Youths to the forefront

It is no wonder that young people are voting less, rejecting party membership, and telling researchers that their country’s leaders aren’t working in their interests.

Most young people feel the world is getting better over time and that children will be more prosperous than their parents.  But, according to a global survey of over 22,000 young people from 21 countries by The Changing Childhood Project – a project of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and research company Gallup – this optimistic outlook is not widely shared by older generations or richer nations.  In fact, only 41 percent of 15-24-year-olds in richer countries thought today’s children would be better off than their parents.

What kind of world are these young people going to inherit?   How can today’s generations work together to tackle the pressing problems facing the world and young people?   Can the same people using the same solutions fix global issues in isolation?   It doesn’t look like it, so there needs to be a systemic change to allow fresh views and perspectives to be heard.  

Many young people have the ideas, spirit, and commitment to bring about positive changes, yet their voices are still under-represented in the world’s institutions.  Although half of the world’s population is under 30, only 2.6% of parliamentarians globally fall within this age group.  Look at it this way: if this proportion were reflected in a year, the views of those under the age of 30 would only be represented for just nine days of the year.

Joint research by the United Nations and The Body Shop revealed that two-thirds of people agree the age balance in politics is wrong.  In Malta, Parliament voted unanimously in 2018 to amend the Constitution and introduce the vote for 16-year-olds in national elections.   Yet, the Government’s recent proposal to allow such young people to become mayors was met with a lot of derision, including from current older mayors and councillors.

Badly needed change

Numerous barriers prevent young people from having a proper say in public life, with research findings in other countries indicating that 72% of all people of all ages believe politicians simply don’t listen to young people.  Yet, according to one survey, a third of those under 30 surveyed would consider running for office, compared with only a fifth of those over 30.

We badly need to change the way decisions are made. Decisions we make today should be shaped by the people whose lives are most affected by them.  For this to happen, young people must be involved in conversations and political processes.  For a start, we must dispel many myths surrounding young people – that they are disengaged, irresponsible troublemakers, or do not have the experience to create real impact. 

From climate change to economic instability, the world’s problems are too great to keep falling back on the same people and same old solutions.  Even in the most adverse of circumstances, from humanitarian crises natural disasters, we have seen young people rising to the challenge and leading the way. There is no doubt that, if we were to harness young people’s innovation, drive, creativity, and optimism, then a better world would be possible for everyone.

Have we asked ourselves whether democratic backsliding, as confirmed by Freedom House and other analysis and metrics, has caused the rash of statistics suggesting that the world’s young people are increasingly disengaged from political life?  It is no wonder that young people are voting less, rejecting party membership, and telling researchers that their country’s leaders aren’t working in their interests.

International trends echoed in Malta

Unsurprisingly, most of these trends have an echo in Malta. According to the most recent Malta Today voting intentions poll, younger people were more likely to cross parties, with 54% of those between 16 and 25, versus 45% of people between 26 and 35, saying that they have not always voted for the same party. The same poll reveals that 39.1% of young people would not vote in a general election, compared to one-third as a whole.

Lower levels of participation by young people in elections are a long-established trend across the globe.  Surveys and other studies clearly show decreasing turnout by youth cohorts in all democracies since the 1980s.  A World Values Survey puts their participation rate at only 47.7%.

However, this does not necessarily mean that young people are disengaged from civic life.  Some organise demonstrations, others use the social media to make their voices heard and are active outside the traditional political sphere.  It is only youth dissatisfaction with political systems and democracy that is preventing a higher degree of participation.  In the developed world, youth discontent is driven in large part by perceptions of economic exclusion, disappointment with performance on issues important to young people, education, employment, and opportunity.  Other studies show deep scepticism among young people about the efficacy of government.  According to a 2021 survey, only 37 percent of people aged 18-29 in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said they trust their governments, compared to 41 percent of those aged 30-49, and 46 percent of those 50 and over. In one survey of 10,000 young people across the world, 83 percent of respondents said that the government had failed to protect their future.

Ensuring greater youth participation

This trust deficiency correlates with data showing low levels of youth political and public policy participation and illustrates the significant gap between what policymakers do and what young people are concerned about.  When trust is missing, youth may give up.  If existing democratic processes continue to fail them, young people may reject core values of democratic governance, dialogue, accountability, and inclusion. Populist authoritarians will take selfish advantage by amplifying this dissatisfaction.

Democracy can only be renewed if an understanding of how young people view and practice political participation is effected.  Though young people are better educated and more connected than ever, they face significant obstacles in achieving their full potential.  Political apathy is rampant among them, but there is also evidence that most have not given up on democracy yet.

There is no standard template to ensure greater youth political participation, but the effort is worth making. It will require working on several fronts — promoting civic engagement and cross-generational collaboration, encouraging them to participate in decision-making processes, teaching them how to hold decision makers accountable. Investing in youth engagement and leadership in the digital space is also key.

Any strategy for greater youth participation should ensure that young people can adequately influence all areas of society and all parts of the decision-making processes, from agenda setting to implementation, monitoring and evaluation through youth-friendly and accessible mechanisms and structures, ensuring that policies respond to the needs of young people.

Young people need to have greater access to citizenship education to provide them with solid knowledge on political systems, democracy, and human rights, which is also attained through community-based experiences to promote active civil participation.

It is vital to ensure that young people from a diverse range of backgrounds, including marginalised ones, have information about and access to participation and decision-making processes.  Just waiting for them to request such information is not good enough, and there should be effective outreach programmes.

While a good number of Maltese students benefit from the EU’s Erasmus programme, a greater effort needs to be made to enable effective support for Erasmus+ programme applicants and beneficiaries to develop and implement youth projects with a quality youth participation dimension.

Youths would benefit from a knowledge-based approach to participation in democratic life within the EU and national programmes by enabling stakeholders to utilise the findings of research on youth participation, notably through the European Pool of Youth Researchers (PEYR), European Knowledge Centre for Youth Policy (EKCYP), the RAY network and the Youth Wiki correspondents.

Training in all areas of civic engagement needs to be regular, and greater use should be made of Youthpass or the European Training Strategy framework and be undertaken through TCA and NET activities.

Malta’s youths hold the potential to strengthen democracy and make civic society richer.  It’s time to engage them properly.

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