These days, the commonly accepted view on the topic of youth and political participation has moved beyond the paradigm depicting young people as apathetic and uninterested in politics. On the contrary, it is widely acknowledged that they are very political, being even more active than a majority of adults. That is, as long as parties and elections alone are not setting the purview of what ‘political’ is; the phrase ‘the personal is political’ offers the best expression of the broad sense of ‘political’, where most, if not all, forms of participation are political and where youth’s extensive participation found its recognition. Young people’s political engagement is mainly confined to new forms of participation, as traditional politics feels unrepresentative and unable to address the concerns associated with contemporary youth culture.
It is wonderful that youth’s manifold contributions to their families, communities, societies, and the world are being finally acknowledged, but there is one recurring thought I get whenever I read about the new ways in which young people engage with the political: how much influence do young people really have through these new modes of participation? Are they truly at the decision-making table on issues that interest and affect them? Recognising something until recently overlooked, does not necessarily entail its augmentation. In other words, does decision-makers’ admitting that young people do have a voice, also make it stronger?
Brave new modes of participation
Young people in the EU are more inclined than the rest of the population to sign petitions, display a badge or sticker, participate in demonstrations, and express their political views in online forums. They consider demonstrations and strikes (although voting comes first) as the most effective ways to make their voice heard.
Transformation, not decline is what best depicts youth political participation. Feeling excluded from mainstream forms of influencing political decision-making, young people are over-represented in alternative modes of participation. They try to influence political decision-makers and policies through alternative channels of action, some of which are considered excessive or even on the margins of democratic means. Youth’s new forms of participation are:
- personally meaningful
- less linked to traditional societal cleavages
Does more, mean more influential?
What I fear is that these alternative ways of participation do nothing more than signal (in small ways) an issue, thus rendering themselves susceptible to a particularly pertinent metaphor – the ‘blinking LED light’:
“Young people’s projects and actions catch ﬁre and die out in the new urban and global political space, characterized by a lack of centre, from the Internet to the streets and squares, at a pace inconceivable for adults and those with a similar frame of mind.” Tommi Hoikkala
Choosing not to participate in formal politics and participating mainly through the new channels of action, young people risk being disconnected from the actual decision-making process, damaging their own interests.
The bigger problem is when they choose to participate, expecting a partnership with decision-makers, only to realise that their involvement is merely a tokenism, which makes them feel used rather than empowered. For example, new media is often used to reach the young generation by using their familiar modes of communication, but in the wrong way. Instead of facilitating a two way process of information sharing, it is, most of the times, just another way to push information onto them. Faulty use of this tool can do more harm than not using it at all. Young people want to be listened to and they want to see the impact of their involvement, which would necessitate embedding the online consultation within a broader process of deliberative decision-making in the offline world. Employing online tools has the potential to enhance, but cannot replace young people’s participation offline.
When decision-makers fail to meet young people’s expectations in terms of a genuinely collaborative involvement, it only drives them further away from what they were trying to lure them to. Hence, youth cynicism towards politicians and formal politics increases, only to reinforce their predilection of engaging in new forms of participation.
During the Europe on Track 2 journey young people will likely both confirm and refute the above, thus laying the foundations of an engaging debate. In the meantime, join the discussion yourself on our Facebook page:
What is your experience of participating in decision-making processes at various levels (local, national, European)? Do you have examples of being meaningfully engaged in issues important for you?
Photos: Creative Commons