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UNPLUGGED - Getting Gen Z to Log In to the Ballot Box

As a demographic, young people are strange. If you ask a young person to explain what democracy means to them, they are likely to come back with a reply about “freedom”, “voting”, or “society”. Despite this apparent view about the importance of free and fair voting, less than 55% of people aged 18 to 34 voted in 2019, and the trend does not seem to be changing. 

However, with many rail fares going up by 4.9%, many young people benefiting from a pay rise this financial year, and global instability, participation in politics has never been more important. So why, on election day, do nearly half of young people not put a cross in a box?

A part of this could be disengagement and apathy. Most young people are simply  not interested in politics, often branding it as ‘a bunch of old men screaming in a green room [House of Commons]’. Not to mention, it is a tricky field to keep up to date with, especially if you don’t have an interest in it. As a result of this, young people may be feeling they do not connect with politicians (or their policies) on any level, and have no one to represent them in politics, so they don't vote.

Another part of this issue would be the education system. In the majority of schools across the country, political education and exposure simply does not exist, and when it does, it is delivered in a shoddy 30 minute assembly that would put students to sleep. The Government website says, ‘Teaching about political issues and differing views is an essential part of the curriculum, helping students form their own opinions’.This seems to highlight the importance of young people participating in politics. Yet, this statement is baseless. The Government's plan for political education is unfunded, and so doesn't happen in most schools, apart from the top private ones, instigating a class divide. The only political exposure young people may be given at school is a sense of democracy; perhaps through elections to positions in the school council,student leadership team, or mock parliament, sparking democratic involvement. However, within the wider political sphere, young people simply don’t know about our politicians and political system, and so, they don't vote.

Gen Z has been repeatedly bashed by the likes of national newspapers, branding us as ‘lazy’ and ‘more economically inactive than ever before’. And whilst there are reasons for this, it is important to consider that elections are inconvenient. On a Thursday, your average young person is likely in some form of job or study for the morning and afternoon, and may have plans to relax during the evening. Why would they go out of their routine to place an x in a box for someone, especially in the local elections, where national turnout is abysmally low? Furthermore, from a wider perspective, there is an opportunity cost for young people voting. They may be unable to take time off to vote, or may lack community ties. Understanding your community needs, finding and researching candidates and polling stations, and physically getting out on the day may be too much for young people, and so, they don't vote.

Despite my description of Gen Z being sloths in political participation so far, research has shown that we  participate differently when it comes to politics. Rather than putting an x in a box, we adopt a system of petition signing, social media lobbying and protesting. 

The recent geopolitical conflicts across the world between Ukraine - Russia and Israel - Palestine have ignited online participation with so many young people, eager to express their view. Youth participation in unconventional politics  demonstrates that the future of political participation may be changing. But for now, with petitions rejected, protests ignored, and social media swiped, young people are once again shut out, forcing them to become disengaged, and so, they don't vote.

They don't vote, they don't vote, they don't vote. How do we get conventional participation up?

Despite recognizing the importance of democracy and civic engagement, young people's participation in politics remains alarmingly low, attributed to factors such as disengagement, inadequate political education, and barriers to voting. To address this issue, there is a critical need for comprehensive political education initiatives starting from secondary school, ultimately empowering young people to actively participate in conventional forms of politics.

There is an argument that we don't need to change anything. Time itself will eventually force society to adapt to an unconventional form of politics, and that societal change will prosper. However, with turnout low, I believe the Government must focus on education and youth representation in order to drive up political interest and participation in a conventional way. They could implement politics and citizenship studies, just as Finland has done, sparking debate and political commentary within young people. After all, ask a young person about democracy, and they will highlight the importance of a free and fair vote.

Image: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection

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