Youths of the decade
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Darcy Miller contributed reporting to this article.
The Bigger Picture (London) — This past decade was an eventful one. In politics, we witnessed the end to centrism as the leading political ideology, the rise of both right and left-wing populism, and the growth of the environmental movement; in entertainment and media, the rise of non-mainstream, new platforms like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, the now-defunct Vine, and the battle between mainstream and new media for popularity; and the art world became far more accessible for youth creators, with art gaining traction on platforms like Instagram and smartphones making everyone a photographer. We tried to distill this decade and single out the youths who really made changes this decade; high-profile political activists, game-changing athletes, and extremely talented musicians. See our selection below.
Image courtesy of the Financial Times
Malala Yousafzai, arguably, became one of the most iconic political activists ever this decade, notwithstanding that, after making headlines worldwide at 15, she is only 22 today.
The female activist from the Swat District in northwestern Pakistan began her activism whilst writing anonymously for the BBC about her experiences living in the region, which when she wrote for the British publication in 2009 was controlled by the Taliban. The militant group banned television, music, and implemented misogynistic policies like banning girls from attending school completely and women from going shopping. However, it was in the 2010s that she properly rose to prominence, after her father inspired her to become an activist and her identity as the anonymous Swat District blogger was revealed in December 2009. She began to campaign in earnest for girl’s education, speaking to international media outlets about her case and planning an organisation called the Malala Education Foundation in efforts to help more girls attend school.
As she rose to fame, her detractors grew in number, and Yousafzai started receiving widespread death threats. Infamously, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman on the 9th of October, 2012, as she travelled home from school on a bus. The Taliban saw her as a threat to their regime and tried to eliminate the 15-year-old. It sparked worldwide outrage, with protests breaking out across Pakistan. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a “heinous and cowardly act”, while Barack Obama said it was “reprehensible, disgusting and tragic”. It ended up backfiring for the Taliban, with the outrage driving a two million-signature strong Right to Education petition which was ratified as a result, providing equal education for all children in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Malala headed to Birmingham for further treatment, where she was to make her home. She started attending school there, while continuing her activism; she spoke with figures like Queen Elizabeth II, confronted Obama on his use of drone strikes, and spoke at Harvard University and the Girl Summit. She opened a non-for-profit school in Lebanon, near the Syrian border, for female Syrian refugees, continuing her advocacy for female education, and won the Nobel Peace Prize at 17, the youngest recipient ever.
Today, she is at Oxford University, after having received stellar A-Level results, and is studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
Malala with the Obamas. Image courtesy of Vox.
Image courtesy of The Thiager.
Joshua Wong, along with Malala and figures like Greta Thunberg, is one of the most prominent young political activists this decade. When he was just 15, he co-founded a student activist group, called Scholarism, in 2011, which would go on to be at the forefront of Hong Kong’s 79-day-long Umbrella Movement. At just 16 he was already organising rallies involving upwards of 100,000 people.
At the start of the Umbrella Movement, after Beijing announced they would not give Hong Kong universal suffrage after all, Wong was one of the first to start a class boycott which would serve as the catalyst for the wider movement. He proved incredibly courageous and resilient during the year, going on hunger strike, being assaulted by pro-Beijing thugs and police, and held in custody for 46 hours. Beijing even recognised how important he was as a political figure in Hong Kong, directly identifying him in a Blue Paper on National Security as a threat to the CCP regime.
In 2016, he founded the pro-independence political party Demosistō along with other Scholarism leaders Agnes Chow, Oscar Lai and other prominent Umbrella Movement activists. In 2015, he was recognised by Fortune magazine as one of the “world’s greatest leaders”.
The next year, he was jailed for his role in the Umbrella Movement along with other student activists Nathan Law and Alex Chow, but he didn’t stay silent; he managed to pen columns for progressive news outlet The Guardian whilst in jail.
More recently, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 by a bipartisan group of US lawmakers, alongside the entire Umbrella Movement and other singled-out activists, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. He further influenced US politics, playing an instrumental role in convincing them to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act earlier in the year, which requires the US President to sanction complicit Hong Kong and Beijing officials.
Joshua Wong alongside HK pro-democracy politician Denise Ho at the Capitol. Image courtesy of AP.
He has become one of the most prominent figures in 2019’s pro-democracy movement, which shows no signs of stopping soon, and at 23, he has already accomplished so much.
Harry Styles. Image courtesy of Business Insider
To slightly change tack and recognise those from the entertainment industry, we must first recognise Harry Styles, who became one of the biggest musicians in the world this decade. He was arguably the most talented member of One Direction, the massive boy band which formed in 2011 after Styles, who was then 17, competed on the X Factor. The 5-member band won a plethora of awards, selling millions upon millions of albums and singles, and boasted millions of loyal, dedicated and obsessive teenage fans. However, while the music they put out was culturally significant and iconic in its own right, it was arguably a little bland.
Styles’ solo music, which he has produced after One Direction broke up in 2016, has proved much more intriguing and rich with talent. His first solo song, 2017’s Sign of the Times, shot to number one on the UK singles chart and fourth place on the Billboard Hot 100, was a world away from the pop music of 1D; it was a soft-rock ballad akin to historical figures like David Bowie. His self-titled 70s-inspired soft-rock debut solo album, released that May, went to number one on the UK, US and Australian charts. His new album, Fine Line, released this December, showed Styles going back to more of a mainstream-pop genre, although a little on the indie side. It went to number 3 in the UK albums chart and one in the US, boasting indie-pop singles Lights Up, Watermelon Sugar and Adore You. The drug-inspired, slightly psychedelic single Lights Up is one of his best songs to date.
After all of his accomplishments this decade, it is difficult to grasp that he is only 25 years of age.
Tyler, the Creator
Image courtesy of British GQ.
While Tyler, the Creator, who is now 28 years old, is no longer a youth figure, he was for most of the decade, whereupon he produced some of the best and most influential music seen in years. He first rose to prominence in the late noughties after co-founding the Odd Future hip hop collective, which numbered amongst its ranks the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, Domo Genesis and Syd.
Since 2009, when he was 18 years old, he has produced an album every two years without fail, an astonishingly prolific artist. He handles most of the production himself, and has indeed produced for other artists such as Kali Uchis.
Each album that the American rapper has put out is unique in its own right, and each one evolves and grows into the next. He started with debut studio album Goblin, following his 2009 mixtape Bastard; Goblin featured hard-hitting beats, deepened vocals and dark, twisted lyrics. 2013’s Wolf, debuting at no.3 on the US Billboard 200, is arguably his best album to date, featuring boom-bap drum beats, beautiful-sounding, layered production rich with bright synths, emotive piano melodies, guitar strums and elegant organs along with deeply personal lyrics.
2015’s Cherry Bomb was less well received but still a commercial success, with bubbling synths, simple piano melodies and graceful synths; it was bolstered by features from Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Pharrell Williams, Kali Uchis and Odd Future member Syd.
2017’s Flower Boy, his last album release as a young artist, was more well received, with a Grammy nomination, a number 2 spot on the Billboard 200 and a more bright, cheerful outlook. It was diverse, too, with the more slow-paced, elegant singles Foreword, Boredom, November and 9/11 / Mr. Lonely featuring Rex Orange County and Frank Ocean, and the more fast-paced, electric singles Who Dat Boy and I Ain’t Got Time with features from A$AP Rocky.
This year’s IGOR, released as Tyler inches ever closer towards turning 30, was one of his best albums to date, receiving a Grammy nomination, and debuting at No.1 on the US Billboard 200. Tyler featured his vocals over chopped up soul and R&B beats, with contributions from Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Solange and Slowthai.
Tyler, the Creator, whose real name is Tyler Okonma, is talented in a variety of areas. As well as rapping, singing and producing, he also designs fashion for his label Golf Wang, which is changing up the fashion game, having runway shows attended by the likes of Kanye West, Kendall Jenner and YG. He has collaborated with Lacoste, Converse and Vans, and also holds an annual music festival in LA called Camp Flog Gnaw for which Japanese fashion icon Verdy has designed merchandise.
His collective Odd Future also did a comedy series on Adult Swim called Loiter Squad. While Okonma has had a controversial past, he is undeniably talented, and produces music that resonates with millions across the globe. As the years pass, it will be interesting to see what he puts out.
Tyler wearing some of his GOLF le FLEUR* x Lacoste apparel. Image courtesy of Vogue
Image courtesy of the Financial Times.
The 22-year-old Japanese tennis player has, over the past decade, become one of the biggest figures in world tennis. After rising to prominence at age 16 when she beat World No. 19 Samathan Stosur in her professional female tennis debut, she went on to enter the top 50 of the WTA rankings in 2016 after winning against World No. 6 Simona Halep in the French Open and making it to the finals of the Pan Pacific Open, held in her home country of Japan.
In 2017 she didn’t replicate the same successes. Over the last two years, however, Osaka started to really elevate her career to become one of the biggest figures in world tennis after winning her first WTA title at the Indian Wells Open in March 2018, only dropping a single set, beating world no.1 Simona Halep and another world top 5 opponent. Osaka then beat her idol, tennis icon Serena Williams, to win the US Open, rising to world no. 4. In 2019, she started the year as she ended it, winning the Australian Open in back-to-back Grand Slam singles victories, becoming No.1 in the world. She was the first Japanese, and Asian, player to do so in the history of the sport.
Naomi Osaka during the US Open. Image courtesy of USOpen.org
Osaka boasts a powerful serve, hitting 200km/h. She was coached by her father initially, who said he followed the “blueprint” of the Williams sisters’ father, as she grew up in the United States.
As well as being one of the greatest tennis players in the sport, Osaka also has the potential to make strides against racism and discrimination in Japan, where discrimination and prejudice against half-Japanese people like herself is widespread. It has directly affected her, with her Japanese grandparents initially refusing to accept her parent’s marriage to Haitian Leonard Francois. She has faced racism from even mainstream news outlets, with supposed progressive English-news outlet The Japan Times and US news outlets questioning her “Japanese-ness”. As a prominent athlete, Osaka can become a role model and actively fight and end prejudices that afflict people like herself in Japan.
20-year-old Emma Gonzalez is one of the group of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors who went on to co-found Never Again MSD and organise the March for Our Lives rally, which involved millions of students advocating for gun control over hundreds of locations in the United States.
She is one of the most prominent of the Parkland surviving gun-control advocates, with a speech at a gun control rally in Fort
Lauderdale three days after the shooting, in which she declared that “we call B.S.” on the failure of politicians to combat gun violence, going viral.
She also made one of the most poignant speeches at March for Our Lives, where she held several minutes of silence.
Gonzalez during her speech at March for Our Lives. Image courtesy of the NY Times.
Gonzalez has had to face vicious attacks and conspiracy theories postulated by rightwingers, including attacks on her sexual orientation, appearance, and race, along with conspiracy theories about her being a crisis actor, which even the President’s children appeared to support. A Republican politician, Leslie Gibson, called her a “skinhead lesbian”, while fake videos spread by Republican supporters online showed her ripping up the US constitution.
On the day of the shooting, she was trapped in an auditorium for hours after attempting to escape. Today, Gonzalez is studying at the New College of Florida.
Image courtesy of SB Nation.
Simone Biles, at just 22, is one of the greatest gymnasts in the history of the sport. She has won a total of 30 Olympic and world championship medals, with her first world championship gold at the age of 16 in 2013, and she was the first African-American to win the all-around title ever, a great achievement.
While she took a hiatus in 2017 following years of competing she came back last year stronger than ever, winning the all around title at her first competition back, the US Classic. In the 2018 National Championships, she was first in every single event over two entire days of competition, and in the World Championships that year she won all-around gold even though she had a kidney stone the night before.
At this year’s World Championships she won 5 golds. Aside from pure sporting medals, she has won several awards; she was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2016, and that year was also a finalist for Time’s Person of the Year. This November, she took the People’s Choice Award for The Game Changer of 2019. Biles’ talent in the sport of gymnastics is unbounded; it will certainly be interesting to see how long she can maintain her success for.
Image courtesy of Idealism.
Idealism made our list because while he is an incredibly talented musician in his own right he is also at the forefront of, and thus a symbol of, the incredibly popular lofi hip-hop genre, which has become the go-to study music for millions of young people. Labels that curate lofi music have amassed millions of subscribers, with their playlists hitting tens of millions of views and 24/7 lofi livestreams attracting a constant audience of tens of thousands at any given moment.
Idealism, real name Lassi Kotamaki, is one of the biggest lofi artists in the entire scene, with 2.3m monthly listeners on Spotify and 121m Spotify streams last year, making him the biggest artist from his home country Finland. He released an astonishing four EPs in 2017, with the most popular of the four, Rainy Evening, featuring boom-bap drum beats, ambient noise and Idealism’s trademark piano melodies layered over samples of dusty jazz and soul music from decades past. His most popular song to date, Controlla (which is on the Rainy Evening EP), a lofi rework of Drake’s song of the same name, has notched up 30m streams on Spotify. Hiraeth, the second EP, is more experimental, slowed down, boasting amongst its songs the glorious synth-heavy track Interstellar Brownies, the relaxing piano-based Phosphenes and the Gantz-dialogue-featuring Sweven. Amaranthine is more synth-based, a haunting album suited to late nights and racing minds, while Nobody Else is more piano based. Each song on every 2017 EP notched up millions of streams, proving a massive success for the Finnish producer.
Since then, Idealism has released a series of singles ahead of his 2020 EP, experimenting with a variety of styles. He has released more ambient tracks, like Tasogare (featuring Japanese guitarist Yutaka Hirasaka); two singles with producer SwuM, perfectly combining Idealism’s calming piano melodies and SwuM’s beautiful synths; and a 5-minute-single song based around dialogue from 2004 film The Notebook. Idealism has also used his massive platform to showcase other artists, including Yutaka Hirasaka, Late June, Alex Szotak, and in his 2020 EP up-and-coming Japanese producer and singer-songwriter Singular Balance. All the while Idealism has been releasing beautiful music, he has also been a medical student at Edinburgh University, amazingly enough. It’s hard enough to make it in the music scene, and Idealism has done so whilst being an independent musician; but being a med student at the same time, a famously demanding academic path, is astonishing.
Image courtesy of Idealism.
Image courtesy of the Cosmopolitan.
The 19-year-old snowboarder has been competing consistently for the last seven years. Across those seven years, Kim, who represents the US whilst having South Korean parents, has achieved great success. Back in 2014, she won the gold in the superpipe event at the X Games at just 14 years of age, then the youngest ever gold medalist in the competition. Two years later, at 16, she became the first American woman to win a gold medal in snowboarding in at the Winter Youth Olympic Games, and last year, she was the youngest woman to clinch Olympic snowboarding gold ever, which she won in the halfpipe, being nearly 10 points ahead of her closest opponent. She has shattered scores of records and currently has won World, Olympic, Youth Olympic and X Games gold in the halfpipe.
Outside of sports, she is trilingual, speaking fluent English, French and Korean. She took a year off snowboarding to study at Princeton University, an Ivy League school, to study Science as part of the Class of 2023. Kim’s talents are incredible and diversified, and it will be interesting to see what she does next.
Lin during the height of his career, a three-week-long streak dubbed "Linsanity" in which he rapidly became one of the best players in the NBA from a player struggling to make it past the D League. Image courtesy of SB Nation.
While the 31-year-old American point-guard Jeremy Lin is currently plying his trade in the CBA for the Beijing Ducks, his exploits as a 24-year-old were the high points of his career. What is most remarkable about Lin is the way that he managed to overcome setbacks after being knocked back over and over again, in the face of racism, discrimination, injuries and a lack of faith in him from coaches.
Lin has stood out as one of the most promising basketball players in the country since he was young, captaining Palo Alto High School at the end of the noughties as a high school senior. He guided the team to a 32-1 record, beating national powerhouse Mater Dei 51-47 to win the California Division II title. Averaging 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.0 steals, Lin was named to the All State first-team and given the accolade of Northern California Divison II Player of the Year. Yet he was not offered a single D1 scholarship, eventually choosing to attend Harvard and play as a walk-on for their D1 team with a minor in Economics. This was after Harvard’s assistant coach called Lin a “Division III player”. By his senior year in 2009-10, he was averaging 16.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.4 steals, a unanimous choice for the All-Ivy League First Team. He led Harvard to their most successful season in the history of D1 basketball, setting win, non-conference win, home win and road win records. He ended his college career as the first player in the history of the Ivy League to rack up 1,450 points or more, 450 rebounds, 400 assists and 200 steals, with an impressive 3.1 GPA.
Unbelievably, he went undrafted in 2010, with only one team offering him a Summer League place. He went on to impress there, getting offers from several NBA teams and choosing to sign for the Golden State Warriors, becoming the first Chinese/Taiwanese-American to play in the NBA. He initially struggled, bouncing back and forth from the D League to the NBA; GSW Owner Joe Lacob doubted him, saying that he was not going to be a “superstar”, and he was eventually let go in December 2011. He was then picked up and dropped by the Houston Record over the course of a few days, and managed to secure a last-gasp opportunity with the New York Knicks.
Close to being let go by the Knicks and facing the probable end of an NBA career after struggling for them initially, he suddenly elevated his game against the New Jersey Nets on the 4th of February, 2012, racking up 25 points, 5 rebounds, and seven assists. That was to start a three-week-long streak in which he lit up the NBA and became one of the best players in the entire league. In the next game, he nabbed 28 points, with a double-double the game after, followed by a career high of 38 points and seven assists against the LA Lakers, outscoring Lakers icon Kobe Bryant who claimed he hadn’t heard of Lin before the game. Against the Toronto Raptors in mid-February, Lin hit a game-winning three pointer seconds before the end of the game, in a moment that will linger in the memories of fans for years. The craze became known as “Linsanity”, with AP calling him “the most surprising story in the NBA”. In his 12 starts before the All-Star break in late February, Lin was averaging 22.5 points and 8.7 assists with the Knicks having a 9-3 record. He attracted a gigantic Chinese fanbase, and Asian-American basketball fans finally had representation in the league, by one of the most prominent players. He had a huge cultural impact in that sense.
The rest of Lin’s career would go on to be a mixed bag, achieving some successes (guiding the Charlotte Hornets through the playoffs in 2016, becoming the first Asian-American to win an NBA title as a bit-part player with the Toronto Raptors this year) although they were largely overshadowed by persistent injuries. He also had to face widespread racism throughout his long basketball career, with racial slurs consistently coming his way whilst playing for Harvard. He suspected that racial profiling explained why he wasn’t picked up by coaches initially despite his glaringly obvious talents, a theory that was supported by former NBA commissioner David Stern. Even ESPN used racial slurs against him, saying that there was a “chink” in Lin’s “armour” in an infamously shocking headline.
Lin’s career was incredible, like nothing seen before; rich with cultural significance and sporting talent. His achievements sum up what The Bigger Picture is all about.