Young people, political participation and economic exclusion

Students Protest Over The Government's Proposed Changes To Tuition Fees

This piece was originally published on the Scottish Left Project website, here:

In the run up to this General Election there has been a renewed focus on the role young people are playing. Much media attention has been aimed at the role young people are taking in the election.

It’s great to see some young people taking an active role in the political sphere – lord knows their absence is missed if they’re not involved. We’ve had young people getting stuck into the Prime Minister as he evaded questions as well as articles looking at the various innovative ways that colleges and universities are trying to engage young people in the political process. There is much more besides and the increased interest of young people’s engagement is great – but it won’t sort the continued absence of large numbers of our young people from the political sphere.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that much of what we get in the media (in terms of youth participation) misses a large, and extremely important point. Encouraging young people to vote through any manner of means is largely doomed to failure without one major ingredient – paying attention to the economic exclusion of young people.

There is little doubt that the UK is still feeling the repercussions of the financial crisis that swept the globe in 2008. One of the consequences of this has been to bring into sharp focus the un- and underemployment and wealth inequalities that disproportionately affect young people. The unemployment rate for the 16-25 age group continues, as it has done for the last three decades, to run at a much higher rate for those in the other age brackets. Statistics show that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than their older counterparts and that their real incomes have fallen faster in comparison to other age groups. Young people continue to struggle in the employment market as a result of thirty years of de-industrialization and economic re-structuring which has transformed the UK labour market beyond recognition. Research indicates that a concomitant effect of these changes is that young people are said to lack hope and optimism when considering their future experience in the labour market. All young people have been affected by these changes, but not all young people have been affected equally. For those at the stickier end of the employment spectrum, their transition from school into steady employment has been dramatically altered. It is these young people who have been most impacted – those who would typically have followed paths into manual and semi-skilled work. These young people now are most at risk of being at the mercy of temporary and zero-hour contracts, caught in the ‘churn’ between shit jobs, short-term training courses and/or participation in education programmes.

These changes have significant repercussions in terms of political participation. As many academics and researchers note, in order for young people to want to participate as citizens, they need to feel that they have a stake in society. Exclusion from the economic sphere is said to be undermining the willingness of young people to participate in formal democratic structures. For the increasing numbers of young people excluded from the processes of production and consumption, so important for young people growing up today, it is hardly surprising that they feel disconnected from the political process. This has been exacerbated in recent years with the further withdrawal of social security and housing benefit to young people. The erosion of these rights only serves to highlight the view that young people are less deserving of concern than their older contemporaries. Gert Biesta and Robert Lawy make the point that “this has led to fewer opportunities in both the community and employment for young people to move into the adult world. It is important therefore to recognize that without these opportunities many young people will not feel any desire to undertake social responsibility either to their local or national community.”

Indeed, a number of studies show that young people themselves correlate a sense of citizenship with economic independence. These issues affect all young people, with more privileged young people also finding it increasingly difficult to make the domestic transition into tenancies of their own due to increasing rents and/or because they are unable to secure full-time, secure and well-paid work to make this move. This is described as ‘structural lag’, whereby young people want to assume adult roles but are inhibited as the institutions of society have failed to keep up with the changing realities of modern-day capitalism. It is difficult to argue with James Côté who concludes that due to these changes in their material circumstances young people now have the dubious honour of being considered a ‘class’ of their own, due to the significant material differences between them and older age groups:

“As a result of several decades of this negative treatment, declining status, and targeting as legitimate targets of exploitative labour practices, the youth segment of the work force…now constitutes one of the most economically disadvantaged groups of the entire population and very few people object to this situation, seeing it as normal and justified.”

This is further compounded by levels of minimum wage and benefit entitlement, both of which are age-banded, meaning young people receive less than those in older age groups. It is argued that young people making the transition towards independence require more, not less, assistance in order to successfully navigate today’s notoriously choppy waters These kinds of measures which are targeted exclusively at young people also serve to institutionalise the message that their labour and risk of poverty are valued less than ‘adults’. And research shows that young people who are vulnerable to poverty, social exclusion and at the mercy of the aforementioned ‘churn’ tend to have negative feelings towards the very system which then bemoans their supposed ‘apathy’ when they reject its once-every-five-years overtures.

Some might argue, ‘well it’s up to young people to speak back to power!’ Well, many have tried – witness the demonstrations against the removal of EMA and the protests against tuition fees in England as well as the anti-war demo’s, protests against the G8 as well as the illegal war in Iraq. Young people were met with ridicule in the media, criminalised, labelled ‘domestic extremists’ and in some cases kettled for hours. Such responses don’t exactly send a message of valued participation. It’s little wonder young people feel cynical towards formal politics. This has resulted in a downward spiral as young people tune out and politicians ignore them with impunity as they pursue the ‘grey vote’ – and young people suffer the consequences. This looks like costing young people further as they face increased conditionality on social security, whichever party ‘wins’ the General Election. Instead of working to rectify this situation our political class looks like exacerbating it. I fear that such a measure will only serve to push young people further from the realm of politics. I hope I’m wrong.

It would be remiss not to mention the wonderful contribution our young people made in last year’s referendum. And some who continue to do so – clearly there are young people engaging – we only have to look at the extraordinary example being set by such young folks as Mhairi Black, Liam McLaughlan, Lewis Akers and Saffron Dickson. But rather than being exceptions we want all our young people participating. The fear is that we begin the slide back into ‘politics as normal’ – a politics which ignores young people and which young people feel ignored by and the referendum stands alone as a vote which engaged our young people. It is in part due to this fear that I wanted to write this. We undoubtedly need to engage with young people to work towards their economic inclusion. Politics and society is a two-way street and both rely on the other to make democracy work. Because if young people continue to be marginalised in the employment market and denied an adequate material standard of living then they will continue to fail to find their stake in society. And this will inhibit the willingness of many to participate in the political domain. And who could blame them?

Photo taken from

Categories: Politics, Youth Participation, Youth Unemployment

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