How to re-engage young people with politics

Many people in the European Union have become disengaged from conventional politics, according to the PIDOP research project, which finds a high variation in participation levels according to gender, ethnicity and age. An important way of overcoming this lack of engagement is to ensure young people have access to a range of organisations that give them roles and responsibilities, and involve them in decision-making processes.

Levels of political and civic engagement vary significantly according to the intersection between age, gender and ethnicity. For example, the degree of participation of a young woman from one ethnic minority is starkly different from that of an older male from a different ethnic group, and the predictors of participation also vary across subgroups. The challenge is how to explain this variability and hence discover ways of predicting – and possibly changing - this behaviour, so as to increase levels of participation.

According to the PIDOP project, there is currently a democratic deficit in Europe with lower voting rates and the rejection of an EU constitution in referendums held in the Netherlands and France. Although over the last decade young people in particular have become disengaged from conventional politics, they are turning to new forms of political activity, including demonstrations, petitions, and social media campaigns on civil and political issues, and to direct forms of participation such as charitable fundraising, volunteering and consumer activism.

PIDOP addressed the issue of how to re-engage young people in politics by collecting both qualitative and quantitative data on political and civic participation among 16 to 26 year olds. The project identified the issues that are most important to young people, and assessed the variations in engagement according to age, gender and ethnicity. The study built on the secondary analysis of existing data from around 40 countries on levels of political and civic engagement. PIDOP used focus groups, and a quantitative survey of 8000 young people from 27 ethnic groups, including the dominant ethnic group, in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

In addition, the project identified and interviewed influential individuals in the lives of young people, such as parents, youth workers and teachers, to get their perspective on how young people’s notions of citizenship are formed. Musicians were also identified as influential individuals and the study analysed the lyrics of rap artists to gain insights into the factors which facilitate and inhibit participation. The research was multi-disciplinary, employing researchers in psychology, political scientists, educators, policy analysts, anthropologists and sociologists.

The researchers underline the distinction between political and civic participation. Political activity is intended to influence governance and may include both conventional (involving electoral processes) and non-conventional activity. Civic participation refers to voluntary activity aimed at helping others, achieving a public good or involvement in community life.

PIDOP analysed three groups of factors: psychological (including motivational, cognitive, attitudinal and identity factors); social (including family, educational and media factors); and macro-level contextual factors - how engagement varies according to the political and institutional systems in a given country. Contextual factors that vary in EU Member States include the presence or absence of female or ethnic quotas; the design of electoral systems; whether voting takes place at the weekend or on a working day; the existence of proportional representation or first-past-the-post systems; and whether voting is compulsory, as in Belgium.

Despite the huge variation in levels of participation found according to age, gender and ethnicity, some common views were held by all groups of young people:

  • Young people described a lack of attention and respect paid to their views, and to the causes that they feel strongly about.
  • Young people reported a disinclination to engage with conventional politics, which they perceive as an arena for older white males.
  • When they engage in non-conventional forms of participation and activism, such as boycotts or campaigns, young people do not view such activities as ‘political’, even though their actions have political ramifications.

Specific predictors of participation were also identified across a wide range of young people:

  • Being a member of an organisation, whether a campaigning organisation, or a leisure or youth group, has a real impact on levels of engagement. Those who belong to an organisation are more active civically in non-conventional ways than those who are not members of organisations
  • Two psychological factors in particular are found to promote participation among young people: an interest in civic or political life, and a sense of internal efficacy, that is, belief about one’s own ability to understand and to participate effectively in politics.
  • Regarding EU citizenship, there were found to be relatively low feelings of affiliation towards EU institutions, which were perceived as remote and unresponsive.

Recommendations

Political participation can be enhanced among young people by:

  • Enabling access to a range of organisations, including youth and leisure centres, sports clubs, cultural centres and local community centres, that offer opportunities for taking on roles and responsibilities and involve young people in decisions concerning the orientation of activities, the organisation, and the procedures to be followed.
  • Educational interventions aimed at influencing participation should seek to enhance young people’s interest in political and civic issues, and their sense of internal efficacy, rather than simply addressing young people’s lack of knowledge through, for example, an information campaign.
  • Interventions need to be selectively targeted at specific subgroups – whether girls or boys, majority or minority ethnic groups, or younger or older people.
  • There is a risk that if one form of participation (such as conventional voting) is enhanced, this may act as a disincentive to engage further in non-conventional and civic forms of participation (such as volunteering, consumer activism and charitable fundraising).
  • To improve young people’s engagement with EU politics, suggestions include setting up youth internships, and for MEPs to engage more with young people at the constituency level.

PIDOP concludes that the best way to influence political and civic participation among young people is at the educational level, for example by providing high quality participation experiences for youth through civic/citizenship education, and by enhancing teacher training programmes which will have a multiplier effect across the EU.

PIDOP – Processes influencing democratic ownership and participation (duration: 1/5/2009 – 31/4/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5 “The citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.1 “Participation and citizenship in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.fahs.surrey.ac.uk/pidop/

Contact: Prof. Martyn Barrett, M.Barrett@surrey.ac.uk