Key Findings in Youth Political Participation

BY Jennifer Earl

I recently participated in a closing event for an exciting European project examining youth participation in politics, with a special focus on inequalities. My involvement in that project as an External Advisor built on prior participation in a MacArthur Foundation funded research network, Youth and Participatory Politics. At the closing event, I was asked to assemble a list of a handful of findings from research on youth political engagement that I considered important. I decided to share those notes here. In the interest of getting this posted quickly, I have not (yet) embedded citations for the points below, but if you want citations to any specific point, feel free to reach out and as people do, I will amend the post by adding citations.

So, here are my top things all scholars should know about youth people and their political participation:

-Young people participate much more, and in many more ways, than most academic or lay observers realize.

-Young people have distinct political interests– they are not just small versions of adults. For instance, young immigrant women don’t necessarily have the same needs and agendas as older immigrant women, young lesbians don’t necessarily have the same needs and agendas as older lesbians, etc.

-Youth is part of an intersectional identity. Just as no one is outside of a system of gender, racial/ethnic, economic, or sexuality-based stratification and, thus, has identities related to their positions in these and other stratification systems, age too marks a social position, has associated identities, and is also an aspect of intersectional identities.

-The so-called “deficit model” is pervasive in many countries, including the US and EU. It casts young people as lesser than adults and in need of adult supervision and training in order to be able to have useful opinions, interests, etc. This view, though, ignores most of the research on how (young) people politically socialize themselves, actively making sense of the many bits of political information, opinions, and experiences they have. Young people do not simply adopt a pre-fabricated political self provided by adults.

-There are many reasons why both academic and lay observers often don’t realize young people are active, including:

  • limited and poor media coverage of youth political engagement;
  • the pervasiveness of the “deficit model,” which leads people to not suspect and therefore not search for examples of youth engagement;
  • the focus on more traditional models of political participation (e.g., voting) while ignoring common forms of youth participation (e.g., political consumption, offline and online protest, fan-inspired forms of activism); and
  • the tendency to malign young people and their engagement, when it is actually covered (e.g., coverage of Greta Thunberg or Parkland activists for being too young to be that involved).

-When young people are disengaged, older people often blame youth for that disengagement without considering the many ways in which our political cultures are built to manufacture youth political quiescence. Whether by ignoring young people, pretending that they have identical interests to others, ignoring the systematic structural, cultural, and social obstacles they face in trying to participate, disregarding the toxic political culture in many countries that has also wrought widescale disinterest among adults, or simply failing to invite or welcome their participation, young people by and large have gotten the message that many adults both don’t think that politics are for them and are, ironically, disappointed in young people that politics are not for them.

-Many of actual issues that youth face in getting politically involved and being successful in pressing their agendas are also faced by people of other ages, such as evaluating the quality of information and news in an increasingly murky political landscape, figuring out models of influence and matching them to accessible political tactics, finding time to get involved when many other obligations compete, etc. When it comes down to it, youth are as prepared, or as unprepared, as many people older than they are to be effective activists and they face many of the same obstacles in creating change.

-At least in the US, many people are bemoaning the effects of misinformation and disinformation on politics, as patently false statements are made by the US President, partisan media, and online rumor mills (whether on social media, blogs, etc.). Oddly, when many of these people come to solutions, they often focus on how to educate young people about misinformation and disinformation. In the US, this is quite a mismatch to the problem since the demographics of the people often sharing misinformation and disinformation in the US doesn’t skew to the young. Young people have always had to be uncertain about what they find online. Many older Americans, who were always able to trust the news and now are perhaps too trusting online, may benefit from the kinds of media and news literacy programs promoted for youth.



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