Young people’s involvement in politics is often regarded as a social mismatch. Young people talking about politics, young people writing about politics, even young people in politics, are viewed as either vacuous or dangerous, attributed to their lack of worldly experience and knowledge to make informed decisions. On the one hand, we worry about voter apathy, particularly among an increasingly disengaged younger generation, but on the other we chastise and criticise any young person who speaks up in a reasonable, rational manner. As an example, the media often discredits Parliament’s youngest MP, 20 year-old Mhairi Black, whilst at the same time worrying about the decreasing turnout of young voters.
Scepticism about the participation of young people in politics is substantiated by the prejudices we hold. We fear that young people are too naïve to make an informed democratic decision. Thus, politicians prescribe superficial tactics in order to pitch their message to the juvenile youth. Indeed, May’s general election was dubbed by some as the UK’s first ‘social media election’; regarded as the cool place where all the kids hang out.
The reaction on social media to the Conservative majority was markedly cynical of the result, and supports the claim that younger people are more likely to vote for left-leaning parties (it was reported that around 40% of first-time-voters intended to vote Labour). Where had the young Left gone? Those who came out in support of Ed Miliband through #Milifandom were just as shocked as those who were rallying against him.
The trouble with this social media obsession is that it risks young people becoming even more apathetic. Despite his ostensible battle against image-based politics, Ed Miliband concentrated more on making himself ‘relatable’ to young people than engaging in a meaningful dialogue with them. Social media enthusiasts swallowed this Milidrama; Ed’s appearance on Absolute Radio, and his attempts to engage the perceived ideologue of the non-voter through his infamous Milibrand interview, are prime examples.
Such superficiality in media dialogue often translates into spineless political policies, the most notably of which was in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats ran on a pledge to scrap tuition fees. Nick Clegg, in his resignation speech after a dire result five years later, attributed the party’s loss to a rhetoric of fear, but sidelined the fact that his party decided to take the blame for one of the most infamous broken promises in recent political history. People are apathetic because they do not trust the system, and Clegg, standing on a pro-youth ticket, certified that for almost an entire generation of young voters.
Yet, the blame for apathy amongst young people does not solely reside with opportunistic politicians. When we allow the media to stigmatise young people, we establish the sentiment that young people are, by nature, lazy, ignorant; not educated enough to make a decision based on an extensive and mature political discussion.
When, then, does one come-of-age politically? Older people can be just as misinformed as younger people; just as unable to validate their opinion with fact and research. It is clear that young people are both intelligent enough to seek information and individual enough to form an opinion. I firmly believe in the importance of young people partaking in democracy, through learning, discussion, and voting. As stakeholders in society, our agenda should be considered by politicians and lawmakers.
I have often written on the subject of young people and their engagement in politics, and having worked alongside some of them, am certain of the importance of promoting that engagement. I believe in lowering the voting age to 16, on the condition that a substantial and open discussion of ‘politics’ is both taught in school and instilled as a normal social concept. Young people partaking in democracy, through discussion, learning, and voting is not detrimental to society. We need to embrace the fact that young people are active citizens who deserve to be educated and empowered, rather than belittled and patronised.