There’s a saying, misattributed to Winston Churchill among others, that goes, “If you are not a socialist by the time you are 25, you have no heart. If you are still a socialist by the time you are 35, you have no brains.”
I can’t help but think about how that line is used to negate the young protesters we saw at the recent climate change talks in Copenhagen, and at every other globalization forum in recent years. The youths are labeled as idealists with pipedreams detached from the real world. The assembled politicians and bureaucrats ignore them for the most part, save for the occasional police action. The clashes with riot police are typically the sole media images of protesters, in turn reinforcing conservative viewpoints that youth groups are troublemakers.
Young people like those who showed up in Denmark are also dismissed as unrepresentative of the world’s youth: they’re often painted as the children of privileged middle- and upper-class families politicized at university, removed from the real priorities of the poor and oppressed. The underclass, after all, can’t jet off to Copenhagen or Seattle or Rio or wherever a global summit takes place.
It’s true universities are a hotbed of anti-globalization, environmental and a host of other movements. And, yes, university students in Canada, for instance, aren’t necessarily representative of all young people in this country, let alone the developing world. But that shouldn’t automatically negate what they’re saying.
That politicians so seldom respond to their input, however, only fuels the sense of disengagement. That translates into few young people voting, and a cynicism later in life, when many of those youthful ideals fall by the wayside.
I’ve seen some of that firsthand. Having been through the student movements, I’m aware of how the long hours – fueled by idealism and a big helping of party atmosphere – can only be sustained for so long. All the work for the cause eventually seems fruitless to many of those students as they go on to work, families and a host of other demands that put the old causes on the backburner.
We know politicians are liars. Of course they are. Of course they are corrupt. Of course they are beholden to special interests, including the business lobby. Of course they are self-serving, looking only for re-election and the spoils that go with it. We know, but we just stop trying to change the system.
According to a study by the Canadian Policy Research Networks, young people are increasingly disengaged from formal political institutions and practices largely because they don’t believe the system serves their needs. Most care very deeply about issues that affect broader society – from the local to the global level – and many of them are engaged in various ways. How young people think and talk about their civic and political engagement is different from previous generations.
“It is also clear that disaffection with formal politics is not unique to the younger generation, but rather part of a broader challenge facing democracies today – at home and abroad. We have to be careful not to blame young people for their own marginalization from politics. Youth feel disconnected and are alienated from the political process partly because their issues don’t seem to be on the political agenda. Perhaps parties’ agendas don’t emphasize youth relevant policy in their platforms because young adults are less likely to vote. It is a vicious cycle.”
This disenchantment with politics is backed up by the statistics.
Numbers from Elections Canada show fewer than one in four eligible voters under the age of 25 bother to cast a vote in federal elections. While voter participation is down overall, the youth numbers pale in comparison to the 80-per-cent turnout for Canadians in the 58 to 67 age bracket.
Elections Canada states in a recent pronouncement on youth electoral participation that “today’s young people are not showing signs of becoming more likely to vote as they age,” which doesn’t bode well for the future participation rates.
Because young Canadians seem more under-engaged than apathetic, there is reason for optimism. In a recent examination of declining electoral turnout among Canada’s youth, Prof. Brenda O’Neill of the University of Manitoba, found that 18- to 27-year-olds were much less likely than their older counterparts to agree to statements such as: “people like me do not have much say over what the government does.”
Her conclusion is cautiously optimistic: “Although younger Canadians appear to be less politically engaged, this disengagement appears less a conscious decision to turn away from politics than a failure to see the importance of political participation.”
And therein lies an ugly truth in Canadian politics: Young people are largely ignored. Political parties, by necessity, are calculating creatures. As such, they don’t waste time trying to court them, and feel they can ignore the demographic with impunity, thus entrenching the cycle of disengagement.