists between people making key decisions and those in the next generation who possess great technological ability.

Politicians must ask themselves, she says, "What do I need to know about young people? They are living in a totally different universe. What are the implications of that?"

Jennifer Smith, who was elected premier of Bermuda last November, credits younger voters with being "very instrumental" in her election. Yet she cautions that technology, for all its wondrous possibilities, carries the potential to divide the next generation by widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

If leaders don't find a way for every home to have a computer, Premier Smith warns, they will see an increase in young people who are "alienated and angered" because they can't participate. "We need to be sure we don't consciously leave families out because they don't have access to technology," she says. "That is the new fundamental."

Young people hardly rank as the only important political constituency, of course. Finnbogadottir also emphasizes the importance of talking - and listening - to older people. "They refresh your memory," she explains. "They remember what went before, so you don't always have to reinvent the dinner plate and the wheel."

But as President Vigdis notes, in 10 years, more than half the world's population will be under 20. If their voices go unheard, the resulting challenges will be hard to ignore.

Focus groups and polls can tell politicians some of what they need to know. But the wisest among them would also do well to heed President Vigdis's advice to engage in "a dialogue" with young people. It is one way of embracing and respecting those who will inherit, for better or worse, the world being shaped by current leaders' decisions.

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