Democracy is broken, but when leaders like Frans Timmermans blame people who do not participate in a system they view as outdated and obsolete, they only help create a generation of disillusioned young people, writes Joahnna Nyman on International Youth Day.
Johanna Nyman is president of the European Youth Forum.
International Youth Day should be a day of celebration and a day to mark the progress that has been made for young people. It should also be a day for us to stand up for ourselves and have our voices heard!
Listening recently, however, to some people who should be showing global leadership, you could be forgiven for thinking that we, young people, do not care, that we do not want to raise our voices. Our leaders seem to think we are more interested in watching TV or playing Pokémon Go than in changing the world we live in for the better.
Acting as patroniser-in-chief, European First Vice President Mr. Frans Timmermans has been leading the rhetoric that blames young people for their laziness when it comes to getting involved and mobilising. “If you think that you can change the world from behind your PC or smartphone”, he recently declared, “I’ve got news for you; it won’t happen. You’ve got to be organised, active and physically present to make your voice heard, win the argument and steer the future”.
This assertion unfortunately seems more more aligned with populist prejudice against young people than with reality.
Another recent misinterpretation of the current situation facing young people came from the pope, during a speech he gave in front of young Catholics in Krakow.
While calling for young people to get involved in social movements, Pope Francis came close to guilt tripping instead of encouraging them. He referred to our generation as “lazy” and said we need to get off our sofas. This “guilt” narrative is unhelpful, as it actively discourages people who need encouragement the most, but it is also absolutely false.
For one thing, as president of an organisation representing over 100 large European youth groups, I find the allegations hurled at us particularly frustrating since I see young people every day who come up with ideas for a better future, take action and mobilise others.
The European Youth Forum has conducted in-depth research showing that young people do in fact participate and care about politics. The research shows that they volunteer with youth organisations, join social movements, boycott and protest! Young people also take part in more formal institutional policy making through representative youth organisations.
Yes, young people do not vote in large numbers and they have – to some degree – turned their backs on the traditional political system, including mainstream political parties.
Young people’s withdrawal from traditional politics has unfortunately become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle of political marginalisation: because 72% of 16-24 years olds do not vote, but over half of people over age 65 do, politicians largely ignore – or at least don’t prioritise – the issues that matter to us. And young people, therefore, continue to turn away from the political system. Since we often don’t feel represented by politicians, this leads to even greater levels of distrust, and even lower voter turnouts in the future.
Yes, our democracy is broken, but if our leaders blame people who do not participate in a system that they view as outdated and obsolete, they will not help bring them in, but instead only help create a generation of disillusioned young people.
Why not let young people in instead? Why not co-create politics with them? Surely there isn’t anything to be afraid of. Alongside measures such as lowering the voting age to 16 across Europe and a reformed education system that nurtures active citizenship, a changed attitude could help reinvent politics to harness young people’s political innovation and energy.
On International Youth Day, which this year is focused on eradicating poverty, I ask First Vice President Mr. Timmermans and other EU leaders: with young people currently the most at risk age group to go into poverty and social exclusion in Europe, is it any wonder that some are not voting? When you worry about your next meal, about basic rights such as a roof over your head, healthcare and education and do not know when or where the next pay cheque will come from, is it any wonder that young people are not banging down the doors to join political parties?
Mr Timmermans and many others would be wise to stop patronising and take a look at the reality around them, and try to identify any link between apathy towards formal politics and the political system they represent.
Tragically, our societal systems are rigged against and routinely discriminate against us. One example that older generations might contemplate is the youth pay gap: in at least eight EU countries there is a different, lower, minimum wage for young people. This means that, in the Netherlands for example, at the age of 18 a young person earns half the adult wage for the same job. They are effectively working half of the year for free!
Meanwhile, if you are one of the millions of young people across Europe who cannot find a job, with little support from systems that are meant to protect us, you have no means to live. Along with poverty, homelessness among young people is on the rise in Denmark, where the number of young homeless people increased by 80% between 2009 and 2013.
Pope Francis’s positive comments on social justice and recent warnings on youth unemployment are welcome. But perhaps the link between poverty and lack of housing are more connected to political disengagement than to the video games he was so worried about recently in Krakow?
The precarious situation in which young people find themselves is having an impact not only on young people’s lives, but also – through their inability to contribute to the economy – on wider society. If we do not tackle this now, we risk sacrificing a generation and we surely cannot afford that. We must give young people hope for their future if we want to even begin to engage them in formal politics! I call out these leaders, busy with their patronising rhetoric, to get on with tackling the big issues that our society faces.