Young people are not truly represented in European politics. This is a sign that our democracy is broken, and that we should redouble our efforts to increase participation, argues Allan Päll.
Allan Päll is the secretary general of the European Youth Forum.
If a significant proportion of our young people are excluded from democracy, then our democracy cannot be true, and in turn, traditional politics risks becoming increasingly anachronistic and illegitimate as levels of distrust continue to rise, alienating more and more young people.
This week, the European Youth Forum and the League of Young Voters published a study, Young People and Democratic Life in Europe, to coincide with the launch of its new campaign YouthUp, looking into these issues. The study tips the usual rhetoric around young people and voting on its head; popular wisdom (particularly among the political classes and the older generations) often cites apathy as the cause of young people not voting. They assume and young people do not care or are not interested in politics. This academic research thoroughly debunks that myth.
The research finds that young people are trapped in a vicious circle. It is increasingly difficult for them to participate in politics because they face more social and economic barriers, and are more and more disengaged from the political system. Basically, this means that when a young person does not have somewhere to live, or has mental health issues, caused perhaps by a long period of unemployment, then voting or joining a political party is understandably not on the top of their to do list. This has only been exacerbated in recent years since the economic crisis and the ensuing austerity measures.
When almost three-quarters (72%) of 16/18-24 year-olds do not vote, but more than half of 65+ year-olds do (European Elections 2014), young people’s interests are less and less a priority for political institutions. As a result, young people and less represented in politics, leading to lower levels of trust in the system of representative democracy and higher levels of political inequality and marginalisation, and a system that is increasingly undemocratic.
But young people are far from being apathetic and turning their noses up at politics. Yes, there is a problem of youth participation in Europe, but this is strictly in relation to institutional politics. What we are seeing is a changing political imagination among our youth, who use new forms of political expression and activism, including joining causes, campaigns and social movements, signing petitions, joining protests and boycotting certain products. Actually, come to think of it, much of it is not even new as such, but certainly we can see novel ways of organising for impact.
This evolution in the way young people are doing politics does not have to be a problem; it is in fact an opportunity. That is why the European Youth Forum has launched its new campaign, YouthUp, which seeks to crowd-source the best ideas on how to ‘youth up’ politics. Some ideas have already been highlighted in the study published this week, such as making citizenship education compulsory in schools, ensuring that young people are truly involved in policy making, giving the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds and ensuring that youth organisations – who are best placed to engage young people in civil and political life – are given secure and sustainable funding in order to be able to do this.
We would like YouthUp to be a long-term initiative that brings together all organisations and campaigns that aim to improve youth participation in democratic life, including youth organisations, participatory policy making initiatives, political and electoral campaigns that target youths, social movements, politicians and academics. We should all be concerned, and all stakeholders who care about democracy need to engage with the issue and consider their role in this process. Politics needs to change. It needs to youth up.