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Why is it important to promote young people's participation in
conventional politics - and how can this be best achieved?
Dr Eldin Fahmy (University of Bristol)1
Presentation to Workshop on the Political Participation of Young People, Bilgi University,
Istanbul – 22nd June 2013
In this paper I will argue that understandings of the nature, extent, and dynamics of youth political
participation need to be informed by the following perspectives:
1. Thinking about the nature of ‘the political’ in this context often emphasises the diversity of forms
of youth political behaviours extending well beyond conventional party politics. Whilst it is
important to acknowledge this diversity (and thus the extent of young people’s existing political
engagement), the continued exclusion of youth from political elites remains a key barrier to
strategies for greater political equality.
2. A focus on youth-specific explanations of youth non-participation in conventional politics often
ignores the effects of wider changes in the external political environment in shaping participation
decisions and strategies. These are systemic changes which (to varying degrees) affect the
dynamics of political participation across rich countries including, but by no means limited to,
3. Youth-specific explanations tend to encourage a deficit-based model of youth participation. In
understanding youth non-participation in conventional politics we tend to ask why do young
people choose not to participate, rather than why are our political institutions failing to engage
with different publics? This suggests that reform of political structures should be an urgent
priority if we are to genuinely engage politically marginalised groups, including young people.
4. Advancing understanding of the modalities of youth political participation should be situated
within the context of a wider understanding of the consequences of processes of social exclusion
for the participation of marginalised social groups within society including, but not limited to, the
sphere of political decision-making. Political exclusion cannot be separated from the wider
structures of social exclusion in contemporary societies across the global North and South.
Addressing this wider agenda highlights the ways in which social power is exercised in highly
unequal societies and with what consequences for socially marginalised populations.
In addressing this agenda I will be drawing on existing theory and evidence in a European context in
order to offer some suggestions about how we can facilitate greater involvement by young people in
political decision making with the objective of increasing young people’s capacity to influence the
decisions which shape their circumstances and future prospects. However, I shall also argue that
these perspectives have much wider applications in understanding youth political action
internationally including in both rich and poor countries.
Contact: School for Policy Studies, Univ. of Bristol, 8 Priory Rd., Bristol UK BS8 1TZ. T:+44(0)1179546703;
E: email@example.com. This document presents work in progress and should not be disseminated or quoted
without written permission of the author.
1. Youth, ‘the political’, and participation
In a European context it is now well established that many young people are disengaged from formal
political processes and institutions. This is reflected both in young people’s political behaviours, and
in their attitudes to formal political institutions and officially sanctioned mechanisms of participation.
Despite some significant cross-national variations, across European countries as a whole young
people are less likely to vote in local, national and supranational elections. Where such data is
available, young people are less likely than older citizens to have contacted their elected
representatives, to be members of mainstream political parties, or to stand for public office where they
are eligible to do so.
To some extent, the limited participation of youth in conventional politics is also reflected in young
peoples’ political attitudes. This is certainly the case with regard to the cognitive dimensions of
political beliefs, where young Europeans consistently report lower levels of interest in politics
compared with older citizens, lower levels of political knowledge, and more negative evaluations of
their own political competency or efficacy.
Within popular discourse, the extent of young people’s non-participation in conventional politics have
prompted numerous claims about youth political ‘apathy’ and an emerging ‘crisis’ of youth
participation. As I shall argue below, there are good reasons for concern about the limited extent of
young European’s engagement with formal politics – though for rather different reasons to those
usually voiced within popular commentaries on this issue. However, as many academic youth
researchers have noted, these concerns sometimes reflect a very narrow interpretation of ‘the political’
and on this basis seriously misrepresent the nature and extent of youth political engagement.
In general, and like many other politically marginalised groups, young people’s political engagement
tends to be characterised by relatively informal and/or unstructured modes of political expression and
action ranging from participation in political protests, demonstrations, and occupations to online
activism, ethical consumption, and support for ‘single issue’ campaigns around socio-political and
environmental issues. Since these forms of political action are often overlooked within public
discourses on youth political ‘apathy’, the extent of young people’s political engagement is also
under-estimated. At the same time, commentary about youth political ‘apathy’ often reflect concerns
for the continued legitimacy of existing political structures and institutions much more than any
specific interest in promoting young people’s empowerment as political actors.
As the recent waves of political protest across southern Europe and the Middle East show, concerns
about the potential for political instability arising from youth disengagement from officially
sanctioned political mechanisms are not without foundation. However, in considering the question of
how to re-engage youth with Europe’s formal mechanisms of political participation and representation
our focus should be on how can we realise formal rights to equal representation in the decisions which
shape young people’s futures, rather than upon how can we restore the legitimacy of existing political
structures and processes.
Whatever the merits of informal and unstructured mechanisms of youth participation, the continued
de facto exclusion of young people from the authoritative mechanisms for the exercise of political
power should be a matter of concern for all those committed to the pursuit of political equality.
Notwithstanding the limitations of existing institutions, they remain a key mechanism for holding
socially powerful groups to account. To this extent, the continued and systematic underrepresentation of socially marginalised groups within these structures, including the young - as well as
women, ethnic minorities, workers, and the poor - is rightly a focus of concern.
I will illustrate this with one concrete, if contentious, example. On 15th February 2003 the largest
protest march in British history took place in London in protest against the imminent British
involvement in the invasion of Iraq, with anything up to two million people demonstrating against the
UK government’s proposed course of action. This included very large numbers of supposedly
‘apathetic’ young people who were in fact over-represented amongst the protestors. Despite the scale
of these protests, the UK Parliament approved the UK Government’s ‘case for war’ by a substantial
majority committing UK armed forces to involvement in a war resulting in the death of hundreds of
thousands of innocent civilians. Despite the importance of political protest, it would seem that the
only way to effectively hold political leaders to account continues to be to secure effective
representation of the people in the institutions by which state power is exercised.
2. The social context of youth participation
Given the continued relevance of conventional mechanisms of political participation in advancing
young people’s concerns and issue agendas, how then can we best facilitate young people’s
involvement in political decision-making? In addressing this question, it is important first to
acknowledge that declining levels of citizen engagement in officially sanctioned forms of
participation is an issue which is not confined to young people, and that youth-specific accounts
therefore do not provide a wholly adequate explanation. On the contrary, declining levels of
participation in electoral politics have, to a greater or lesser degree, affected all of the Western
democracies, for example, with regard to trends in voting and membership of political parties.
Similar declines in levels of political trust, and in satisfaction with government and the operation of
democracy, have also been witnessed across European societies, and beyond, in recent decades.
Changes over time in youth political engagement are therefore part of a wider disenchantment of
Western publics with representative political institutions. It is of course notoriously difficult to
disentangle period, cohort and generational effects in understanding the dynamics of youth
participation, and the limitations of existing data sources continues to be a key barrier to addressing
these issues. However, a decline in participation and trust has clearly become a systemic problem for
Western democracies and we clearly cannot continue to explain youth disengagement solely in terms
of either lifecycle or generational factors alone - important though these may be.
Some authors have argued that young people’s position within the lifecycle may explain their relative
disengagement from conventional politics, for example, as a result of their lack of exposure to the
kinds of social networks which might facilitate engagement, as a result of their relative lack of
politically relevant knowledge and competency, or as a result of more immediate concerns associated
with transitions to adulthood in ‘crowding out’ an interest in wider political issues. Whilst these
arguments undoubtedly have some merit, they do not in themselves explain the apparent and
persistent decline over time in youth engagement with conventional politics.
Others argue that young people are acquiring new political repertoires and styles, for example
associated with the growth of ‘post-material’ politics, resulting in generational changes in the terms
youth political engagement. Again, whilst these accounts have some merit they do not explain why
similar trends are being observed amongst many older citizens in the Western democracies, nor
indeed are they wholly consistent with the apparent resurfacing of more ‘traditional’ concerns with
the politics of distribution, for example, within the ‘new politics’ of anti-globalisation and anticapitalist movements. On the contrary, the history of counter-hegemonic social movements in Europe
demonstrates that the politics of recognition and identity have always marched hand-in-hand with
concerns for the redistribution of wealth and power within capitalist societies.
Addressing this agenda requires an acknowledgement that the centres of political and economic power
in Western societies have become increasingly remote from mechanisms of public accountability in
the eyes of many of Europe’s citizens – and that representative political institutions are perceived as
being increasingly ineffective in bringing powerful economic interests within the locus of democratic
3. Challenging deficit models of youth political participation
The above observations suggest that we need to locate an account of the dynamics of youth political
participation within the context of wider changes in the political economy of Western societies and
their democratic institutions. On the whole, however, existing popular explanations for youth
disengagement from officially sanctioned modes of participation have emphasised factors relating to
young people themselves, rather than to changes in the institutional context of participation, or wider
changes in the efficacy of political institutions and processes in meeting the demands of Western
Such accounts frequently refer to generational change in young people’s value orientations, for
example, associated with increased individualism and the growing prevalence of privatised and/or
anti-social values, sometimes linking such trends to wider cultural shifts in the social outlooks of
Western publics associated with individualisation, post-modernisation, and post-materialism. To the
extent that lifecycle factors are identified as key drivers of changes in the terms of young people’s
political engagement, it is the things which young people lack (e.g. political knowledge, political
competency, or a material stake in the outcomes of political processes) which typically informs
accounts of youth non-participation.
Challenging this narrative focusing on the deficiencies of youth involves listening more closely to the
views of young people themselves in explaining their non-participation in conventional politics.
Here, the message emerging from both quantitative and qualitative research in this area has generally
been consistent. I will briefly summarise these accounts primarily drawing on evidence from UK
studies, before considering their implications for efforts to promote greater participation by young
people in electoral politics in the UK, in Europe as a whole, and elsewhere.
Firstly, it is certainly clear that many young people feel that they do not sufficiently understand
politics, and feel that they lack the political skills and competencies needed to operate as effective
political actors. As a result, many young people not unsurprisingly ‘switch off’ from political debates
which they find it difficult to follow.
Secondly, many young people feel that politicians are untrustworthy and out of touch with the
circumstances and choices faced by young people. The perception that politicians are not interested
in young people’s views and opinions is widespread, alongside the perception that political decisions
and policies do not reflect the interests of youth - and in many cases are in fact quite hostile to young
Thirdly, many young people feel that there is increasingly little to choose between the main political
parties in terms of the issue agendas they pursue – agendas which are in many cases widely perceived
as being hostile to the interests of many young people. Moreover, existing political institutions are
widely viewed as becoming increasingly ineffective in achieving positive changes in the
circumstances which shape young people’s lives.
4. Addressing the institutional bases of non-participation
Given the above observations, what should we conclude concerning effective strategies for promoting
youth political participation? Firstly, as young people’s extensive involvement in political protest and
diffuse forms of unconventional political action testifies, it is evidently not the case that young
Europeans are disengaged from political action per se but rather specifically from electoral politics.
To some extent this reflects a lack of political awareness and limited political competency with regard
to the skills, networks and capacities needed to effectively engage in officially sanctioned forms of
political action. This lack of political literacy may reflect the decline of agencies of political
socialisation in the Western democracies which have traditionally provided a point of entry for many
young citizens into representative politics, for example, via the organised labour movement. To the
extent that collective action and organisation continues to be provide a basis for the political education
of youth, for example, via the new social movements and diffuse forms of community organisation
and voluntary activity, this increasingly takes place outside the sphere of electoral politics.
In the UK, efforts to improve the political literacy of youth have mainly focused around citizenship
education. However, these state-sanctioned approaches are largely seek to address an apparent crisis
of legitimation for existing political institutions, for example, through education in ‘good citizenship’
and ‘democratic values’ rather than providing young people with the skills necessary to engage in
politics as competent political actors. Indeed, one might reasonably question why it has taken so long
for such initiatives to bear fruit – and whose interests are served by the long-standing absence of
political education for youth within the mainstream curriculum in schools.
Whilst, like many other social groups, young people may often lack the skills necessary to effectively
engage in conventional politics as active participants, they are more than capable of making quite
sophisticated judgements about the efficacy of conventional political action and are equally capable of
making reasoned evaluations about political institutions and actors. The evident antipathy which
many young citizens feel towards officially sanctioned political institutions, actors, and processes is
widely shared by many other citizens in the Western democracies. This palpable fact therefore
requires us to take seriously the sentiments expressed by large segments of European electorates by
considering how we might best reform existing institutions and processes to more effectively
represent the interests of Europe’s citizens, and to provide more inclusive avenues for their active
participation in political decision-making.
Addressing this agenda requires us to consider how we can more effectively integrate the kinds of
informal, unstructured and innovative forms of political engagement favoured by youth (and many
other socially marginalised groups) with the authoritative political institutions and processes within
which state power is exercised. In many Western societies, the basic institutional structures of
conventional political participation have remained largely unaltered despite often profound social,
technological, and economic changes in the post-1945 period. In the UK, for example, the basic
structure and forms of democratic participation have not changed substantially since the achievement
of universal suffrage in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a real danger that political
institutions will become ossified in ways which effectively shut citizens out from effective
participation in the institutions which shape their future. This presents an increasingly serious threat
to the continued political stability of European societies given the scale of the social and economic
challenges facing the continent now and in the near future.
In the UK and elsewhere some efforts have been made in recent years to find new ways to engage
with diverse publics (including young people), for example, through the use of innovative consultative
mechanisms such as citizens’ juries, people’s panels, and deliberative polling methods. However, to
date such efforts have remained essentially tokenistic since they have not been effectively integrated
with the existing representative mechanisms where real political power is exercised. Without serious
consideration of how we can more effectively ‘bridge the divide’ between formal political institutions
and the more informal and unconventional mechanisms of political action which youth tend to prefer
there is a risk that such innovations in democratic practice might simply fuel increased cynicism and
alienation from public institutions.
5. Youth, political exclusion and social marginalisation
Addressing this agenda also requires us to consider the wider political economy of activism and
political engagement. Such an account might for example emphasise the ‘hollowing out’ of political
parties with regard to their traditional support base and grass roots, and the increased ideological
convergence of political parties in much of Europe around a broadly neo-liberal issue agenda. It
might also emphasise the declining effectiveness of nation states in holding corporate power to
account, and the progressive widening of disparities in income and wealth both within European
societies and beyond as drivers of increased political alienation or disaffection.
As applied to the circumstances of young Europeans, it also specifically requires an acknowledgement
of the corrosive effects of increasing inequalities in youth transitions in shaping the terms of young
people’s political engagement. As noted above, the attitudes of many UK youth towards conventional
politics reflects a growing perception that policies and legislation are increasingly undermining rather
than supporting young people in making successful transitions to adulthood. Given this perception, it
is perhaps unsurprising that many young people feel excluded from conventional politics and seek
other avenues to express their views.
Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that this perception reflects a realistic assessment of the
direction of current policy in the UK towards youth. Re-engaging young people with conventional
politics therefore also requires a commitment on the part of policy makers to developing a more
positive policy environment on youth issues which is capable of demonstrating to young people that
their circumstances and prospects genuinely matter to policy makers. Of course, youth is not an
homogenous category and the widening of inequalities in the experience of transitions to adulthood
further frustrates efforts to engender a collective consciousness of youth not simply as a social
category but also as a collective actor.
Finally, as discussed above, young people are far from unique in their exclusion from effective
participation in existing institutions of democratic government. Rather this is a much wider problem
affecting many socially marginalised groups including women, ethnic minorities, workers, and the
poor. Historically, in Europe effective pressure for the introduction of democratic mechanisms of
accountability has mostly come ‘from below’ as a means of controlling socially powerful groups and
effecting changes in wider social relations. In recent decades, this radical impetus has been
neutralised as the institutionalisation of democratic norms has resulted in the reassertion of control by
political elites seeking to push back these gains as part of a wider neo-liberal political project.
Radical democracy therefore requires us to find new ways of re-engaging marginalised communities
by reconnecting the kinds of informal grassroots activity preferred by young people with the formal
mechanisms of representation and government through which state power is exercised.