I predict a riot! Talking young people’s politics in the UK

I’ve had so much interest from folks at Uni, around town, internet people, even the media about the Open Café about young people’s politics on Monday. People have been asking: what do you think about this?

nervous cat is nervous

Mostly I think: “Oh God what have I got myself into”

I haven’t blogged in a while, so I wanted to share a draft of some ideas with you. And if you like it, you could always come along Monday and buy me a pint…

We’re in an interesting time for politics

Across Europe young people are marginalized by politics and, at the same time, they seem to be retreating from the old allocative-administrative model of politics. A good example is the Iraq war protests under Blair: after years building policy for young people around “good citizenship” – get out in your community, make your voice heard, do volunteer work, etc – at the point of making their voices heard young people were broadly condemned as opportunistic truants looking for a day off school*. Rather than perceiving of the world as a tough place we make better by choosing politicians to administrate it, people seem to prefer getting things done themselves. You can see this across all age groups in increasing participation in things like petitions, boycotts, “ethical consumerism”, protests and protest votes (especially for the extreme right), and so on.

It’s tough to be young

Young people seem to be a magnifying mirror on these trends in advanced industrial economies like ours. There is diversity between young people – they’re not monolithic – but since the 1970s-80s there has been a dramatic change in how life works for everyone. We have, as citizens, greater choices than our predecessors: increasing access to professions other than those our parents worked, increasing access to the workplace for women, changes in the higher education system. At the same time, we face far deeper risks, and we lack our parents’ and grandparents’ “safety nets”. For example, where previous generations  in the working class could plan for a working life of secure employment in one workplace, supported by healthcare, and a pension on retirement, for the young work is a matter of temporary employment and unemployment, unpaid labour, applications and rejections, and uncertainty. For young women especially, there are additional pressures linked to raising a family young or leaving them until later; for all the period of youth is extended, and the traditional markers of adulthood – stable employment, raising children, owning a home, planning for old age – are deferred at best.

On the whole, our times give us winners and losers. For the winners, it’s accurate to say politics is accessible, somewhat post-materialist – about the environment, world poverty, etc – and the self become self-actualizing, life for the CV, a process of constructing yourself as a ship that can navigate the treacherous transition to adulthood today. For the losers, life in Britain has been described as a “Brazilianization” of youth: growing up is about unemployment, arbitrary failure in the face of an uncaring system run by richer, more privileged adults, and very much about social capital and surviving by working personal ties to get a job or some experience, who you know as much as what you know.

Britain and the “perfect storm”

Britain stands out in this case, for sure. In our scarce times, youth unemployment is high all over Europe. It’s 20% in Britain at the moment. However, in Britain this is coupled with the highest level of social immobility in the EU-15. Nowhere else in Europe, for example, are you less likely to succeed in school if you come from an underprivileged family background: indeed, as of 2012 data from the OECD, social mobility in the UK is even worse than in the United States. Where in some other countries with comparable youth unemployment  – in France and Sweden, for example – there remains healthy youth participation in Parliament, Britain (perhaps with Ireland) stands out as a country where politics is centralized (local government is very weak), where young people have the least direct contact with officials, where structures are archaic (we continue to have unelected legislators – and even theologians! – in the Lords) and where the policy process and public discourse tend to consider young people as a group at risk, a problem to be solved, or even as a sort of folk demon (the hoodie is our go-to example), rather than a demographic to be represented in institutional processes.

Accordingly young participation in the means of engagement identified by the Eurobarometer surveys is extremely low, in the 50% range compared to around 86% elsewhere on the continent. Only in the UK do you see a clear rupture between generations. In France, for example, there is a general trend towards behaviour like protest voting, but in the UK there is a period effect as well as a generational one, a clear break.

So that’s what I think we have in Britain. A perfect storm: young people are being short-changed and given short shrift by our political institutions. Down at the pub we’ll be talking about where things go from here. One thing we do have in Britain – and I think it’s very interesting – is a strong sense from research that young people support democracy in principle, and that they want to get involved, but that over the last ten years or so they feel like government here has kicked them out of the process. Core civic values are high, as are engagement with charities and community feeling.

My conclusion? I think we’re missing the point by asking if young people are engaged. We’re making a monolith out of them, for one thing, and turning a demographic of fellow citizens into a problem we need to correct. What is young people’s politics about? What is democracy about – is it just about voting? I think that question is my conclusion.

* this is a friendly blog post so I won’t be giving full academic references – but if you would like sources for my claims do give me a shout, there’s a contacts page linked at the top of this blog.

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