Thursday, April 15, 2021


A notion commonly held across the world is that young adults are less politically engaged than older generations. A significant reason for this prevalent view is that voter turnout at national elections is taken to be the main and most important measure of political engagement. In this paper, I will set out to reject the claim that young adults’ political participation is on a decline. This will be done in two prongs. First, I will highlight several causes that may contribute to and account for low voter turnout among younger generations of people, aged 18 to 35. Secondly, I will prove that in other measures besides voter turnout, younger generations are very active and involved, indicating to a large extent that they are in fact not any less politically engaged than their older compatriots. 

In a focus group discussion done with youths in New Zealand, contrary to the findings of research in the quantitative tradition, fewer differences were found between young voters and non-voters: the interviews and focus group reveal surprising similarities in the political efficacy of young voters and non-voters. High school students made statements reflecting the necessity of working in community to improve the sustainability of life on this planet, as well as beliefs that money would be much better spent on ‘feeding hungry people’ than on ‘weapons and bombs for war’ (Sheerin, 2007). 

Another key finding from the same study is that young people, including non-voters, are often interested in and enthusiastic about political issues. 80% of the survey respondents, including non-voters, said they felt strongly about one or more political issues, such as unemployment and education. In the US, Braungart and Braungart (1998) have similarly challenged assumptions of youth political apathy, arguing that young Americans (again, including non-voters) are increasingly concerned with a wide range of political issues, including gun control, healthcare and the environment. Similar research in Australia has revealed that young people are interested in a wide range of political issues, leading researchers to conclude that young Australians are not politically apathetic, but rather disinterested in politicians and traditional party politics. (Sheerin, 2007) 

In the United Kingdom, research studies were conducted by Nestlé to survey teenagers’ attitudes towards politics. Most knew little about politics, had not thought a great deal about political issues, nor been involved in political activities. When shown a list of different types of people whom they would trust, young people placed their trust in doctors, teachers, and their own parents. Adults, on the other hand, were significantly more cynical and less trusting. While younger people in the UK may rightly judge their own grasp of political knowledge to be tenuous, they may be inclined to trust their elders and previous generations to make wiser and more informed decisions through the electoral process, as opposed to youths casting their own votes (Mortimore, 2003). 

The Nestlé study also revealed that many young people do not have the intention to vote because they do not feel valued by political leaders. One in five (23%) say they would not vote because ‘politicians don’t care about people like me’. For young people, this applies to all political parties. 17% say voting is pointless because ‘all political parties are the same’. As a result, 16% also believe that politics do not make a difference to their lives. However, half of all respondents indicate they would be interested in learning about the issues ‘which will help me decide how to vote when I turn 18 years old’. This notion is stronger among students of private institutions than those attending state schools, which may suggest that it is those from a background more supportive of political awareness or those who have already received some degree of citizenship education who are most keen to find out more. If so, citizenship classes may have a beneficial effect, not only in initiating the educational process but stimulating the curiosity or desire for further knowledge. (Mortimore, 2003) 

In Cyprus, a country divided by separatist lines between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, fieldwork shows youths being excluded from decision-making and peace-building processes. Young people frequently think that their messages are devalued or ignored. Research highlights what is known as ‘adult territoriality’, where the politics are mainly dominated by older men who do not allow young people to take part in any type of governmental body. An interview with a young Cypriot revealed, “political parties are hesitant to encourage youth candidates in politics and they don’t have any intention to open the doors to youth either”. This creates a glass ceiling that prevents young people from being included in politics, decision-making or peacebuilding. “It might be because of the Mediterranean culture, but elders do not listen to you until your hairs turn grey,” was a comment by another 28-year-old Turkish Cypriot. “It is deeply embedded in the Cyprus culture that if you are a young person, you [have] no experience to be listened to,” said a 27-year-old Greek Cypriot, indicating that youths on both sides of the issue share the same sentiments. (Dizdaroğlu, 2020) 

In a cross-national study (Kitanova, 2018), the researcher proposes that lack of political activity is more likely to be apparent in countries which are newly democratised. The age of a democracy is argued to have a direct impact on the propensity of young individuals to engage in politics. Through the democratic experience in a country, individuals develop loyalty and form certain political habits (Jackman & Miller, 2004). Countries with similar historical trajectories will have similarities to the process of how a young person goes through life and develops their political beliefs and behaviors. When the democratic experience is new, therefore, there would not be necessary developed habits of voting. In new democracies, historically there are high levels of state centralisation, low levels of freedom, and a lack of automatic examples in the nuclear family structure, on how to engage in political participation. In contrast, young people are more engaged in politics in advanced democracies compared to new democracies because there is a certain know-how that has been passed down. (Kitanova, 2018) 

The global atmosphere and unforeseeable circumstances in recent years have brought forth many valid reasons for political unrest as well as community organizing. One such example is the fight against climate change. In the past two years, especially, students have pioneered and championed for long-term solutions to the pressing issue of mitigating impending climate disaster. Students were the ones holding placards in Kiribati and chanting: “We are not sinking, we are fighting.” Concurrently in Australia, the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, had said that students should stay in class rather than go on strike. Danielle Porepilliasana, a Sydney high school student, made a comeback comment: “World leaders from everywhere are telling us that students need to be at school doing work. I’d like to see them at their parliaments doing their jobs for once.” (Laville & Watts, 2019) 

Over in Taiwan, dozens of representatives from primary schools, high schools, and universities gathered in the capital, Taipei, to launch a petition demanding presidential candidates to lay out concrete policies that would reduce climate change risks. Protests demanding environmental protection and accountability took place in New York, Sydney, Nairobi and Delhi, among countless other major cities throughout the globe. Historical movements were ongoing, and young people were in charge. There was widespread media coverage, and one of the many remarks made was: “This is a movement led by young people across the globe. We’re not just looking for an excuse for a day off school or college; we’re standing up for the future of our planet.” (Laville & Watts, 2019) 

In another major crisis that culminated in 2020, to stand up for black lives and against police brutality and systemic racism, protesters stormed the streets in hotspots around the world, including in Auckland, Paris, London, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. Students planned BLM marches across the United States and many were at the forefront of the global Black Lives Matter movement. Activism also found a platform on social media, where students propagate resources and information for others to become educated about the pressing need to strive for racial justice. 

Students and young adults share links to petitions, offer advice for safe protesting practices, create templates for emailing authorities, list bail funds and black-owned restaurants and businesses in need of support, and share videos documenting instances of police brutality at protests. At the risk of endangering their own lives, safety, and mental health, students rallied behind the BLM movement and have spearheaded and founded far-reaching branches of the movement. In a 2015 case that unraveled at the University of Missouri at Columbia, after students reported multiple instances of being subjected to racial slurs and mistreatment, the student body launched protests and called for the resignation of then-president Tim Wolfe. The president resigned shortly after. (Rim, 2020) 

Raising awareness and fighting misinformation is an important role that many youth have taken up, and an ongoing example of this would be the COVID-19 pandemic. A Tweetchat in Africa has attracted over 90,000 participants and helped to protect against disease spreading. #STOP-COVID-19 infographics are available in more than sixty African languages dedicated to dispelling myths about the virus. A number of creative ways of sharing messages have also emerged, including via music in South Africa, graffiti in Kenya, and poetry in Gambia. 

Young people are supporting their communities in various ways through maintaining access to basic services and providing humanitarian assistance. Many local initiatives are engaged in distributing soap, installing handwashing stations, manufacturing bottles of home-made hand sanitiser and making protective masks. Other youth groups are working together to hand out food packages and sanitation kits, deliver free and anonymous mental health services, and maintain the menstrual health of women and girls in rural areas during lockdown. (Itcovitz & Kazimierczuk, 2020) 

Youth-led demonstrations often receive harsh criticism, such as calls for youth climate activist Greta Thunberg to “shut up and go back to school” (Dizdaroğlu, 2020). The aforementioned studies have shown that at least in Cyprus and in the UK, younger generations do not feel cared for nor listened to. It takes no great leap of faith to put forward that when a segment of the population do not feel included or validated, they would be much less inclined to participate in politics as well as vote in national elections. For states that regard young adults with apathy, it is state governments and politicians who should have the maturity to extend their empathy and inclusion to youth, if the intended result is creating and fostering political empathy in young adults. 

Furthermore, Kitanova’s research as well as the Nestlé study both show that when you foster an interest and plant seeds of knowledge in kids and younger adults, they are much likelier to want to know more and do better. It naturally follows that to inspire higher levels of political participation, young adults need to be exposed to political knowledge earlier in their lives. Political and citizenship education can and should start with government initiatives at the grassroots level. 

On the other hand, when looking at factors beyond the electoral process, within the past year alone, it is apparent that young adults and even teenagers are not lacking in their concern for the plight of the community. They have taken to the streets and writing letters to Congress, starting political movements and organizing online, protesting and rioting, for greater causes than themselves. They stepped up and displayed their passion for and dedication to saving the environment, social justice causes and weeding out racism, and in the healthcare and welfare of their fellow citizens during a global pandemic. Given all that they have done for the sake of community, it would be hard to assert that young adults are less politically engaged than their older counterparts. 


Braungart, R. C., & Braungart, M. M. (1998). Citizenship and Citizenship Education in the United States in the 1990's. IN ICHILOV, O. (Ed.) Citizenship and Citizenship Education in a Changing World. London, Woburn Press. 

Dizdaroğlu, C. (2020). Young people are campaigning for political change worldwide - but their voices are too often ignored. worldwide-but-their-voices-are-too-often-ignored-132893 

Itcovitz, H., & Kazimierczuk, A. (2020). Never giving up: youth voices and participation in the time of COVID-19. 

Jackman, R. W., & Miller, R. A. (2004). Before Norms: Institutions and Civic Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Kitanova, M. (2018). Youth political participation in the EU: evidence from a cross-national analysis. 

Laville, S., & Watts, J. (2019). Across the globe, millions join biggest climate protest ever. -join-biggest-climate-protest-ever 

Mortimore, R. (2003). Young People’s Attitudes Towards Politics. 

Rim, C. (2020). How Student Activism Shaped The Black Lives Matter Movement. 

Sheerin, C. A. (2007). Political Efficacy and Youth Non-Voting: A Qualitative Investigation into the Attitudes and Experiences of Young Voters and Non-Voters in New Zealand.