Since the Covid-pandemic took hold of our lives, it’s been hard to think of anything but the easing vs. tightening of lockdown-measures, the economic repercussions of the virus and the well-being of our loved ones. Most thoughts that occupied us before 2020 have been pushed aside and replaced by more existentialist ones. It’s no different for the Civic Tech sector. But while we’re tempted to look at citizen participation mainly in relation to the pandemic these days, today we’ll return to a topic that should feel reminiscent of 2019: that of political engagement among young people.
When we think back to what shaped the pre-Corona world, the student-led climate movement ‘Fridays for Future’ is one of the first things that comes to mind. For several months, attending strikes for the climate formed part of students’ weekly routine around the world and their ideas, drive and mobilising power quickly and significantly boosted the climate movement overall. The global strike on 20 September 2019, for instance, drew more than four million strikers and 2200 strikes in 125 countries were organised by ‘Fridays for Future’.
This youth-led climate activism not only gave the fight against climate change new momentum, it also put to the proof the next generation’s determination to make their voice heard, to rally around a shared cause and influence political decisions.
Despite this, we continue to hear of research that notes younger demographics’ detachment from politics. Across Europe, younger citizens, compared to older generations, are much less likely to join a political party and even to vote. At the same time, trust in government plummets from older to younger generations (UNICEF).
There seems to be a dichotomy between this narrative of a politically disengaged youth and the passionate, global activism amongst young people that we see not only in relation to environmental matters but Black Lives Matter or internet regulations, too. At the heart of this appears to be an inability to recognise young peoples’ shift away from traditional forms of political engagement and their search for new ways to contribute their ideas and opinions. At Civocracy, we believe that targeted efforts to include young citizens in citizen participation projects is needed for young people themselves and the future of our political system at large.
The narrative of a disengaged youth.
For years, scholars and public servants have pointed to a worrying trend among young people when it comes to political participation. Across Europe, numbers of party membership and voting are comparatively low among younger demographics. This is routinely interpreted as signifying a weakened sense of citizenship and political engagement. Young people, many claim, feel alienated from political processes and no longer seek out political avenues for expression.
This, of course, poses a significant challenge to contemporary democracies. If younger demographics no longer make
use of the means meant for political
Girl holds sign at Fridays for future protest on expression embedded in the democratic
20/09/2019 in Nuremberg, Germany. system, one of its key functions for
Photograph: Markus Spiske, balance is lost. If you add to this the wider
tendencies towards political alienation, populism and attacks on democratic values and principles, a grim vision of the future emerges.
This notion of a disengaged youth that increasingly distances itself from the political system, however, only tells half the story. While it is true that participation in traditional forms of political expression such as party membership and voting is in decline the younger the age group, portraying them as uninterested in political participation is misleading.
Based on their track record of community-organising and strikes, it appears that what we’re witnessing is a transition to new or other forms of political participation. Young people haven’t withdrawn from politics but actively search for tools of political expression. An EU study found that ‘young people articulate preferences and interests, and some of them are even more active than a majority of adults. Moreover, a clear majority of young people ask for more – not less – opportunity to have a say in the way their political systems are governed’. (EACEA, 2013a Youth Participation in Democratic Life.Brussels: EACEA. p. 6).
This shift must be taken seriously at the government-level. Actively including young people in citizen participation projects is just the kind of change that’s needed.
Reasons for youth engagement.
Offering meaningful and fitting ways for young people to voice their opinions and influence decision-making is nothing less than essential for the future of our political system.
Being politically engaged from a young age helps young people grow into active and considerate citizens. Regular exposure to political processes leads to a solid understanding of the political system, its functions and values. At the same time, experiencing one’s participation making a difference instals faith and confidence in the democratic process.
Fostering such democratic maturity among young people is more important today than ever before. Amidst populist attacks on democratic values and principles, political cynicism and an increasingly fragmented society, it is especially crucial to help the next generation grow into politically engaged citizens. There is no better way of preventing anti-democratic thought and action than helping young people feel connected to the political system.
And the past years clearly showed that, if given the chance to contribute, young people have genuinely valuable insights to share. The political discourse inevitably benefits from including a broad range of perspectives and experiences. But especially those of younger demographics provide fresh ideas and much-needed stimulus for political action. Fridays for Future proved that we depend on the input of young citizens to deal with current challenges.
Girl holding sign at protest on 9/20/2019 in Nuremberg, Germany. Photograph: Markus Spiske
Digital participation platforms as the medium for youth engagement.
To successfully include younger demographics in political participation initiatives, we need to find tools and methods that speak to them. Asking teenagers to attend townhall meetings on a regular basis is likely to be met with more resistance than a digital mode of participation that mirrors their day-to-day communication.
A digital engagement platform therefore provides an ideal frame for political youth engagement.
If a community already uses an online platform for citizen participation, a designated section can be added to it that targets only younger demographics. Such a digital youth space can cater specifically to the needs and interests of a community’s younger residents by allowing them to contribute their feedback and ideas on issues close to them, and to discuss them amongst each other.
Everything from local sports clubs over schooling to popular spots in town can be put to discussion here. This way, valuable insights will be collected and young people are actively made felt included.
The topics for deliberation can be chosen by the participants themselves, too. On Civocracy’s platform, propositions can be collected on the site and opened as discussions once they reach a certain level of support.
At the same time, young citizens should be given the opportunity to contribute their input alongside older demographics, too. The political participation of young people shouldn’t be treated as separate from that of the general public. Instead, their unique perspective should be actively sought out and taken into account when deliberating decisions through citizen participation.
When the city of Lyon invited its citizens to crowd-source a plan for redesigning a public square in 2018, for example, input from children and teenagers was actively encouraged. The press conference for the project launch was attended by the student representative who actively helped design a call to action for the students. Moreover, a local architect helped convert their ideas into architectural designs.
And when the city of Strasbourg revised its education policies in 2018, the digital consultation on Civocracy’s platform included students alongside parents and teachers. The methods used for each group were adjusted accordingly.
Civocracy’s platform allows for stakeholders to be added to consultations whose contributions are visually highlighted. That way, the consultations-process is guaranteed to be informed by the particular expertise or knowledge of certain people and/or groups. For consultations around climate, for example, the input of young climate activists could be deliberately included this way.
Our world is clearly going through a time of significant upheaval and change. This can be seen on different ends, not least of all with regard to the increased challenges to our political system. To safeguard democratic principles and remain strong as society, we must take seriously the needs and concerns of the next generation. Rather than writing young people off as politically disengaged, we need to make active efforts to include them in political participatory processes. And based on their track record of political engagement over the last years, our discourse would significantly benefit from this.
If you want to find out more about our work with young people, shoot us a message at: email@example.com.