Pretending that youth apathy doesn’t exist

The authorities’ attempts to reinvent and ‘remix’ citizenship ignore the real problem.

Wendy Earle

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‘The nature of citizenship is changing and young people are the first to recognise it. Far from being disengaged from democracy, young people are in the process of re-inventing it.’ (1a) So claims Stephen Coleman, an influential thinker on e-democracy, in a 2005 report for the UK Carnegie Trust Young People’s Initiative. But is it true?

At the July launch of this report, Remixing Citizenship, I found the optimism expressed about young people’s social and political activism both refreshing and perplexing. Young people’s disengagement from, and even hostility to, politics is well-documented. According to the Electoral Commission, only 37 per cent of young people voted in the last General Election and they are least likely to register to vote (1), while interviews with young people have for some time revealed a profound cynicism about the political process: politicians are seen as sleazy and untrustworthy, parliament is seen as a mysterious pantomime, and political coverage is seen as incomprehensible and dull (2).

Yet despite the wealth of evidence indicating young people’s disengagement from politics, the launch of Remixing Citizenship promoted the message that there are no grounds for pessimism. In fact, argued Coleman and others, young people are very much engaged in political processes, but these go unrecognised by traditional political organisations. This echoes the conclusions drawn by other, previous reports, including one published by the think-tank Demos in 2002: ‘Our research shows it is misleading to suggest that politics doesn’t matter to young people. They are often very committed to single-issue campaigns and active in civil society and community life. Concluding that your vote does not count is very different from believing that politics in the broader sense does not matter’ (3).

As a growing number of civic organisations try to find ways of engaging young people in politics somehow, the view that the problem lies in the failure of traditional institutions to make themselves sufficiently relevant to the needs of youth in contemporary society is becoming more widely accepted. However, the idea that young people are not really disengaged from politics, that citizenship is merely being ‘remixed’ in tune with the modern world, deserves some interrogation; as do the consequences of this viewpoint for other areas of social and cultural life.

Young people + new media = new citizen?

A driving force behind the trend towards the broadening concept of citizenship and political engagement seems to be the UK government’s agenda of social inclusion, where children and young people are a central focus. In the past few years the government has created a Minister for Children and Young People (2000), passed the Children Act 2004, which legislates for the consolidation of services for children and young people, and launched the ‘Every Child Matters’ initiative (2005), which includes measures to involve children in decision-making processes. John Denham, Minister for Children and Young People from 2001 to 2003, asserted: ‘We want children and young people to feel that they can influence the services they receive. We want to see them contributing to and benefiting from their local communities. We want them to feel heard and valued and to be able to make a difference.’ (4)

So there is a concerted official attempt to engage young people in some kind of dialogue about something. As traditional forms of citizenship are seen as excluding young people, the search for new ways of turning them into ‘active citizens’ has alighted on the possibilities represented by new media, on the one hand, and museums and galleries, on the other.

Being Heard, a new website for young people set up by the educational charity the Hansard Society, reflects the growing reliance on new media to provide a mechanism of engagement. Its strapline, next to an ear-shaped logo, states ‘They want to listen’. The introduction goes on to declare: ‘You have the right to be heard…. Every British citizen, of every age, has the right to voice their opinions and be heard by decision-makers. It’s what democracy is all about.’

The website promises its users direct access to policymakers: ‘You have the right to be heard by decision-makers. This is how they can listen.’

Traditional civic and political organisations, like the Hansard Society, are straining to find ways of engaging young people by using the internet. As well as Being Heard, there are a growing number of civic and government-sponsored websites aimed at youth. Just check out , HeadsUp, Funky Dragon and Young Scot, for example – and there are many others.

In flattering young people by treating them as citizens, on the same level as adults, some argue that these organisations run the risk of demeaning the whole idea of citizenship in a democratic society. Citizenship is centred on the notion of autonomous individuals – by definition, adults – making choices about who runs the government and engaging in contentious debate.

In his new book Politics of Fear, the sociologist Frank Furedi suggests that a false optimism is emerging in the discourse about young people and politics: ‘Through expanding the definition of politics, the prevailing process of depoliticisation can be reinterpreted as the creative widening of the sphere of activism and participation.’ (5) According to Furedi, this ‘ever-expanding definition of political activism’ represents a ‘politics in denial’, where the exhaustion of the mainstream parties and democratic processes is glossed over by claims that the traditional understanding of what it means to be political is too narrow and limiting. The trend towards creating new media forums, where individuals of any age can be citizens, seems to confirm his identification of the problem.

A reluctance to face up to the extent of young people’s disengagement from politics leads to a claim that other forms of youth activity are ‘about’ politics and citizenship – when in reality, this is highly questionable.

New media, it is argued, provide a key solution to connecting with and engaging young people because it can reflect their concerns and interests in a way that traditional political forums cannot. Some recent research from the USA argues that: ‘[A] distinct new generation of citizens may be entering public life. Called the DotNets…these young Americans born after 1976 differ from their Generation-X predecessors in terms of strong collective identification as a generation, more positive attitudes about the role of government, and greater appreciation of diversity.’ (6)

Youth as E-citizens, another US research report published, claims that: ‘Youth engagement in politics and community affairs has quietly been taking on new life and a dynamic new look, thanks to the internet’ (7).

The researchers investigated a variety of sites that ‘invite young people to participate in a wide range of issues, including voting, voluntarism, racism and tolerance, social activism, and most recently, patriotism, terrorism and military conflict’. The researchers found a ‘rich diversity’ of sites, an ‘unmatched abundance’ of information, opportunities for youth to talk to experts, share strategies, showcase their own creations, etc, and they argue that there is a strong basis for optimism in the potential of the web to offer young people a broader perspective on the world and a chance to develop their civic skills.

Another researcher suggests that young people ‘find greater satisfaction in defining their own political paths, including: local volunteerism, consumer activism, support for issues and causes (environment, human rights), participation in various transnational protest activities, and efforts to form a global civil society by organising world and regional social forums’ (8).

New media appears to offer a refreshing possibility for active citizenship without boundaries: the global citizen where hierarchies are broken down, and young people can express themselves freely.

However, arguments for the active global ‘netizen’ accept a highly passive – essentially, anti-political – notion of political engagement. Participation is redefined as discussion in the virtual world of ‘big’ issues presumed to be beyond anybody’s control. The contesting of political power is downplayed as irrelevant to the modern world, and replaced with a politics of protest, which does little more than object to the way things are. Few would doubt that there is a place for the internet in political debate and engagement today. But the notion that the internet can simply replace traditional political forums and activism risks fetishising the technological form of political engagement, and ignoring the human content of citizenship.

The cultural citizen

While new media have created the ‘netizen’, the concept of citizenship is also expanding in other directions. Being Heard is funded by Culture Online, part of the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The fact that a website that seeks to promote citizenship is funded by the section of government responsible for culture indicates the way that culture and heritage are increasingly being called upon to play a role in counteracting disaffection and demonstrating the engagement of young people with the institutions of our society.

For example, in the discussions about the young bombers who blew up parts of the London transport system in July 2005, concerns were expressed about young people’s identity with extremist Muslim clerics, raising questions about how to counteract their presumed sense of social exclusion from mainstream society. Cultural organisations such as museums and galleries are being called upon to play a role in addressing this problem.

In a globalised world, it is argued, individuals no longer see themselves as just members of a nation and/or a class. Their identities are formed by their experience as members of a global community where national differences have less and less significance, and where their sense of citizenship has to embrace difference and diversity. A recent consultation paper calls for museums and galleries to re-examine their roles in relation to society today: ‘We are more inclusive, and less elitist, more diverse and less deferential…. Consequently the context in which the public enjoys and makes use of museums – their collections, knowledge and buildings – has altered. Today people have different expectations, preferences and needs. Their cultural identity is perceived as more difficult to define and pin down, they are in large measure more demanding about the experiences they seek.’ (9)

The perceived danger is that unless young people’s cultural identity is forged through association with the institutions of Western society, young people may be more susceptible to anti-Western influences, such as Islamic terrorist organisations. An advocate of museums’ role in developing citizenship has argued: ‘Heritage matters to young people. They may not know it, but it does. Understanding what we have inherited, drawing meaning from our surroundings, enables us to make better sense of who we are and who we might become.’ (10)

Those who reject the idea that young people are apathetic argue that traditional organisations need to adapt to young people’s interests in order to engage them. Now that politics is regarded with such suspicion and disdain, it is said, non-political institutions are seen as central to the process of engaging them as citizens. But citizenship in this context no longer means a general knowledge of our right to vote, the main political parties and our system of local and national government. It now involves something much more invasive: an expectation that individuals must identify with their local community and through this with something more amorphous (because no one likes to talk too much about nationalism these days) but which broadly represents a sense of national identity.

The government is demanding that institutions responsible for culture and heritage introduce themselves into the process of identity formation, because heritage is seen as offering young people a means of developing their sense of belonging. As part of the public realm, ‘the shared space…over which all citizens have ownership’, they are seen as ‘a means of helping citizens understand their place in the world and its heritage’ (11).

Josie Appleton has critically examined on spiked how galleries and museums have steadily adopted this new role, seeing cultural artefacts as ‘vessels for different individuals’ identities’ and giving their visitors ‘a more secure sense of personal identity’ rather than concentrating on offering displays of good art (see Art for inclusion’s sake, by Josie Appleton). This is well illustrated in a joint report by the DCMS and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), where the authors argue that museums can provide alternative types of engagement with ‘inspirational and identity-forming elements of learning’ (12), and can link to ‘broad and current’ social agendas particularly in relation to young people, such as: ‘The construction of identities in diasporic and post-colonial communities, the reconceptualisation of history and tradition to encompass previously hidden or buried histories, the working towards greater social justice and combating disadvantage and deprivation…. These critical issues of identity, difference and voice need to become more central to museum philosophy.’

A strong sense of identity is seen as lying at the heart of citizenship, because individuals who identify with their society and culture implicitly also feel socially included. Thus it is believed that it will be possible to counteract social alienation, by actively engaging young people in the cultural and civic life and traditions of our society. This sense of cultural identity must embrace social values such as tolerance and social responsibility. Buckingham and Jones have summarised arguments made by the Arts Council of England (ACE) and others, that cultural activity promotes tolerance, respect for difference and social responsibility in a multicultural society, facilitating social cohesion at a time when tradition and authority are being undermined. As they point out, the government believes that participation in the arts helps in developing a sense of identity and community and raising self-esteem (12a).

The Department of Work and Pensions’ National Action Plan for Social Inclusion included targets for museums and galleries ‘to enhance access to a fuller cultural…life for children and young people’ (13). One consultant has suggested, ‘social inclusion provides a way forward for the development of the sector in the twenty-first century’ (14).

Over the past few years there has been growing investment within the heritage sector to develop projects in museums and galleries that encourage the engagement of young people. Since 2001 the Heritage Lottery Fund, in partnership with the National Youth Agency, has provided annual grants worth up to £25,000 to Young Roots projects which aim to engage 13- to 20-year-olds in informal settings, in learning more about their heritage, in the belief that ‘heritage activities, such as the preservation of historic sites and local history work, can contribute to social inclusion within communities’ (15).

Another aspect of the heritage-based approach to citizenship is the idea of empowerment. A report commissioned jointly by the DfES and the DCMS identifies museums as ‘able to find ways of connecting with children and young people across the social spectrum. Through empowering successful learning, museums [and galleries] engender increased self-esteem and a higher sense of self-worth. This is valuable for all, but especially important for those who are disadvantaged or disempowered’ (16).

Empowerment and social inclusion are watchwords around which traditional institutions of cultural heritage are being reorganised. Museums and galleries are embracing their new role as citizen-makers. A recent Demos report, commissioned by the Visual Arts and Galleries Association (VAGA), emphasises the civic role of art, arguing that the public value of art is ‘an aspect of democracy – where individuals are citizens not consumers …’

The report goes on to assert: ‘Viewed through the lens of public value, much of the so-called “social agenda”, compliance with which has been made conditional for arts institutions to receive public funding, is no longer something that interferes with their core activities, but becomes a logical concomitant. Social inclusion, confidence, security, the sense of ownership through collective participation directly result.’ (17)

The Tate art galleries, for example, are developing peer-to-peer schemes for young people that are both about introducing them to art and building communities that identify with the Tate. At one level this could be seen as a matter of audience development and marketing. However, it is driven in large part by both government pressure to meet targets which reflect wider communities ‘engaging’ with art, and a shift in ideology, reflected in the VAGA report, where the idea that a gallery’s primary function is to curate and display the best available art is increasingly subsumed by the priority of using art to help address social issues.

An interview in 2004 with James Cuno, the departing director of the Courtauld Gallery, quotes him as ‘criticising the current view that people need to “see themselves and their identities in works of art”; to see others who “look like them, and come from the same culture”‘ (18). Cuno expressed his concern that the intrinsic value of art was being pushed aside in favour of its function in promoting a variety of social values. His is an increasingly solitary voice, warning that by claiming to be able to address these social problems museums increasingly undermine their real and unique justification for existence. Equating involvement and participation in arts, or the investigation of heritage, with political engagement undermines the historical role of political activism. Citizenship is no longer defined in terms of political and civic consciousness, but in terms of a sense of personal identity evolved through a process of cultural engagement. This reflects strikingly low expectations of the potential for social change – when a superficial sense of ownership in relation to the local art gallery or museum is supposed to assuage a refugee’s sense of grievance at not having a decent place to live.

Furthermore, the scope for real participation is minimal in the sort of ‘institutionalised activism’ (to use Furedi’s term) represented by involvement in the search for identity and heritage through ‘collective participation’ at the local museum. The very idea of empowerment through cultural heritage is a contradiction in terms. Real power is never something you are given – it is something you take; and taking power tends to involve a process of challenging one’s heritage, not embracing it.

Wendy Earle works in the cultural sector and has recently completed an MA in cultural studies, on the changing conception of citizenship.

(1) Do Politics

(1a) Coleman, S (2005), Remixing Citizenship: Democracy and Young People’s Use of the Internet, London: Carnegie Young People Initiative

(2) Sean Coughlan, BBC News Online, 28 January, 2003

(3) Howland L, with Bethell, M (2002), Logged off? How ICT can connect young people and politics, London: Demos (p12)

(4) Quoted in Livingstone, S and Bober, M, (2004) UK Children Go Online: Active participation or just more information? October, London: Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics (p3)
(5) Furedi, F, (2005), Politics of Fear: Beyond left and Right, London: Continuum (p36)

(6) Bennett, W L and Xenos, M (2004) Young Voters and the Web of Politics: pathways to Participation in the Youth Engagement and Electoral Campaign Web (Working Paper 20, August), Washington: CIRCLE (p3)

(7) Montgomery, K, Gottlieb-Robles, B, Larson, G O (2004E), Youth as E-Citizens: Engaging the Digital Generation (Executive Summary), Washington: Center for Social Media (p1)

(8) Bennett, W L (2005), ‘Civic Learning and Changing Democracies: Challenges for Citizenship and Civic Education’ (unpublished paper)

(9) DCMS (2005), Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st Century Life: The Value of Museums, London: DCMS (p7)

(10) Roker, D and Richardson H (2003), Young people and heritage: a review of current literature (p4)

(11) DCMS (2005), Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st Century Life: The Value of Museums, London: DCMS (p6)

(11a) Art for inclusion’s sake, by Josie Appleton

(12) Greenhill, E H, Dodd, J, Philips, M, Jones, C, Woodward J, O’Riain, H (2004), Inspiration, Identity, Learning: The Value of Museums, London: DCMS, DfES and Leicester: Research Centre for Media and Learning (p450)

(12a) Buckingham, D and Jones, K (2001), New Labour’s Cultural Turn: some tensions in contemporary educational and cultural policy, in Journal of Educational Policy, Vol 16, No 1

(13) DWP (2003), National Action Plan on Social Inclusion, London: DWP (p43)

(14) Sandell, R (2002) Museums, Galleries and Social Inclusion, Heritage Lottery Fund

(15) Roker and Richardson, 2003:30

(16) Greenhill, E H, Dodd, J, Philips, M, Jones, C, Woodward J, O’Riain, H (2004), Inspiration, Identity, Learning: The Value of Museums, London: DCMS, DfES and Leicester: Research Centre for Media and Learning (p409)

(17) Hewison, R and Holden, J (2004), The Right to Art: making aspirations reality, London: Demos

(18) The object of art museums, by Josie Appleton

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