With youth participation in elections waning across the world, they are increasingly disregarded in the political system. But if they voted, they could change the results.
Immediately after the vote on Brexit, thousands of young people marched in the streets of England to show their disagreement over the choice to leave Europe. But polls indicated that had they voted en masse (only 37% voted), the result of the referendum would have been the opposite.
In the political system, it is now taken for granted that youth will largely abstain and the agenda tends to ignore them more and more. This has created a vicious circle, setting up priorities which do not represent them. Yet, the analysis of the elections after the shattering economic and social crisis of 2008-9 is clear and statistically evident.
The European Parliament conducted research on the European elections of 2014 in the 28 member countries. While the youngest Europeans (18-24) are more positive about the EU than the oldest (55+), far fewer of them turned out to vote. Turnout was higher among the oldest respondents.
Some 51% of the 55+ voted, while only 28% did in the 18-24 age group. This is relatively unchanged since the 2009 elections. And young people were more inclined to decide on the day of the elections, or a few days before (28% compared with the +55 group).
Already in 2014, 31% of the younger group said they never voted, against 19% of the 55+ age group. Yet, the younger the age, the more people had the feeling of being Europeans: 70% for the 18-24 year-olds and 59% for the 55+ group.
It could be said, of course, that European elections are a special case. But a look at the past national elections in Europe confirms this trend. In the Austrian presidential elections of 2016, youth participation was at 43%. In 2010, it was 48%.
In the Dutch parliamentarian elections of 2017, the age group 18-24 vote was at 66%: it was 70% in 2012. In the Italian referendum of December 2016, the youth abstention was 38%, against 32% of the general population. And in the recent French presidential elections, the data are consistent: 78% abstention for the 25-34 age group; 65% for the 24-35; a solid 51% for the 35-49; and then 44% for the 50-64, with only 30% for those 65 and over.
In Israel, just 58% of under 35s, and just 41% of those under 25, voted in 2013, compared with 88% of over 55s. In Britain and Poland less than half of under 25s voted in the last general elections, compared with 88% of over 55s.
The growing youth abstention has significant implications. Let us take the last American elections that brought Donald Trump to the White House. The so-called Millennials, those of the age group 18-35, now make up 31% of the electorate. The Silent Generation (those 71+) are now 12% of the voting pool, and Generation X (36-51) makes up about 25% of the electorate.
Bernie Sanders’ run was based on 2 million votes from the 19-24 age group – voters who basically abandoned the elections after his loss in the primaries. Young people’s abstention rate, close to 67%, made the Millennials equivalent to the Silent Generation, and lost its demographic advantage. Millennials had a favourable view of Sanders at 54%, against 37% of Clinton. Just 17% of young people had a positive view of Trump.
Had only millennials voted, Clinton would have won the election in a landslide, with 473 electoral votes to Trump’s 32.
The first obvious observation is that if the traditional intergenerational rift disappears, we will have little change in politics, as older voters are usually more conservative. And the second obvious observation is that citizens’ participation will progressively shrink, as the young will age.
What is worrying is that we have too many polls on the reasons behind the political disenchantment of young people to think that the political system is unaware. On the contrary, many political analysts think that parties in power don’t mind abstentions in general terms. It shrinks the voters to those who feel connected, whose priorities are clear and simpler to satisfy, as the older generations feel more secure than the younger ones.
And the theme of young people is disappearing in the political debate, or is merely rhetorical. A good example is that the Italian government devoted in 2016 a whopping 20 billion dollars to save four banks, while it dedicated a total of 2 billion dollars to create jobs for young people, in a country which has close to 40% youth unemployment.
For youth, the message is clear: finance is more important than their future. So they do not vote, and they are less and less a factor in the political system.
Spending on education and research are the first victims (together with health) when austerity hits. The results are evident. In Australia (where 25% of the young people said that “it does not matter what kind of government we have”), those over 65 pay no tax on income under 24,508 dollars. Younger workers start paying taxes at 15,080 dollars.
In rich countries the world over, people over 65 have subsidies and special discounts, such as on the cinema and other activities. Not the young people…. But when somebody with a message for the young comes into the picture, participation changes. In Canada, just 37% of the 18-24s voted in the election of 2008, against 39% in 2011. But when Justin Trudeau campaigned on a message of hope in 2015, youth participation rose sharply to 57%.
What is a real cause of concern for democracy, as an institution based on the waning concept of popular participation, is that young people are not at all apolitical. In fact, they are very aware of priorities like climate change, gender equality, social justice, common goods, and other concepts, much more than the older generation. At least 10% of young people volunteer in social groups and civil society, against 3% of the older generations.
They feel much more connected to the causes of humanity, have fewer racial biases, believe more in international institutions, and are more interested in international affairs. A good example is Chile. In 2010 general abstention was 13.1 %. In 2013 it went to 58 %. Youth abstention was 71%. If young people would vote, they could change the results.
Simply, they have given up on political institutions as corrupt, inefficient, and disconnected from their lives. A report last year found that 72% of Americans born before the Second World War thought it was “essential” to live in a country that was governed democratically. Less than a third of those born in the 1980s agreed.
We must note that the decline of participation in elections is a worldwide phenomenon, not just among young people, but also the general population. The last elections at the writing of this article were in the Bahamas; only 50% of the population went to vote. In Slovenia abstention is now at 57.6%, in Mali 54.2%, in Serbia 53.7%, in Portugal 53.5%, in Lesotho 53.4%, in Lithuania 52.6%, in Colombia 52.1%, in Bulgaria 51.8%, in Switzerland 50.9%…and this in regions as different as Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia…the crisis of political participation goes from the cradle of the parliamentarian system (Great Britain), 24%abstention, in 1964, to 34.2 in 2010 to Italy (7.1% in 2063, and in 2013 24.8%).
There is a general consensus among analysts that the damages of globalisation and the discrediting of political parties are the major causes for the decline in participation. Yet the winners never take into account the reasons of the losers. The victory of Macron in the last French elections was well-received in Germany, but as soon as the new president started to speak about the need to strengthen Europe, for instance by creating a European finance minister, the immediate reaction was: Germany is not going to place one cent of its well-earned surplus with Europe to the service of other countries: those who spend their money on women and drinks and now expect solidarity form the North of Europe (the Dutch president of Eurofin, Jeroen Dijsselbloem).
How long it will it take to get the winners inside the EU to understand that the political crisis is a global one, and must be addressed urgently? Voter turnout has been dropping precipitously in Germany, from over 82% in 1998 to only 70.8% in 2009. As at the last election, this year the number of non-voters is expected to surpass the number of voters in favor of the most successful party.
Manfred Güllner, the head of the Forsa polling institute, warns of a non-voter record. “There is reason to fear that fewer than 70% of eligible voters will go to the polls,” he says. If the non-voters were included on a conventional TV graphic, they would have the highest bar in the chart. They should actually be touted as the true winners of the election – if it weren’t for the fact that this also represents a defeat for democracy.
Roberto Savio is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.