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Focus on: If young people care, why do they not engage more with democratic life?

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News & Articles

Focus on: If young people care, why do they not engage more with democratic life?

16 October 2023

The worst of attitudes is indifference, or to think ‘I can do nothing about it; I get by just fine’ – Stéphane Hessel

Soaring inequalities, the war in Ukraine, migrant deaths at sea, flare-ups of violence in the Middle East… Today there are one thousand and one reasons to be outraged, and who – more than youth – could feel compelled to fight against injustice? Motivated by the desire to live in a better world, over the decades many young women and men have taken to the streets, from the civil rights movements of the 1960s to Black Lives Matter, all the way through to the Arab Spring.

Young people care about the societies that they live in. Yet numbers would suggest that this does not always translate to a 360° participation in the daily workings of democratic life: too often, the younger segments of the population do not engage with traditional politics. Although youth disengagement is particularly prominent on the other side of the pond, it is also no stranger to Europe. While in some cases this can be for trivial reasons, such as not being organised to go and vote on the day of an election, for others it may be due to insufficient democratic awareness.

Recently, the European Parliament has found that young people's participation has been declining over time. Compared to other age brackets, youth are now less inclined to join political parties, sign petitions or become involved in demonstrations. What is all the more worrying is that the likelihood to cast a ballot becomes lower as age and income decrease. In addition to posing problems of equity, this provides future generations with less democratic representation, further exacerbating their withdrawal. Scholarly research has proven that negative trends in political engagement tend to become significant during adolescence, with parental education levels being a strong predictor of children’s democratic participation, and the absence of the student voice at school worsening the situation, particularly in more deprived contexts.

Young Europeans have, however, been able to attain better results and spend more time in education than their parents and grandparents. In this regard, numerous studies have found that political engagement correlates to the skills, socio-economic factors and life outcomes associated with longer schooling. If young people are less democratically involved, what  should one make of these counterintuitive findings? Alienation from party politics is likely another culprit. Indeed, when it comes to informal ways of engaging with world issues, youth can still be found at the forefront, eager to pick their battles.

Combating climate change and inequality is of great importance to many youngsters. In 2022, the European Commission's Flash Eurobarometer on Youth and Democracy has shown that the previous 3 years witnessed a 17% rise in the number of young people active in youth organisations, including voluntary organisations and associations dealing with environmental, human rights and global development issues. The most recent data about  young volunteers available on the Youth Wiki also indicates a significant involvement with these softer forms of social participation. For instance, in countries like Germany, Italy and France, the number of young people taking part in national volunteering programmes each year is in the order of tens of thousands of participants.

On the whole, activism comes more easily to young people than conventional political endeavours. Channelling one’s preoccupations into longer-lasting collective actions can be perceived as more concrete and emotionally fulfilling. Conversely, institutionally framed efforts may end up being seen as a drop in the ocean, or as entirely unappealing ‘old’ mechanisms.

In this context, it could be worth noting that schools do not devote much time to the teaching of social subjects. In 2022-23, the average European instruction time for Social Studies – which is occasionally merged with other disciplines – was only about 10%, in compulsory general secondary education.. VET pathways rarely include political subjects at all, and little to no ad-hoc teacher training takes place across the board. As a result, young people are sometimes left to their own devices to interpret the world around them, particularly when their personal lives do not allow them to be exposed to democratic culture by virtue of any other means.

To complicate matters further, as the European population continues to age, forgetting to plan for young people’s inclusion in civil society becomes a real risk. Hence, low turnouts should perhaps not come as a surprise. Even so, the onset of new trends would thankfully leave much room for hope. At the national level, several countries have developed specific instruments of youth impact assessment, in order to consider the potential negative effects that new laws might have on young people. In the EU, 2022 also marked the European Year of Youth, with the organisation of thousands of initiatives to promote a sustainable, inclusive and digital future for the adults of tomorrow. In this spirit, the European Commission is committed to exploring yet more avenues for youth involvement by the end of 2023.

Does this mean that young people will find their way back to the polls? Much will depend on the ability of policymakers and educators to ensure that young people are both conscious of the importance of active citizenship and seamlessly eased through the intricacies of participatory democracy. Young people’s interest in activism, volunteering and youth organisations means that they are deeply concerned by social debates. How then can this social concern act as a springboard to broader political involvement, including electoral participation – the backbone of any functioning democracy?


Authors: Samuele Lupi and David Crosier

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