Political yes, but not active in parties

There’s a disconnect between young people and political parties, says Klaus Hurrelmann.

The unexpected vote in Britain to leave the European Union and the surprise election of Donald Trump in the US mainly came down to older voters. The majority of young people in the UK voted remain and in the US for Hillary Clinton– if they took part at all. Voter turnout among young people was relatively low in both countries. And so the young generation could have made a difference. But they only protested after Brexit was a done deal, and thousands of young Americans took to the streets only after Trump had won the elections.

Also in Germany, important elections will be held in 2017. Will young people then again miss their chance? Is it possible that they don’t understand the mechanisms of democracy? Or are political parties unable to catch up with the young generation?

The Shell Youth Study shows that young people between 12 and 25 have little confidence in mainstream political parties. These are perceived as well-oiled machines, which cannot be influenced from outside. Young people feel neglected by politicians. Sixty-nine per cent of them endorse the statement: “Politicians don’t care what I think.”

However, this distanced attitude towards political parties does not mean they reject democracy. On the contrary, the young generation’s support for the democratic system has constantly grown since 2002, and in western Germany even more significantly than in the east. Also, their interest in politics is by no means low. After a peak in 1991 (57 per cent), it dropped down to 34 per cent in 2002. Now 46 per cent of them say they are interested in politics.

And many are also actively involved. More than one third answer ‘yes’ to the question of whether they are actively involved with social and political issues in their leisure time. Youth-related interests, helping the weak and needy, involvement in security, organisation and communal life, the environment, the integration of foreigners and local change are top issues. They are active not only in internet forums but also in clubs, school and university groups, in youth organisations, churches and volunteer fire brigades.

It is simply not true that the young generation is disinterested in community. This is also evident at work. Personnel managers can vouch for Generation Y’s efforts to shape a new work culture. They don’t see their job merely as a way of earning a living, they want to take a personal stake in the workplace and develop themselves. They support rapid digitalisation, a good work atmosphere, flat hierarchies, better team work, fair pay and balancing work and private life, or work and family life later on.

Why do political parties benefit so little from this commitment? They should no longer ignore this question, as demographic developments are set to further widen the current gap. The average German party member is 60 years old. And only 8 per cent are under age 30. Thus, any person joining a party as a young man or woman will be part of an absolute minority, generation-wise.

Why are parties not better able to show young people that they are interested in them as voters and members, as well as in the issues that are important to them? Parties must try to become a part of young people’s everyday life by making better use of modern – and where possible interactive – communication channels. This would enable the younger generation to voice their concerns and discuss them with real people. Parties should also offer more internship opportunities. And why not provide the possibility to serve a “voluntary social year” in party organisations and affiliated foundations?

According to the German Constitution, one of the central tasks of political parties is to “participate in the formation of the political will of the people”. If they want to meet this requirement in the future, they will have to open up and ensure transparency in their decision-making processes. They should also assume the role of educational institutions, offering structured further education courses, and teaching young people the rules of debate, how to moderate and manage discussions and events, and of course how to approach future problems so decisions can be made and solutions put in place. Many young people don’t understand how to assert their own interests in a complex democratic system. Their political muscles are not well trained. In many cases they have not learned how to articulate their interests and win over a majority or at least make their concerns heard. This is also the reason they rarely defend their own interests, apart from clicking the “like button” in social media networks, which they soon realize does not actually make a difference.

Young people want to experience how they can make a difference through political participation. They want to feel they can change things, but they don’t think political parties would enable them to do so. Because they don’t see this possibility, they turn their backs. Young people are an impatient audience.

However, political parties apparently don’t feel the pressure to tackle this issue. Their elderly members and officials are quite comfortable, and young people would only cause a stir. The party machines – in this regard young people’s perceptions are quite right – are often self-sufficient. These machines have somehow managed to do without them in the past.

How about some healthy pressure, some voluntary commitment? Aim for a 20 per cent share of all party members under age 30? A youth quota for the nomination of political candidates? Financial incentives in political party funding? If the parties remain as inactive as they have been in the past, it is clear that this will be harmful to our democratic system. The election year 2017 would be a good time to finally initiate an authentic dialogue with the young generation.

A German version of this commentary appeared on Spiegel Online on 4 January 2017.

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Klaus Hurrelmann is Professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance. His areas of research include health and education policy.