It is a time-honoured tradition for older generations to accuse younger generations of political apathy. Today, however, proponents of the ‘young people don’t care about politics’ rhetoric have statistics on their side – statistics which revealed an alarmingly low turnout of young people in general elections.
But does refusing to vote indeed signal political apathy amongst the youth?
Or is there another, emerging trend of pupil politics which favours activism and direct confrontation to casting a ballot? And is this new way of being a young, political citizen something that schools can harness for good?
Why young people don’t vote
Despite talk of a ‘youthquake’ in the 2017 general elections, an overall look at YouGov figures shows that, in actual fact, few young people turn out to vote. Of a total 61% voter turnout in 2005, young voters amounted to just 36%. In 2010 that figure rose slightly to 43% out of a total 65% voter turnout. More tellingly though, despite an overall voter increase to 78% in the 2017 general election, young voter figures remained static at just 43%.
What these figures indicate is that the narrative of a youth turnout surge is, to all intents and purposes, factually inaccurate. And yet, when we dive deeper into things, we see that this does not mean that young people are apolitical, but rather that they are jaded with a political system they feel alienated from.
Young people don’t turn out to vote for varied and complicated reasons but at a fundamental level, it all boils down to trust. Or rather, the lack of it. This decline in trust is not unfounded. Scandals like MP expenses in 2009, WikiLeaks in 2010, the phone hacking scandal in 2011, the Panama Papers of 2015 and the seemingly daily scandals from the Whitehouse involving Donald Trump imply that truth cannot be found in our most powerful institutions and that governments are inherently deceitful.
This distrust towards politicians and governments has also extended to distrust in traditional media who are perceived as mouthpieces of a controlled political agenda. Throw in the problem of fake news and we’re suddenly looking at an incredibly complex situation.
This shift towards disinformation is of such concern that in a recent interview, the EU commissioner for digital economy and society, Mariya Gabriel, said: “Fake news is a direct threat to the very foundations of our democratic society.”
The tide of fake news that we have seen in recent years, much of which has led to political outcomes that young people don’t support, has disenfranchised huge swathes of young voters. If what we read is no longer to be trusted, and if the very mouthpieces of those in charge can no longer be considered as trustworthy, who then should young people vote for if they should even vote at all?
However, this situation has an interesting twist. In 2010, a survey of British Social Attitudes revealed that trust in politicians was at an unprecedented low following the tough years of austerity and the 2009 expenses scandal. Post-Brexit, things have only gotten worse.
However, that same 2010 survey revealed something odd: despite low trust in politicians, the interest in politics had risen. Which brings us to the heart of this issue and the key to understanding a new phenomenon: pupil politics.
How the youth of today is shaping the political landscape
It makes sense that by not turning up to vote, young people of today would be underrepresented in politics. Although that particular tide seems to be turning in the US and Canada, while in Europe the percentage of parliamentarians under 30 still remains at an abysmal 0.5%.
Considering that Generation Z now accounts for 32% of the world’s population, surpassing even millennials, one would think that the political system would do a better job in trying to engage them. Political parties are, for the most part, not only comprised of older people, but also thought as an ‘older people construct’. When asked the likelihood of becoming candidates in future elections, only 14.5% of EU youngsters said yes.
And yet, this generation is very much interested and invested in politics – low voting turnout notwithstanding.
They’re just going about it in a different way. The politically active youngsters of today are focusing their attention on activism, to becoming spokespeople for societal change. They care less about being connected to a political party, opting instead to start and support grassroots movements. It seems, therefore, that pupil politics has transcended political party lines.
A great example of pupil politics comes from the US in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting tragedy. The high school students who survived the massacre organised marches on a wide scale to bring awareness to gun violence issues; their message quickly becoming viral online, giving them a global platform. This has, in turn, given them the power to pressurise politicians. Some Republican governors and senators are now starting to support background checks prior to gun purchasing thanks to this wave of pressure, and companies are beginning to withdraw their support for the American National Rifle Association.
Another poignant example of pupil politics comes from 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg. The young Swede has seated herself firmly at the table of the global debate. Amongst her impressive list of achievements are holding meetings with the UN secretary general. So how did she succeed where so many large organisations have failed?
She started small. Thunberg began with a simple solo strike in her school to protest climate change and has now inspired school strikes in more than 270 cities all over the world, from Europe and the US to Australia and Japan. More than 20,000 students have been involved in these strikes, proving that young people today are deeply invested not only in politics, but also in all social and environmental issues.
The politically active youngsters of today are focusing their attention on activism, to becoming spokespeople for societal change
Thunberg seems to be echoing Michelle Obama when she says: “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
In light of all this, it is very difficult to maintain this idea of an ‘apathetic’ youth suggested by the low turnout of young voters in elections. Voting may still be considered the cornerstone of democracy, but young people are proving that a different architecture for democracy itself is not only possible, but perhaps necessary. Young people might be bypassing the ballot box, but they are still intent on changing the world.
Pupil politics in the classroom
Nevertheless, alongside this upswing in direct action, we must continue to bring politics into the everyday lives of our young people and there is only one place where we are guaranteed to engage with young people: school.
We worked with Peter Kilfoyle, former defence minister for Labour under Tony Blair, who was our political advisor and the face of our 10-lesson project, Pupil Prime Minister. This persuasive writing project helps pupils to form their own political parties, then write and film their own party-political broadcasts discussing a range of different issues.
A former secondary school citizenship teacher, Kilfoyle comments: “In order to engage our young people in politics, we must start them young, really young.
“There is so much flexibility to explore cross-curricular ideas in independent schools, particularly prep schools, making them an ideal place to plant the political seed which must be continually watered right through to the end of senior school.
“Digital media has changed our world for good and bad in so many ways. Rather than attempt to reverse the tide, we must harness its power not only to improve education but also to encourage our young people to believe that change is possible, that politics is important and that their voice matters. Researching, writing and filming political manifesto videos is the perfect way to share the thoughts and beating hearts of our young people in ways that benefit them both academically and socially by connecting them with a wide range of issues.”
Indeed, we have seen schools up and down the country not only inviting in their local MPs and government ministers for questioning but also receiving awards in parliament, filming their Pupil Prime Minister work at CNN and being featured in The Guardian for the powerful messages in their videos.
By capturing the attention of young people on their own terms, we can empower them to change both the traditional and digital future of politics for the better.
As Kilfoyle says: “If we fail to engage them regularly in healthy, political debates from a young age, the Westminster bubble will continue, and our disenfranchised youth will only seek out increasingly more radical ways to make their voices heard outside of the democratic process.”
Dominic Traynor is a teacher who is passionate about bringing future skills into the classroom. The founder of LitFilmFest, he is now Adobe’s Education Evangelist for EMEA and trains teachers in combining traditional teaching with digital skills. His focus in training is to improve engagement, academic progress and help students share their work with a global audience.
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