I have four children in their late teens and early 20s. This year, all four will be voting for the first time. It’s exciting to see them actually engaging, especially the boys. Over the past 50 years voting among young people aged 18-24 has been steadily declining from 50% in 1972 to 38% in the 2012 US Presidential elections. Even more disturbing is that just a third of eligible young males voted in 2012, while 41% of eligible young women found their way to the polling station.
For these reasons, I’m intrigued that politicians now talk routinely about the need to engage youth. Or at least those on the political left do. In Canada, the Federal party in power, the Conservatives, have done just about everything they can to disenfranchise the youth, from changes in voter identification that makes it more difficult for students and Aboriginal peoples (who are disproportionately young) to vote, to dragging out the election process to an interminable 11 weeks. No two ways about it, only old folks like me (I’m 52) are going to be interested enough to follow along for so long.
I’m hopeful, however, that finally a populist voice is rising and the old guard of career politicians is being challenged. Even if it is all perception, at least young people are finding something to engage them in the political process.
In the U.S., there may be a serious socialist contender for the White House? Impossible but true. Bernie Sanders is gaining steam and though very unlikely to win, he signals a shift towards values and a style of politicking that young people like. Honest, more off the cuff, less manipulative. More constructive than destructive. The kind of fellow you’d “like” on Facebook even if you wouldn’t put him in the White House.
And in Canada there is Justin Trudeau, the 43-year old fresh prince of Sussex Drive, son of an iconic former Prime Minster, Pierre Trudeau. Whether Justin’s politics are really all that new, he has at least admitted to smoking pot, was a public school teacher, and seems to know what families are really about. Best of all, he has a young vibe to him.
All over the world, parents, bureaucrats and politicians ask me for my thoughts on how to engage youth. I talk about a complex set of needs. They need to feel like they belong. They need to develop a powerful identity through association. They need to feel they matter. They prefer direct communication from someone they trust rather than pre-packaged messages. They get their information outside conventional sources of news. They want to have fun. They like their tech. Some of these concepts are supported by research on interventions that increase youth engagement in prosocial behavior, others are inferred from studies of resilience and patterns of positive development, like that of Richard Lerner’s studies of children enrolled in 4H clubs in America.
Though the evidence is just emerging, anecdotally I hear from youth themselves that they appreciate an opportunity to make a genuine contribution. Whichever political leader gives them that opportunity is likely to be much more successful in the future when our kids engage fully in the political process.
Let me give you an example of old school vs. new school approaches to youth engagement. I was having lunch with an executive from an energy co-op in Western Canada. The co-op is basically an energy distribution company that began as a way to ensure rural customers had steady access to power. These days, they want to engage their customers and make them feel like a part of the company. Now I’m not sure people care much about who provides them electricity, but I did ask my tablemate if he and his management team had strategies in place for homeowners to upload energy to the grid if they produced solar or wind energy on their property. A crusty old fellow, he described to me the economics of such a scheme and concluded that even though people think it's a nice thing to do, they never really make back the money they invest producing their own energy. “Besides,” he told me, “it’s a huge hassle for us as a power company and there’s no real point.” Even worse, in places around the world that have tried this (like western Australia) and where home generation and uploading have really caught on, the price paid for the kilowatts tends to drop dramatically as the energy cannot be relied upon during periods of peak consumption.
He may have had the economics right, but he didn’t understand the psychology of engagement. Young adults (and older progressives as well) don’t buy solar panels and upload energy just because it saves money. They do it because they like the feeling of being a part of an ecological movement and the sense of self-efficacy it brings. Just as we secretly covet the number of Facebook friends we have, I imagine there is a competitive zeal in seeing who uploads the most energy and brings their household consumption closest to zero.
Politics is much the same. Young people like something to do. Lately, I’ve been seeing cheery young organizers in bright t-shirts encouraging kids at my university to vote. Not for one party or the other. Just to vote. There is something about a person looking you in the eye, making you feel special, and handing you a map to your nearest polling station that makes it much more likely you’ll participate in the political process.
But kids also want to be entertained. For better or worse, Donald Trump is giving us a great show. I love the way he talks off script. I love his bumbling ways. I love that I actually know what he thinks. I’d never vote for someone with his values, but darn he’s fun to watch. In Canada, I’d say the same of former Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford. We have a fascination with the "everyman." I think young people want to feel there is someone genuine in front of them. When those people also espouse values that are more progressive, my sense is young people become engaged. Unfortunately, these days the best performers (Trump, Ford) are value dinosaurs who dish up policies that are seldom in the best interests of young people.
What can one do? I’ll cast my ballot and hope for reform. I’m looking forward to the day a politician we vote into power actually changes the political process to make it more enticing for young voters to participate. Here’s a few simple ideas for changes that would engage youth in politics:
· Proportional representation. Make it so that each vote counts. Social media has convinced young people that they should have a voice in the decisions that affect them. That means they should feel like their vote influences final results.
· Cap the amount political parties can spend on elections. Big budgets mean vested interests and those disempower young people. Nothing breeds cynicism like billionaires saying they understand regular people, especially youth.
· Shorter elections. Enough with the endless politics. How about 6-week elections. Then govern. This endless posturing only convinces young people they don’t have to pay attention to what’s being said any more than passengers listen to safety announcements on planes. Policy statements and attack ads during elections have become elaborate background noise.
· Electronic voting. I can access my bank records with total confidence from anywhere in the world and my bank is 100% certain it’s me taking out my money. ATMs dot the global landscape. And yet I can’t vote online? If we ever had the courage to change this, my prediction is we’d see a huge surge in voter engagement among the youth.
My four kids beat the odds. All four are planning to vote. But if we want all kids to vote we’re going to have to do much better, which means the brand of politician we serve up has to change. The youth don't want to listen to scripted and wooden talking heads, they want politicians who look and sound relevant to them. We’re going to have to embrace independents and encourage people to speak more honestly. And we’re going to have to change how elections are run. Youth want to engage and experience both personal and political efficacy. It’s up to politicians to give youth better ways to participate and more genuine choices when they do.