Young People and Political Disengagement: The Facts

16-year-old student Hugh Carter has been with Message House all week on work experience. Here he shares his views on whether young people are really disengaged from politics.

Young people are often overlooked in politics as being uninvolved and uninterested, but to what extent are these claims true?

Figures from Opinium following the recent EU referendum show that around 64% of registered 18-24 year-olds voted: a proportion twice as high as the 36% generated pre-referendum by Sky Data. This turnout figure has political consequences given that young voters were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining (a poll by Yougov found that 75% of 18-24 year-olds voted to remain). Adding to this, the unusually high turnout could spell the beginning of a new relationship between young people and politics, and a pool of evidence is growing to suggest that the younger generation are more engaged in current affairs than many people believe.

Firstly, how does their engagement level differ from other age groups? Data provided by the British Election Study shows that 39% of under 18s feel a ‘very strong’ affiliation with a political party: more than any other age group. This clearly demonstrates an interest in politics by younger people, and there are many explanations for why this is not reflected in turnout. The most obvious one being age. So why is it that the strongest political associations are formed by people unable to vote?

For many teenagers, parental influence is the largest factor in the formulation of political ideas, but this leaves people likely to change viewpoint once exposed to new stimuli upon leaving home. For example, a young person still living with their parents may not be concerned by the economic side of politics, but once they have to pay taxes for themselves this view may be rapidly altered. Also, a study published in the British Journal of Political Science found that parents who attempt to force political beliefs onto their children will often see them rebelling against this later in life.

While this ‘age effect’ shows many interesting things about young people’s political involvement, it does not answer the question of generational differences: how are young people today different from the youth of the past? For the 1983 general election in which the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher formed a majority and in which many young peoples’ parents were in their 20s, estimated turnout among the 18-24 age group was around 60%: 17% more than the 2015 general election. This indicates that young people are less involved with traditional party politics than other generations were.

But this doesn’t mean politics is a forgotten topic for teenagers, as demonstrated by the fact that only 4.3% of under 18s fail to discuss politics with their peers (British Election Study). This is the lowest proportion of any age group and appears a tiny number compared to 11.4% of 36-45 year-olds who never converse about the subject.

Adding to this, the creation of the internet has created a gateway into politics for many young people who don’t get involved in a ‘traditional’ way. Accessible online are many ways to connect with politics, such as news websites, social media and petitions. 53% of under-18s have signed an online petition, compared to 34% of 36-45 year-olds, and this presents a new and profound opportunity for increased numbers of young people to become involved with politics. 10,000 signatures is the benchmark for a response from the government, with 100,000 signatures prompting a debate in the House of Commons. The government has previously debated 29 petitions ranging from the legalisation of cannabis to banning Donald Trump from UK entry. Scheduled for debate on 5th September is a call for a second referendum through a petition signed by 4.1 million people, showing the immense reach and power of these appeals.

So which voting behaviours are demonstrated by young people? 16 and 17 year-olds were recently given the vote in the referendum for Scottish independence, and turnout was estimated 75% in this age group. This may look a small number when compared to the overall turnout of 84.6%, but more under 18s voted than the 72% of 25-34 year-olds who visited a polling station, and overall turnout was increased mainly due to a majority of older people voting.

This contrasts greatly to the 2015 general election in which 18-24 year-olds were the least likely to vote (just 43% did). There could be many reasons for this; the early sign of a new trend, or the fact that these referendums were less about left-right politics - which may seem irrelevant to 18-24 year-olds. Younger voters appear more likely to turnout in greater numbers when a high stakes question is proposed, or when a question engages them in a meaningful way.

To understand the views of young people, we also have to look at which candidates attract their support. 71% is the number of Americans under the age of 30 who would vote for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, possibly due to his more radical approach to politics which is capable of enticing many of the younger generation. While Sanders’ socialist views are one route young people could take, far right politics are also popular in this age group. In France, the nationalist and Eurosceptic party Front national polled at 30% in under 35s: five points above its national average. From these figures we can conclude that more radical and extreme ideas are what appeal to younger voters, and that this audience is not impossible to engage with if a political group really tries.

So what have we learnt? Well, while it is true that traditional party politics is not as appealing to youth today as it was for their parents, the invention of the internet and the development of social media has created countless possibilities for young people to become involved with current affairs through less fundamental methods.
The obvious problem with this is that in our democracy, no amount of involvement online will change who governs our country. The basic interest in politics is obviously present in young people, but steps must be taken to ensure that they don’t lose interest in what really makes change occur: the ballot paper.

Read more about audience segmentation here.