So first the good news: contrary to popular beliefs among political pundits but in line with what many of us active in youth politics had a gut feeling about, young Europeans are neither apolitical, nor particularly extremist, and certainly not euro-sceptic.
Perhaps the most striking result of the first outcome phase of FEPS’s Millennial Dialogue project is that despite selecting a sample of three EU member states with a very different socio-economic situation, the young people in the survey give very similar answers to all of the questions related to their life, their aspirations and their priorities, even if their answers to the questions about the politics of their countries differ. This indicates a clear scope for an expanded European project, as well as for common political action among young people in different countries: the results validate the image of a generation without borders, cultivated for some time by the young political left.
What is also heartening is to see that Europe’s young people clearly have their heart on the right (left) side. The answers are not only similar across countries, but they are also similarly compatible with a left-wing political agenda: across the board, young people give high to very high importance ratings to such leftist mainstays as “ensuring equality of opportunities for all” or “improving and maintaining good educational facilities”, while “building and maintaining a strong military force” is considerably less popular. They furthermore rank the economy and environment well above right-wing agendas such as terrorism and immigration in their assessment of which factors will affect their future and their quality of life.
Among all of this good news, there is obviously a snag: the results so far reported appear to contradict the dire situation European social democracy has found itself in for over a decade, and arguably longer. If young people are politically engaged and identify with the left’s priorities and objectives, and more so than those in older age groups, then it should logically follow that in electoral politics, the left should be experiencing a secular rise as older groups gradually die off and the Millennial generation enters the electoral stage. Instead, social democracy appears to be quite literally dying out as its core vote ages, and other parties on the political left struggle to maintain a foothold even if they seem in less immediate danger of extinction, and periodically experience peaks of success. All of the left is in serious danger of the fatal erosion of their support by various right-wing extremist and euro-sceptic formations, whose aims run directly contrary to the sentiments expressed by the young people surveyed.
The key to resolving this apparent contradiction lies in the answers to the survey’s questions that directly relate to party politics. For even though young people show themselves to be highly political in their general interests and their world-view, they are at best lukewarm towards party politics (referred to simply as “politics” in the actual questions and answers, perhaps rather deeply reflecting the neo-liberal cast of the political as a sphere separate from life): “politics” only appears very low down a wash list of general interests, young people claim their generation is less interested in politics than their parents’ and grandparents’, and very few report taking part in political debates, demonstrations or meetings.
Interestingly, the only question that yields significantly divergent answers between the three countries surveyed is also related to party politics: when asked to what extent politics and politicians deliver the same priorities that the respondents were also asked to grade for themselves, a staggering gap between the countries opens. Whereas in Germany, respondents seem to see very little difference between their own priorities and their politicians’, Italian and Polish youth seem to trust their politicians’ priorities only half as much as they trust their own, and in one case even report that politicians seriously over-prioritise a topic (the military in Italy).
When those of the respondents who indicate that they would not vote in an upcoming election (a surprisingly small proportion of the total respondents – notably, in the qualitative study many of the respondents indicating that they would vote give negative reasons such as that those who don’t vote, can’t complain) are asked why, the answers from the three countries once again fall into line, and the rather dull “I don’t trust politicians” tops everywhere, accompanied by such interchangeable sentiments as “all parties are the same” and “I don’t think my vote makes a difference”. All of these responses clearly indicate thatyoung people tend to see “politics” and politicians as a monolithic class interest that has little to do with their own world, priorities and opinions. In at least one sense, neo-liberalism appears to have achieved its goal of the irrelevance of politics.
From all of this, the conclusion should clearly be that the contradiction between left-wing sentiment and erratic voting (or non-voting) behaviour among Millennials stems from a clear source, namely the incorporation of most of the party-political left and especially of social democracy into a broadly neo-liberal consensus defining politics as a sphere distinct from society, and certainly from the economy. This has been a long process, and has traditionally been offset by social democracy’s strong voter bonding (using traditional means of communication) and later by its ability to tap into new voter potential by renewing itself content-wise, but it currently appears to be at a dead-end: in today’s hyper-connected world, politicians can no longer hide their inability to deliver on their values, and the most common excuses (“market pressure” being the most popular one) are quickly invalidated by alert bloggers. It is not surprising that in such a climate, the mainstream left cannot prosper: in fact, it cannot as long as it does not recognise that there is a more fundamental contradiction between being mainstream and being on the left.
One way of resolving this more fundamental contradiction is suggested by the survey’s results themselves: among the barrage of negative sentiment about politicians, young people report that “the views of younger people are largely ignored by most politicians” and that “very few, if any politicians encourage people of their age to get involved in politics”. Now, these are relatively easy to tackle, even if until now they rarely are tackled: in today’s aforementioned hyper-connected world, the views of young people are easy to tap into using social media, and besides being an ageing movement in general social democracy also has the strongest tradition of organising among young people through youth organisations. It would suffice to give more credence and more responsibility to these views and organisations to resolve a large part of the contradiction: all it takes is for the movement’s cadres to come to terms with the fact that young people would generally prefer it to be resolved in favour of the left, rather than the mainstream. As the study shows.
Young people enter a situation where they are unable to sustain themselves or their families economically, and feel powerless to decisively alter political circumstances. There appears to be a big generational gap in politics and young people feel their opinions are strikingly underrepresented.
Hence, most migrants from that area are young men, which is not the easiest group to integrate. The exodus of a young (relatively) well educated generation could thus leave these countries behind and in decades of deadlock. The lack of interest of young people in politics prevents the necessary political momentum and change from happening. The aspiration for progressive politics should be to create incentives and possibilities for those people to work and live in their home countries, and try to find long term solutions. Also a shift of attitude of the established parties towards the youth in those countries is urgently needed.
The empiric findings of the Millennial Dialogue report regarding Germany sheds light on distinctive separation between the private and the public realm in Germany. In this comment I want complement the survey data with some historical contexts regarding the said separation. I want to conclude this comment with a broader hypothesis of how the German view can be explained: I argue that this generation is coined by a pragmatic view on politics which is complemented by a broad knowledge of and interest in politics but also sidelined by the strong interest in individual development especially through education in contrast to a more social perspective. Policy proposals which want to find their support should hence take this attitude into account.
The comment starts by looking at their societal context (demography/gender/migration), it moves on by highlighting their individual contexts (family life/education/job market) and it finishes by complementing these views through some snap shoots on their macro views regarding political and economic experiences. The comment concludes by suggesting a pragmatic view on policies which might be in the centre of this generation‘s concern and which might affect future German politics as well as the modes how to do so.
1. Societal context
Demography – Germans born after 1980 knew about the changing generational contract, ie. that their will be increasingly less people to secure the pensions through a redistribution mechanism which led to an increased responsibility to invest in private pension schemes. As children of the baby boomers (the generation of 1945 to 1970) the Millennials are in the situation to be confronted with a quite large cohort starting their retirement just now. People are therefore rather meant to rely on their own capacities to secure their well being for their pension age. A further outcome of this demographic asymmetry points to the Millennials’ democratic representations as they are rather a small fraction when it comes to electoral will formation even though – as the report shows – they are quite willing to vote.
Gender – The Millennial generation in turn is one of the first which actually live with an understanding of gender equality. Even though this does not mean that German society has already reached an adequate level of equality, children of Millennials‘ have parents who lived in patchwork families, where fathers might stay at home and where mothers are the main income providers. Millennials are confronted with policies which explicitly tackle traditional gender roles like same sex marriage, parental leave or gender quotas (see the figure on their believe in gender equality). Especially the daughters of the Millennials have or will have a higher probability to end up with a university entrance degree or a PhD than their sons. Education, as it has been shown in several figures also plays a central role in this new social reconfiguration.
Migration – Millennials in Germany are also represented by children or grandchildren of migrant labourers who came to Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. The efforts of this so called third generation (i.e. that they are born and grown up in Germany) challenged the traditional school system as it rather contributed to segmentation than integration. After reunification in 1990, Millennials from eastern Germany migrated to the western part in order to find jobs and apprenticeships in a rather unknown social environment. This constellation might have also contributed to the focus on developing his or her own carrier and family life in contrast to focus so much on their societal engagement as it has been found in the Millennials’ survey.
2. Individual context
Family life – Millennials’ family experiences differ in two respects from previous and following generations. On the one hand side and as children, they grew up in family context where they are mostly considered as planed children but they are also the first who lived in patchwork contexts not as stigmatised as it had been before. On the other hand and as parents themselves, Millennials are quite positive about having their own families and even planning to have rather more children than previous generations. They main difference in both aspects might be the relative position of fathers and mothers which millennials experienced throughout their own formation and how the experience or want to experience it with regard to their own children. A public spending focus on healthcare, education and the environment (the three top priorities for Germans Millennials according to the survey) seems to back the wish to have a promising and constructive few into their and their children’s future.
Education – Specifically in Germany Millennials might have been the last generation who experienced a functioning tripartite school system whereafter the lowest level (i.e. Hauptschule) lost much of its reputation as a good qualification for vocational education. In terms of higher education, Millennials are the first generation which experienced the European wide introduction of a new University system which changed the German university system and diplomas quite radical. This goes along with an increased mobility within Germany but also European wide or globally – them being the first ERASMUS generation fully experiencing free movement of persons in Europe and broadly able to speak english. As also the survey indicated quite clearly, the importance for German Millennials to qualify themselves as well as their children (see government priorities) might has been even fostered by these events.
Job market – The transition into the job market for German Millennials is just to be concluded. Much of their formation time was coined by increasing unemployment (after the .com bubble), especially for the eastern and northern regions. This tendency was only turned around after 2005 often associated with the reforms of the social security system (Hartz 4) which made the (baby boomers’) middle class feel unease about their economic outlook (maybe for the very first time in such a fundamental fashion). In contrast to this, most of the Millennials seem to have secured their careers and do rather focus on their families and private concerns than concentrating to much on their carriers or political engagement. This development might, on the one hand, address the low expectation regarding the public sector to create jobs (compared to Poland and Italy, figure 15) but also what kind of jobs they want to full fill (figure 20).
Economics – The Millennials experienced two economic crises with a global dimension. This was on the one hand side what had culminated in the crash of the internet bubble in early 2000 (which rather affected the parents of the Millennials trusting the first time in capital markets, buying Telekom shares and loosing much of their origin investment) and on the other the recent financial crisis with its often implied analogy to the recession in the 1930s (which in Germany resonates with a fragile political system). Indeed both crisis did not immediately affect this generation, e.g trough loosing their jobs but especially the latter showed vividly how economic crises is able to disrupt political systems. As especially the latter crisis did affect this generation rather not in their immediate context might be one reason why effective crisis management associated mostly in the survey with the CDU is very much appreciated. This might have also fostered the quite surprising survey result of how the German Millennials think of the extent to which politicians deliver on their associated tasks particularly compared tot he other countries‘ Millennials.
Politics – German Millennials know more or less three chancellors from their own experience – Kohl, Schröder and Merkel. Each had or has a very specific attitude in leading the German political system. Whereas Kohl had a quite patriarchal understanding of power and whereas Schröder was very focused on his own capacities it might be the attitude of Merkel who best reflects the pragmatic (even apolitical) approach to politics which might be shared by a rather bigger part of the Millennials. This might also be very much in contrast to other European attitudes (see e.g. figure 6 and 7) but it might explain why the more general political sphere in Germany is not that much polarised than as it might seem in other countries.
A pragmatic view
“I do not think that is too much political change” – This statement regarding the future of Germany presented in the survey seems to be quite appropriate to combine the different parts above. German Millennials are interested in politics and how policies affect the future of their lives but they also feel quite confident of the resilient and functioning quality of their political system. Politics seem to be able (from their perspective) to manufacture the basic conditions for a stable or even better future to come.
From my perspective, German Millennials learned a lot by the experiences of others. They learned from the conflicts between and within their preceding and parental generation. They saw how a bad economic environment and unemployment affected older members of their families; they saw how war generated migration; they saw catastrophes like 9/11 and how it changed the security system of the world; they grew up within a globalising world and how it brought global inequality to light; they experienced the highest level of European integration as well as how the Eurocrisis unleashed in southern Europe. German millennials it seem know a lot by learning and maybe less through their own experience. This might be one more reason why they so strongly believe in pragmatics and the possibility to fix things when they had once been turned out badly before.
This pragmatic view on politics makes them in general less responsive to political ideology or matters of principle but they might be alerted when it comes to explanations of how to solve problems even if it might be a long or hard way to go. Hence a good political strategy might focus on content rather on form in order to get German Millennial‘s to vote for political ideas, i.e. to provide narratives with well thought solutions for concrete problems they experience in their lives or learn from the experience of others.
 The term Millennials is to name a generation close to the end of a millennium. This rather formal description shades to a certain extent the differences of their origin. Millennials in Germany compared to Millennials in the US for example (where the generation got its name being the largest generation ever experienced) are in several ways quite different. In this comment I cannot focus on their difference but I want to highlight a few numbers regarding generation of this period (i.e. born between 1980 and 2000) in Germany. Indeed for Germany the period to be studied might be different when looking at the fertility rate. It was around the year 1970 when it went down from 2.5 to 1,5 children per women with another step decline after reunification in 1990 to 1.3 and then after 1995 constant at 1.4 until today. (For comparison: Germany in 1970: 2.0; 1990: 1.45; and 2010: 1.39 as well as Poland in 1970: 2.26; 1990: 2.06; and 2010: 1.38 as well as Italy in 1970: 2.38; 1990: 1.33; and 2010: 1.41.). Looking at other social event the generational divide might like be placed around the year 1990 when a variety of changes influenced the socio-political context not only in Germany but all over Europe.
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.
The Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Center for American Progress have launched a transatlantic initiative known as the “Millennial Dialogue”to engage with and better understand the priorities and values narrative of those aged between 15 and 34. With the first phase complete, on 24th February, FEPS presented the early findings to the policymaking public in Brussels. This was followed by commentary from key political players and a questions and answers session with the press and the Brussels public.
Discussion with Brando Benifei, MEP and Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Intergroup on Youth Affairs (Italy); Anne Johnson, Executive Director, Generation Progress (US); and David Lewis, Founder and CEO, Audiencenet (UK).
As established parties falter when attracting younger voters, some assume that there is a lack of interest in politics among young people. However, there is evidence of growing activism in non-party political movements and other civil society organisations. As such, there is a gap in the broader understanding of this demographic among political practitioners and a need to re-engage.
Certain recent campaigns, such as that of President Obama in the USA have had some success; while other movements like the Indignados and the Occupy Movement have emerged as alternative points of political engagement. The Millennial Dialogue seeks to address these challenges and provide innovative approaches to engaging with young people.
This began with a large international survey on millennial values, using innovative and sophisticated methodologies to gain insights often absent from political discourse. This research aims to provide a basis for a comprehensive millennial policy agenda, one that interacts with young people rather than accepting their loss from the political process.
Some excerpts from the survey:
Interest in politics:
7% of Polish 15-17 year olds said they were interested in politics. 18% of Germans of the same age showed interest while none of the Italians did.
Influence of young people:
64% of young Germans think that most politicians largely ignore the views of younger people.
Gender and sexual politics:
75% of Polish millennials believe in the importance of equality in gender and sexual-orientation in society and feel that politicians have a duty to promote such equality.
Let’s start from the conclusions: If we will be able to break the wall of distrust towards politics, young people will likely consent with our political goals. In a deeply concerning scenario, this is the light at the end of the tunnel we were looking for.
In several countries, progressive forces face major challenges: the parties’ members average age is high and increasing, while they often fail to attract so called “Millennials”. Youth engagement is therefore a key political issue, and political elites have the duty to improve traditional parties’ capacity to attract and involve young people, adapting to changes.
The Millennial Dialogue project, created by FEPS in cooperation with the Centre for American Progress and Audiencenet, recently presented a Report on the comparative survey conducted on 3000 Millennials in Italy, Poland and Germany.
Similar initiatives are very much welcomed, as they constitute a precious tool to have an insight into those trends which are likely to become relevant in the future, and they help us to find new ways to include people by understanding their priorities.
According to the common sense, in Italy there’s a huge distrust of politics and politicians among the youngsters and a lack of will to engage in politics. Does the survey confirm this intuitive view? Partly, but it also reveals a far more complex picture.
These are the figures: 81% of respondents are not politically engaged, and 60% of them “feel their generation is less interested in politics than their parents’ or grandparents’ generation”. Moreover, politics is neither in the top career aspirations nor in the first places among youngsters’ interests. 81% of the Millennials feels the view of younger people is largely ignored by most politicians, while only 16% feels confident that they and their peers could make themselves heard.
In this discouraging context, we likely would be tempted to throw in the towel. However, the survey deepens the analysis and shows a more complex reality.
“Decisions made by politicians in Italy” are considered to be the 5th (out of 15) most important factor affecting the future quality of life, after the global and Italian economic situation, the new developments in technology and connected devices and the state of environment; in addition, 70% of Millennials would like to vote in the next elections. So, young people seem aware about the concrete impact of political decisions on their lives and on the future of their communities.
In this sense, distrust of youngsters is more related to politicians and “present” politics than to politics in general.
It is no coincidence that among asked youngsters honesty is perceived as the most appreciated and researched quality for a politician, along with “a stance against corruption”, intelligence, trustworthiness and ability to listen to others (and we have to admit that Partito Democratico has to fight for ameliorating his “perceived” results in the field, in comparison to Movimento 5 Stelle): among major reasons for not wanting to vote, lack of trust in politician appears to be the key factor for the final choice.
However, by listing the elements contributing to voting decision, young people implicitly suggest how they want to be encouraged to participate to political life. They want to see, also through traditional and new media, politicians who directly engage with them. They want to meet candidates, know their opinion in detail, be direct interlocutors for retailed information. In some ways, Millennials need nowadays to be approached in a more personal and direct way: party’s manifesto is insufficient.
The process of adapting traditional parties to those new trends will not be easy. We want engaged Millennials, not politics to become merely customized marketing; the balance will always be frail.
Yet still, and here I come to my conclusion, this challenge deserves to be accepted and welcomed.
Looking at the top priorities for public spending indicated by the youngsters who answered the survey, these are quite consistent with the program of a left-wing party: healthcare, job creation, education, fight against poverty, innovation and skills. Furthermore, the Millennials answered the key question of “What should politician work towards?” listing: ensuring equality opportunities for all (93%), ensuring the best possible future for young people (91%), improving and maintaining good educational facilities (90%), improving and maintaining good medical care (89%), investing in technology (87%).
If we will be able to break the wall of distrust towards politics, young people will likely consent with our political goals.
We cannot allow ourselves to waste such an opportunity.
We must make our political proposal clearly understandable, we must not fear direct contact with the Millennials and we must convince them their voice is loud enough to be heard.
Mainstream political parties across Europe and North America are failing to inspire and connect with today’s young people, the so-called ‘millennial’ generation. Young people have plenty of things to be angry about such as high unemployment, low wages, unaffordable housing and increasing university tuition fees – so why aren’t they taking more of an active role in politics?
On behalf of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and Global Progress,AudienceNet is currently talking to more than 10,000 millennials, across western democracies, as a means of determining their perspectives around issues of political engagement. The key findings from the quantitative phase of the research have highlighted the scale of the disconnect between politics and millennials. With just one month to go before the 2015 UK general election, only 17% of British 15-34 year olds are “very interested” in politics. 70% of Canadian millennials think that the views of younger people are largely ignored by politicians. Just 3% of Polish millennials aspire to becoming a politician.
One of the most interesting themes coming out of the qualitative phase of the research has been the impact of connected devices and new media. The seemingly unlimited range of online distractions (games, apps, music, videos etc) means that politics is struggling to compete for young people’s attention. 20-30 years ago, it was common for families to sit together to watch the news on TV and talk about the big political issues of the day. Today’s young people are keeping themselves entertained on their own connected devices, spending more and more time on ‘never-ending’ media platforms like Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and X-Box. The ‘on-demand’ and ‘self-curated’ nature of new media means that young people have a choice: do they catch-up with the latest in Games of Thrones, play the new Earth Day climate change level on ‘hyper-addictive’ Angry Birds, swipe for a date onTinder, find out what the 21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity are, listen to the latest alt-J or Royal Blood… etc ad infinitum… or they could check out what’s been happening today in parliament. Needless to say, only a small minority are consciously opting for the later.
When young people do catch a bit of news about politics, they typically aren’t impressed with what they see. Here are some of thoughts about the current UK election campaign coverage from some of those who are particularly disengaged with politics.
“I’m a little bored of it, as its just like watching children in a playground bickering between themselves rather than getting the public’s attention and putting forward their policies they are more interested in putting each other down.”
“I find the whole spectacle frustrating and hollow. Upper class stooges competing in the world’s most expensive popularity contest by telling the public, to whom they are supposed to answer, exactly what they think we want to be told.”
“I’m bored and would like it to be over now.”
As they generally aren’t keeping themselves well informed about politics, many young people are holding their hands up to their ignorance or lack of interest in politics and, conscious not to show their support for a party, politician or campaign that they don’t know much about, are choosing to not take part in politics at all. As one of the German research participants observed, “the internet is gaining in popularity on mobile phones and recently even wristwatches, but unfortunately instead of being used to inform young people, we are playing with senseless apps like Dubsmash.”
Many of the young people who do find some time to take an interest in political issues are rejecting traditional party politics and taking action in their own way. In the past, supporting a political party was more like supporting a football team, where people voted principally on the basis of family ties and where they lived. In this increasingly globalised and inter-connected world, many young people are replacing the traditional ways of engaging with politics – voting, protesting, joining a party and writing to their local MP – with easier and more immediately satisfying ‘single issue’ actions such as joining online campaigns or signing and sharing online petitions. Another respondent in the Millennial Dialogue research, a Polish student, neatly summed up the ‘clicktivism’ trend when they said: “if Poland were to explode into revolution, we would soon have lots of ‘likes’ on Facebook but no real revolutionaries in the streets.”
So what’s the answer? How can politics connect with this generation? My next blog post –Long Live Politics! Technology & New Media To The Rescue? – sets out how technology and new media, the very things that have contributed to a decline in youth political engagement, could potentially be used to kick-start a new era of open and accessible ‘everyday’ democracy that young people can relate to.
Technology and new media, the very things that have contributed to a decline in youth political engagement, could potentially be used to kick-start a new era of open and accessible ‘everyday’ democracy that young people can relate to. Here are four strategies, based on insights from the Millennial Dialogue* project, to get more young people engaged in politics:
- Be Radically Transparent
- Trust The Wisdom Of Crowds
- Visualise Manifestos (With Unambiguous Data)
- Stop Getting Social Media Wrong
Be Radically Transparent
Of the millennials who said that they wouldn’t vote in an election tomorrow, a lack of trust (“I don’t trust politicians”) emerged as the top reason for not wanting to vote, applying to 45% of the sample overall (and 54% in Poland). The main reasons why politicians aren’t trusted, which were cited again and again in the qualitative research communities, are because they “don’t keep their promises”, they’re “corrupt” and they’re “only in it for themselves.”
During the ‘imagine that they were starting a new political party’ research activity, the young people taking part were asked to explain how they would let everyone know that their party is real and trustworthy. The overwhelming consensus was that actions speak louder than words.
The best ‘actions speak louder than words’ way to earn the trust of the electorate is, of course, to deliver on pre-election promises. Data from the Millennial Dialogue research shows that political parties who get a reputation for having broken pre-election promises will be severely punished at the next election. Of the UK millennials who voted in 2010, 24% voted for the Liberal Democrats. In the ensuing coalition government negotiations with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats had to abandon their flagship free university tuition fees policy. The millennial generation ridiculed Nick Clegg’s infamous apology and they’ll soon be expressing their anger at ballot box. Of those who are planning to vote next month, just 7% said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats, a massive 17 percentage points down on 2010.
But what can political parties do to build trust when they’re not in government? It was suggested that candidates should “carry out some promises before even being elected, to try and show that they’re not empty or full of rubbish.” It was also argued that parties need strong leaders capable of dealing with bad behaviour by candidates/MPs severely and openly: “complaints would be made accessible publicly online… there should be a zero tolerance policy for any inappropriateness because a strong country is determined by a strong leadership.”
Continuing the ‘open party’ theme, another millennial thought that parties should “publish everything giving unrestricted access to party finances and minutes from EVERY meeting.” Developing that idea, I wonder if the Liberal Democrats could have reduced the backlash against them over tuition fees if they had been able to broadcast the 2010 post-election negotiations with the Conservatives on a live streaming app like Periscope or Meerkat?
Trust The Wisdom Of Crowds
Politics has failed to move with the times. In an era where online access is becoming increasingly commonplace around the world, young people are very much aware of how the internet has changed the way we work, communicate and relate with each other. Even banking, a slow moving and uncompetitive industry where security is paramount, welcomed online technologies back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, yet in 2015 only a handful of countries have introduced online voting. Not only do young people want to be able to vote online once every 4 or 5 years at the election (89% of Canadian millennials think that “secure online voting would encourage more young people to vote”), they want online technologies to kick-start a new era of open and accessible ‘everyday’ democracy.
It was argued in the UK research community that a new political organisation called The Pirate Party was “particularly trustworthy as their manifesto was crowd-soured by members of the public.” This idea to use the wisdom of the crowd to build trust in politics was also put forward by a German millennial describing what they would do if they were to start a new political party.
“I would open my party up, make it faster. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute their opinion five minutes before the vote in Parliament, Skype or Twitter – this format really brings a lot of confidence with it, because if everyone has the opportunity to participate, they will really trust the politicians.”
The ‘crowd’ has been proven, across a broad range of disciplines, to be surprisinglyinsightful, accurate and creative. Attitudes towards Wikipedia, arguably one of the biggest crowd sourced projects, help to reveal the disconnect between the generations. While many‘Baby Boomers’ mourned the demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica and like to point outThe 15 Biggest Wikipedia Blunders, millennials know that while Wikipedia isn’t perfect, the model is as good as it gets.
Around the world, there are teams of young coders building software to bring politics in to the 21st century. DemocracyOS, for example, allows citizens to get informed, debate and vote on every single bill presented in Congress. The political elite may try to resist this kind of change – probably by claiming that their citizens are not educated enough to make key decisions – but if they continue to reject new technology then they risk becoming increasingly out of touch.
Visualise Manifestos (With Unambiguous Data)
When the millennials taking part in the research were asked how politics could engage their generation, one of the common themes is that politicians should stop using political jargon and make their communications easier to understand. As one student pointed out in the UK research community, “What average 18 year old is going to sit and read up to 6 different manifestos to see who would be better to vote for? I think they have better things to do!! I sat down to read one of them in 2010 and gave up on page 2 because I didn’t understand any of it.” This doesn’t, however, mean that politicians should dumb down their communications – millennials don’t want to be talked to like children or patronised, they just want a clear and informative message delivered in a more entertaining and enjoyable format.
Another theme running through the research community discussions is politicians’ use of statistics. As part of the UK research, the participants were asked to live-blog their thoughts as they watched the second TV Election Debate. Here are a few of the quotes that referenced the leaders’ usage of statistics:
8.10pm “Ed (Milliband) and Nicola (Sturgeon) mention the NHS and education as key priorities while also reducing other cuts… just wondering how all the books will balance?”
8.18pm: “I really like the Green’s use of solid statistics.”
Half an hour later, one of the UK millennials came up with an idea that was very well received by the other research participants.
8.46pm: “£100bn over what time frame? How about a new rule? Any party proposing a policy must express it as a proportion of annual government spending (£750bn).”
This rule, it was argued, would make it easier to see how the parties differ and which parties have or have not balanced their books. When politicians talk about a £8bn new policy, it’s often not clear what that means. Is it a one off investment over 5 years or an on-going annual expenditure? What impact does that new policy have on all of the other departments?
In the days after the debate, the most insightful research participants were invited to collaborate with researchers from AudienceNet and graphic designers from Data Design to develop their ideas and discuss how technology and new media could be used to turn 70+ page manifestos into something more entertaining, user-friendly and useful/informative (i.e. content that young people would want to share with their friends).
Building on the “express every policy as a proportion of annual government spending” rule, it was suggested that “when parties change pledges to counteract their rivals, it’s hard to keep up – it would be great to see everything put into one place.” When another participant mentioned the income tax pie chart letter sent out to UK taxpayers last year, this led to an idea for an interactive ‘budget visualisation’ website. The one page visualisation dashboard would show the total tax and spend projections with the tax data broken down to show the proportion obtained from each tax type (VAT, income tax etc) and the spending data split by each government department.
When someone pointed out that voters would want to know more than just the top-line total tax/spend proportions, it was proposed that the user would be able to click on a government department (e.g. education) to drill down to the next level of spending (schools, universities etc) and then to have the option to explore more content about the policies for each area. One of the more popular suggestions as to what that content should be was to create a series of animated videos setting out the party’s vision for the future. The participants agreed that the videos should use “accessible language”, “unambiguous data” and the “high-tech, high energy” visual presentation style used by the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, whose animated video (about a relatively dry topic: life expectancy and income) – “200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes – The Joy of Stats” – has been viewed on YouTube more than 6 million times.
Stop Getting Social Media Wrong
Having heard about the importance of ‘Likes on Facebook’ and ‘Tweeting’, politicians are belatedly joining social media networks. Many of the millennials taking part in the research said that they weren’t ‘following’, ‘liking’, or ‘friends with’ any politicians. Of those who are connected to politicians, their take on how they currently use social media was mixed but generally quite negative. While it was acknowledged that “some of the more successful younger candidates are using social media well and can understand how to use it to its full benefit without appearing like a technophobe or trying too hard to fit it”, the consensus was that most politicians are getting social media wrong.
Millennials find it particularly galling when politicians employ someone else to handle their social media accounts on their behalf.
“Politicians could reach young people through social networks like Facebook using their own profiles and, if at all possible, through PERSONAL (I mean really personal and not from any employees) answers to people’s questions.”
At the other extreme, Gutiérrez Iglesias, the People’s Party mayor of a small town near Madrid called Brunete has been using Whatsapp in an attempt to connect with voters. As part of a “Call me or write to me on my phone!” campaign, he sent his mobile number out to the 10,000 constituents, checks messages at all hours of the day and apparently responds to most messages within minutes. While Whatsapp probably isn’t the best platform for politicians, especially those with larger constituencies, Iglesias’ willingness to listen and respond to his citizens should certainly be applauded. In each research community so far, millennials have repeatedly stressed that the key to successful social media communication is to see it very much as a two-way process, listening and interacting with the people, as opposed to just broadcasting at them as if they were a passive audience.
As one of the Canadian millennials pointed out, as well as using social media to listen and interact, politicians should also try to show a ‘human’ side by sharing things from their life outside of politics.
“I have my local MP as a ‘Facebook friend’. This has been effective marketing for him as it allows him to post about issues and he gets instant feedback. He posts pictures from events he attends which puts him in a positive light. Occasionally, he will also post about very selective personal events, which shows his ‘friends’ that he is a real guy, with a real family – making him more relatable.”
However, there is a balance to be struck here and there is a risk, especially for older politicians, of being seen as trying too hard.
“Politicians could better connect with young people by being open, honest, and by not actively TRYING to connect with them. When a middle aged man is trying hard to be seen as ‘cool’ by young people, it comes across as patronising. They should be themselves and talk honestly about how their party can best represent the needs of young people.”
Several millennials have mentioned Obama’s Reddit AMA as an example of how politicians should be using social media.
“Politicians can reach young people, especially through social media. In the US this is happening now with Reddit AMA (ask me anything). It is important to be in direct contact with young people and to give them the feeling that you are taking their opinions and concerns seriously.”
Hinting perhaps at how inter-connected the world is becoming, the millennials talking independently and unprompted about Obama’s Reddit AMA were from Germany (quoted above), Italy and Canada. The US phase of the research is due to start later this month. My next blog posts will cover electoral reform, personalities in politics and how millennials are describing their ‘ideal candidate.’
Imagine if the people who decided how today’s election was run (MPs, Lords, the UK Electoral Commissioners etc) were all aged 15-34… what changes would they make? In our most recent research we asked 1,000+ UK millennials which electoral reform measures they thought would encourage more young citizens to vote.
Just under half (45%) of UK millennials said they were in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, compared to 41% who were against the idea (14% said “don’t know”). Perhaps as a consequence of the lowering of the voting age for the Scotland independence referendum, the proportion of Scottish millennials who think the voting age should be lowered to 16 was significantly higher at 65%.
Those in favour of lowering the voting age often used “if you’re old enough to…” reasoning to explain their view:
“If they are old enough to join the army they should be able to vote”
“If you are old enough to work and pay tax you should be able to vote.”
Those against lowering the voting age questioned whether 16 and 17 year olds were mature enough to make this kind of decision:
“The voting age should most definitely stay at 18, if anything raise it to 21 (and I’m only 19!). Most 16-17 year olds are not mature enough to make reasoned, rational decisions about who to vote for.”
John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has said he wants to see online voting introduced by 2020. The overwhelming majority (90%) of UK millennials agree that having the ability to vote online would encourage more young people to vote. While they did express some concerns about the security risks involved, the consensus was that the potential upside (increased turnout) far outweighs the possibility of the system being hacked.
“With people working long hours and with various problems with transport links, this can make voting seem like a chore, even if it is only once every 4/5 years. With online voting apathy would no longer be an excuse. Voting would appeal more to younger people who use their phones to organise their lives. This would also reduce potential queues at the polling station…”
“Online voting – if this could be safely implemented – it would be 100% a yes from me. Resources spent sorting through the current voting system would be much less, results would be almost instantaneous, and it would encourage more people to vote.”
Polling Station Locations
When we explained to the UK millennials that in Norway and Sweden citizens can now vote on electronic machines in shopping centres, on trains, in airports etc, they were broadly in favour of this idea (81%). However, it was soon pointed out that if online voting was implemented then precinct/transport voting machine technology would soon become obsolete.
“Access to polling stations should be increased. I like the sound of being able to vote in as many places as possible, including shopping centres and in places of travel. It’s often difficult to get to your assigned polling station, especially for disabled people, so the closer the station the better and an increase in the number of places that can be voted at would help that.”
“The idea of being able to vote on planes and in supermarkets is quite clever but with the advance of technology this would lose significance as voters will just be able to vote online anyway.”
On a related note, Adam Coomer, a member of the Young Humanists, recently argued against having polling stations in churches citing studies suggesting that contextual priming can affect how people vote. Church polling stations could be particularly inappropriate or even off-putting for millennials. We know from our Audiomonitor UK (Feb 2015) data that only 26% of those aged 15-24 consider themselves to be Christian and just 2% regularly go to Church.
Extended Voting Period
Almost two thirds (64%) of young people in the UK were in favour of a longer time period for voting. Those in favour of being able to vote over a longer time period thought it would be a good idea because it would be easier for people who are away or busy around the time of the election to vote. In the qualitative discussions, the consensus was again broadly in favour of an extended voting period but it was thought that two months (as is the case in Norway) is too long. One of the more popular comments/suggestions was to allow one week to vote.
“Voting over a longer period – I don’t see how this can be anything but beneficial, it can encourage voting for those that are busy on the day of voting.”
“Allowing two months to cast votes is too long; people might procrastinate or put it off and eventually forget. The one-day voting system means that people who are on holiday or otherwise have difficulty accessing a polling station/postal vote during that day, no matter how long the voting hours are, might miss out. A compromise could be drawn with something like a voting week.”
The data on compulsory voting was clear: UK Millennials generally think it’s too extreme and only 38% were in favour.
“Forcing people to participate in a voting election would start to seem more like a dictatorship style system instead of the democratic method that it is trying to encourage and develop. It would be akin to using guns to force people to sign a peace treaty… not really the best image you want to project to other nations or to the populous.”
“Compulsory voting sounds a bit extreme and difficult to enforce. It might also lead to people making rash rather than informed decisions about who to vote for.”
Looking beyond the Millennial Dialogue project, there is evidence from the voter turnout numbers that voting systems have a big impact on youth voter turnout. At the 2010 election, 44% of Britons aged between 18 and 24 voted, compared with 76% of those aged 65 and over. The difference is less stark in other countries with more representative voting systems. For example, in the 2013 German mixed-member proportion election, 64% of first-time voters cast their ballots, compared with 75% for over-70s. Britain’s first-past-the-post system holds down the smaller insurgent parties – like the Green Party – which are popular among young voters but stand no chance of winning more than a handful of seats, making voting seem less effective.