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28 February 2015

Redefining political engagement

Posted by: Merja Jutila Roon, PhD, Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, Finland

Categories: Voting, millennials, Finland, politics, democracy

Young people’s participation in traditional politics has been in decline. Especially low voter turnout rates have been a concern for parties and scholars alike. The future and legitimacy of representative democracy will be at stake if the younger generations’ participation in the electoral process continues to remain low.

However, to say that young people do not care about politics may be a stretch. It may rather be that the Millennials’ definition of the word ‘politics’, and the ways they choose to try to influence the environment they live in, differ from the generations that came before them.

In the case of Italy, zero percent of the 15 – 17 year old respondents in the FEPS study said they were interested in politics. Of the total three-country sample only 17 % answered that they were interested.

At the same time 72% of the Millennials surveyed responded that they plan to vote in the next election. 73% said contributing to society was important to them, and 88% considered both helping others and equality in society to be important.

At the outset, these two narratives above seem to contradict. It could be that the word ‘politics’ itself has such negative connotations in the Millennials’ minds with equations to qualities such as dishonesty and untrustworthiness, that it is the lack of trust toward current politics and politicians that prompts the negative answer regarding politics. The good news therefore is, that it may be that it is not that young people are not interested in politics, but rather they do not connect with the way ‘politics as usual’ is today.

Furthermore, more individualistic and project type approach to making a difference seems to be the case as Millennials are found to be more averse toward big institutions such as church and parties. Millennials have been found to be more issue oriented in their approach to making a difference and not so willing to “buy the whole package” of a party platform. There are instances where young people have risen up in large numbers for equal rights regardless of race or sexual orientation, or in the Occupy Movement. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, too, got young people involved in numbers.

Regardless, lack of participation in the electoral process is a problem. Of those not planning to vote, only the sixth most popular reason given was not being interested in politics. The more popular answers had to do with lack of trust toward politicians and the limited choices currently being offered in the political system.

An issue that rises in the studies from all three countries is the Millennials’ predisposition that parties ignore the views of younger people (81% of the respondents). This has the danger of becoming a self-reinforcing mechanism of politicians and Millennials not connecting with each other when parties focus on the generations more likely to vote. Nominating candidates that Millennials connect with, and bringing forward clear issue choices that young people care about in election campaigns might encourage more Millennials to go to the polls.

In terms of substance, top priorities for the Millennials surveyed were education, health care and job creation – priorities which are not so different from the older generations. The Pew Research Center studies on American Millennials found one of the key differences between Millennials and the generations that came before them to be that young people in general are more liberal on social issues such as same-sex marriage. The FEPS studies likewise found an overwhelming majority of Millennials across the European countries to not only support equality of gender and sexual orientation but expected politicians to take active steps toward advancing equality in these areas.