When I tell people that I am involved in an organization working to improve political participation in Canada, one of the first questions I get is about youth: How do you make them care?!
It’s not that younger Canadians don’t have concerns (just ask them: they have plenty of hopes and fears about their future). But evidence shows very clearly that these concerns are not translating into trips to the ballot box. They vote significantly less than older Canadians (see the chart) and — even more worrisome — than previous generations of youth. So I am left to explain why a generation – my generation in fact – is ‘tuned out’ of politics.
There is no 15 second elevator pitch!
Participation is complex. It’s sort of like personal health. The medical system, comprised of doctors, hospitals and clinics, is now recognized as just one among a host of factors – genetic, cultural, demographic, and environmental – that determine how healthy someone is.
It’s a similar story with politics. Government institutions, election campaigns, demographics, norms and values all have a hand in shaping how citizens participate. Amidst this complexity, we do know that declining youth participation is not unique to Canada – it’s a trend shared by most advanced democracies – hinting that the cause isn’t Canadian-made.
We also know that education is one of the most powerful predictors of participation because it goes hand-in-hand with increased levels of political interest, political knowledge and resources (e.g. money, time and skills).
But herein lies a paradox. Younger Canadians today are more educated than ever, at least in terms of high school completion and post-secondary attendance. Shouldn’t they be more aware, interested and eager to participate? What gives?
Some experts point to a shift in values as the cause. Younger Canada’s declining sense of duty, reduced deference to authority and hunger to have an immediate impact do not lend themselves to politics, where loyalty and party hierarchy reign. Yet, it’s the university-educated who are most likely to hold these values, and their participation has declined the least.
So values change is part of the story but not the whole one.
Could it be that Younger Canada really just doesn’t care? My core question, “How do you make youth care?”, implies as much. It’s tempting to write off today’s younger generation as flawed, as do many commentaries about the selfish “Generation Me” spoiled lazy by boomer parents.
But consider the flipside: What if something has changed with how politics works within the last two decades that has had a particular effect on younger Canadians (especially the less-educated)?
Observers of Canadian politics have identified a new trend they call ‘political consumerism’ or ‘political marketing’. Put bluntly, it’s “shopping for votes” (also the title of journalist Susan Delacourt’s latest book).
Although politics has long borrowed marketing principles and techniques from business, these strategies, enabled by new technologies and lower costs, have been changing how parties and candidates behave. Sophisticated polling and data mining have greatly enhanced political parties’ ability to segment voters and identify ‘niche’ issues that specific groupscare about. This has changed election campaigns from the brokering of diverse interests as part of a sweeping national vision, to building a platform that stitches together niche commitments targeting groups of voters.
This different approach to politics appeals less to Younger Canada - according to new research by Heather Bastedo. She finds that Youth tend to give greater weight to symbolic leadership – the values and vision a leader broadly stands for. In contrast, older voters are more likely to assess leaders on whether they represent their interests through specific commitments that will benefit them. This is exactly what political marketing delivers.
In this calculated political environment, when leaders do speak to values they often aren’t perceived as genuine and authentic. Many youth have, as a result, come to the same conclusion reached (in)famously by actor Russell Brand: “I’m not voting [because of] apathy - I’m not voting out of absolute indifference to the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class.”
You can expect to see the intergenerational differences in voter turnout further magnified whenever elections roll around: as youth vote less, parties with limited resources shift their attention to citizens that are more likely to vote. There is less and less incentive for parties to speak to youth, and youth to be involved. How to do we stop, let alone reverse, this vicious-circle that is driving politics and Younger Canada further away from one another?
First, we can stop asking “How do we make youth care about politics?” and start seeing engagement as a two-way street that also puts the onus on Canada’s political leaders.
Second, we need to recognize that trust-building – the essence of what needs to happen between political leaders and Younger Canada—is not something that happens overnight. It will take time, organization and resilience.
Third, given how wide the chasm between political leaders, their parties, and Younger Canada is, we need to think strategically about the role for (more) trusted intermediaries to help bridge these two groups.
Samara’s focus group research with young Canadians through Democracy Talks confirms it’s grassroots movements, community groups and nonprofits that carry more credibility with youth than traditional political actors. This means there’s a critical role for GenSqueeze, in concert with Samara, Apathy is Boring, the Springtide Collective and other partners, to cultivate and channel the latent influence of Younger Canada into political life again.
Jane Hilderman is the Research Manager at Samara, a leading independent think tank dedicated to improving political participation in Canada. Find her on twitter @jhilderman.