Wake up! The truth about youth apathy

So what if young people's attitude to politics is 'so what'? Every proposal made about how to engage them in politics will only make them more apathetic.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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When the UK general election comes around, what will you do?

a) trudge, like a snail to school, to cast your vote at a local polling station?

b) leaf through the manifestos with a growing sense of doom, concluding that there is nobody to vote for?

c) go clubbing, waking late the next morning with the dim realisation that something quite important might have happened yesterday?

If the answer is c, the chances are that you are under 25 and a fully fledged member of Generation Zzzzz.

‘It is known that young people have depressingly low levels of political interest and knowledge’, states the preface to the UK Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report, ‘Young people’s politics: political interest and engagement amongst 14- to 24-year olds’, published in 2000 (1). Although there are no absolutely accurate statistics on how many young people vote, all the figures suggest that they are less likely to vote than any other age group, and that this is a downward trend. For example, the British Youth Council (BYC) (2) cites research showing that, in the 1997 UK general election, 68 percent of registered 18- to 24-year olds voted, and of the whole potential electorate, only 59 percent of this age group voted; representing ‘the lowest turnout of young people for 30 years’ (3). Not only don’t they vote – as many as 40 percent of young people are apparently not even registered to vote, against eight percent of the general populace (4).

Political ‘apathy’ among young people is not only well known: nowadays, it is endlessly discussed. Most new surveys and reports are sensible enough to see young people’s distate for the ballot box not as abject laziness, and something that young people will grow out of once they get older and more responsible, but as part of a broader, and international, drift away from traditional politics. No wonder politicians are so concerned; no wonder, as its judgement day approaches, the government finds itself inexorably drawn to the so-called ‘grey vote’ – the pensioners and traditionalists which Young, New Labour tried so hard to ignore in its first term.

Among the respondents to surveys for ‘British social attitudes: the 16th report’, the highest turnout in the 1997 UK general election was among 55- to 64-year olds (88 percent) and those over 65 (87 percent) – compared to a 44 percent turnout among 18- to 24-year olds (5). As Madsen Pirie and Robert M Worcester put it in the year 2000 Adam Smith Institute report ‘The big turn-off: attitudes of young people to government, citizenship and community’: ‘The young have only one quarter of the voting power of the over-55s, who are twice as many and twice as likely to vote.’ (6) New Labour might be no more fond of the old folk than it ever was, but at least the buggers vote. When it comes to young people, politicians’ favoured ‘solutions’ tend to lie at the level of political force-feeding and desperate techno-fixes, from compulsory lessons in citizenship in schools (to be part of the school curriculum from September 2002) to polling booths in shopping centres and internet voting.

Young people’s disengagement with politics is indisputable, but how much of a problem is this, really? So what if young people’s attitude to politics is ‘so what’?

Over a recent pint with a politically passionate teenage friend, I braced myself for the obvious question: ‘So who are you voting for?’ We had exhausted the discussion about what’s wrong with the world; we had done potential solutions ranging from mass suicide to world revolution. ‘Nobody’, I replied, and she gazed at me, shocked, betrayal written all over her face. I explained that there was nobody worth voting for; she nodded eagerly in agreement – but then frowned. ‘But surely’, they say, ‘you have to vote.’ I then winced my way through her explanation of why she was voting for the Liberal Democratss: because she was critical of the government, despised the Tories, and, well, you have to vote.

The ‘who are you voting for?’ question, coming from somebody under the age of 30, is a tough call. It is refreshingly rare to meet a teenager whose attitude towards caring about the state of the world goes beyond throwing a bunch of grass at a policeman on an ‘anti-capitalist carnival’ one summer’s day. The last thing you want to do is put up a fight against them going to the polling station to vote for somebody – anybody – because what else would they be doing? But you also know that, when there is indeed nobody to vote for, putting a cross in a box on election day as an act of civility could be more likely to demoralise than inspire.

When young people are as disengaged from politics as they are today, guilt-tripping them through citizenship classes is hardly likely to bring them back into the fold. Yet the swathes of surveys and reports recently published about youth apathy consistently fail to understand this.

The terms of the contemporary discussion about youth apathy in the UK were, by and large, set in 1995 with the publication of ‘Freedom’s children: work, relationships and politics for 18-34 year olds in Britain today’, by Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan, of the Blairite think-tank Demos (7). The pamphlet’s strength was in emphasising how much has changed, when it comes to young people’s broader relationship with politics. ‘Most members of this generation take for granted that they can control their own lives, whether in terms of relationships or careers, lifestyles or beliefs’, write Wilkinson and Mulgan in their introduction. ‘The old assumption that you had to inherit an occupation, a class identity, a religion and a standardised family life has gone for good.’ (8) So far, so sensible. Traditional politics and social structures have changed – voting in an age described by leading sociologist and government adviser Anthony Giddens as ‘beyond left and right’ does not, and cannot, mean the same as it did when there were fierce ideological battles raging between two clearly defined political sides.

What is really being said here is that participation in politics is no longer part of the fabric of everyday life, something that you did without questioning its importance. Now it is a lifestyle choice; a decision that carries barely more weight with young people than the clothes they wear and the music they listen to.

Alison Park’s research in ‘British social attitudes: the 16th report’ represents, in figures, the subtlety of this attitude shift. When asked about voting in a general election, seven percent of 12- to 19-year olds and 13 percent of 18- to 24-year olds claimed that ‘It’s not really worth voting’ – about the same proportion as other age groups. The generational difference came through in relation to the question of why people should vote. Fifty-five percent of 12- to 19-year olds, and 50 percent of 18- to 24-year olds, claimed that ‘People should only vote if they care who wins’: a far higher proportion than other age groups (15 percent of over-55s). By contrast, only 36 percent of 12- to 24-year olds claimed that ‘Everyone has a duty to vote’, while over 80 percent of those over 45 agreed with this statement (9).

That voting has shifted away from being a taken-for-granted duty towards being a lifestyle choice is not, in itself, the end of the world for political participation. Even if it does mark a radical departure from the political framework of the past, young people could still be inspired enough by politics that they take the choice to vote. The fact that they choose not to get involved indicates not a mass attitude problem on the part of young people, but the deathly state of contemporary politics. Yet while the literature on youth apathy goes some way towards recognising this, the ‘solutions’ it poses are not about rekindling young people’s interest in politics, but about instilling in them a duty to vote.

Wilkinson and Mulgan, for example, recognise that ‘with new freedoms come new problems’, including the problem of ‘how to create a sense of common purpose and ownership in the political system’. But their new solutions to the new problems of the new political framework (many of which have been taken on board by the British government) are simply ways of encouraging – if not forcing – people to engage in the old system. Civic and political education; elections over a week or weekend in ‘places like shopping centres’; linking voter registration to driving licences and bank records; compulsory voting for national elections and referendums following the Australian model, ‘whereby failure to vote would result in a small fine’. Whether initiatives such as these could succeed in getting young people to vote is doubtful: since when did they take any notice of what politicians and teachers told them to do outside the school gates? And even if they can be coerced and cajoled to the polling station, such measures are guaranteed to make young people more apathetic, not less.

The issue of young people and politics is one of political passion. It is a problem that, according to the British Youth Council, young people ‘appear to have neither an interest in, nor an understanding of, important political and constitutional issues’ (10). It is a problem that, according to Demos, ‘over a third of 18- to 24-year olds take pride in being outside the system’. (11) But the problem is not that, consequently, they do not vote: it is that they see their relationship to the world around them entirely passively. Politics – the way the world works – is something done to them by other people, over which they have no control and want no control. Bureaucratic attempts to make them vote can only reinforce this passivity, by trying to find proof of participation in filled-in ballot papers, even when there is no substance to this participation. There is no simple solution to this problem, and attempts to find one will only make it worse.

So does that mean nothing can be done about youth apathy – that we should just write off this generation, and those following it, as politically null and void? Some have attempted to do just that – although they put a more positive spin on their nihilism, by attempting to claim that young people are political, just not in an old-fashioned parliamentary sense. ‘What about the Seattle riots?’, they cry. ‘What about environmentalism, animal rights, anti-road protests, volunteering?’ But while the popular orthodoxy believes that these so-called ‘new social movements’ are the nascent beginnings of a new politics – that young people might not be voting because they are engaged in hands-on ‘direct action’ – this prejudice is just not borne out by the figures.

Research conducted for the British Youth Council in 1998 showed that only two percent of young people claimed to take part in direct action over the previous 12 months: even fewer had taken the more traditional forms of protesting by demonstrating (five percent) or writing to their MP (three percent) (12). When the fact that about half of young people do not vote is considered indicative of a crisis of parliamentary politics, it seems to be stretching a point to present the few thousand British teenagers who might get involved in ‘direct action’ as a new form of political engagement. And, of course, raging ‘against capitalism’ on the streets of Seattle or London could be seen as quite the opposite to constructive political engagement – the system sucks, yeah, but what are you actually for? It is not like the crusaders ‘against capitalism’ are proposing anything to put in its place. All such protests boil down to is the politics of waaah! – an incoherent tantrum against everything that is wrong in the world, with little attempt to analyse why, or work out what could be done about it.

Attempting to challenge youth apathy means recognising that it is a problem, why it is a problem, and that quick-fix solutions will only make it worse. Given all this, the most plausible solution to youth apathy is counter-intuitive: do nothing. Do nothing; or if you’re going to do something, at least do it properly.

If the problem is that young people do not know about politics, then teachers should teach them: not about why they should vote or who they should vote for, but providing them with the basic knowledge they need to understand how democracy works. Citizenship classes might seem, at first sight, to be about plugging the ‘ignorance gap’ in young people’s political understanding, but the content that has been proposed seems to eschew facts and arguments in favour of yet another amorphous, moral lesson in manners and duties. According to the Advisory Group on Citizenship, this subject can be boiled down to three main components: ‘socially and morally responsible behaviour’, ‘community involvement and service to the community’, and ‘political literacy’ (13). But if the problem is a lack of knowledge, the solution should be the provision of knowledge. As teacher Kevin Rooney points out, the ‘political literacy’ component of citizenship has none of the academic rigour or intellectual challenge of GCSE or A-level politics: yet some schools are already phasing out these subjects to make way for citizenship classes (14).

If the problem is that young people are not interested in politics, then politicians should interest them. That does not mean, as many have argued, artificially creating some kind of ‘youth-centric’ politics, through the creation of a minister for youth, or a minister for generations. That young people are only interested in young people’s issues is a prejudice held only by older generations – if it were true, why do teenagers always go on about animals and the environment? Interesting young people in politics means those involved in politics making it interesting – having some ideas, some vision, some arguments. You can’t make this happen overnight, true: but if it is impossible to make politics interesting, surely there is no reason for anybody to be engaged in politics at all.

If the problem is passivity, cut young people some slack. Every problem a teenager faces, from pregnancy to poor grades to general teenage angst, is now discussed as a result of low self-confidence, which in turn is seen to result from too much pressure placed on them by their parents, teachers and peers. When the smallest aspect of young people’s lives is presented as something that has been done to them, about which they have no control, no wonder they feel helpless when confronted with the problems of the world. If they were left alone a bit more to work through the petty problems of growing up, they might develop the ‘self-confidence’ everybody says is lacking, and start thinking about bigger things.

Of course, these are just suggestions. If I wanted to make a policy proposal the government might take up, I’d probably go back to old-fashioned corruption: putting polling booths in pubs and plying voters with free alcopops. Why not? At least it would get the numbers up.

Jennie Bristow is commissioning editor of spiked

(1) Clarissa White, Sara Bruce and Jane Ritchie, ‘Young people’s politics: political interest and engagement amongst 14- to 24-year olds’. Published for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by York Publishing Service Ltd, 2000. See the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website

(2) The British Youth Council is based in London, claims to be ‘the representative body for young people aged 16-25 in the UK. An independent charity, it communicates their views to government and decision makers and promotes the increased participation of young people in society and public life’

(3) Cited in the British Youth Council’s Youth Update: citizenship, August 1998. Taken from John Curtice, British Election Study, University of Strathclyde 1998

(4) Madsen Pirie and Robert M Worcester, The Big Turn-off: attitudes of young people to government, citizenship and community, Adam Smith Institute 2000

(5) Alison Park, ‘Young people and political apathy’, British Social Attitudes: the 16th report: Who shares New Labour’s values? British Social Attitudes is produced by the National Centre for Social Research

(6) Madsen Pirie and Robert M Worcester, The Big Turn-off: attitudes of young people to government, citizenship and community, Adam Smith Institute 2000

(7) Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan, Freedom’s Children: work, relationships and politics for 18-34 year olds in Britain today, Demos 1995

(8) Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan, Freedom’s Children: work, relationships and politics for 18-34 year olds in Britain today, Demos 1995, p10

(9) Alison Park, ‘Young people and political apathy’, British Social Attitudes: the 16th report: Who shares New Labour’s values? p35. Table: Voting in a general election. British Social Attitudes is produced by the National Centre for Social Research

(10) British Youth Council , State of the young nation 1998, p9

(11) Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan, Freedom’s Children: work, relationships and politics for 18-34 year olds in Britain today, Demos 1995

(12) British Youth Council , State of the young nation 1998. Table: Which of the following have you done in the last 12 months?

(13) ‘Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools’, Final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 22 September 1998. For more information on citizenship education, visit the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE)

(14) ‘Citizenship textbook: why pupils won’t buy it’, Kevin Rooney, spiked-comment 14 December 2000

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Topics Politics


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