A “new generational chasm” is opening up between younger and older Canada, marked by a growing divergence in values and aggravated by the increasing discrepancy in election voting rates. This was the assessment of Ekos pollster Frank Graves following the 2011 federal election. The country, he argued, is becoming a “gerontocracy”...
...With the interests and the real or imagined fears of older Canada as the dominant drivers of the political process. The result will be rising intergenerational tensions in the years ahead.
We have already seen some early flashes in the brewing storm. The Occupy Movement, an international phenomenon that took root here in Canada, struck a chord with a public that was aggrieved about the global financial crisis, the concentration of wealth and middle class vulnerability. The 2012 student protests in Quebec divided society, but were a remarkable success in engaging youth and securing the reversal of the government’s tuition policies. The Idle No More movement sparked protests and generated significant profile around the rights and quality of life of First Nations in Canada.
Mobilized largely by younger Canadians, these movements highlighted the growing uncertainty many of us feel about our current and future prospects. They were also revealing in other ways. First, they can all be described as ‘more cathartic than coherent’. As in, none offered a clear articulation of the underlying problems or viable long-term solutions. Second, they demonstrated younger Canada's shifting preference for political engagement. Frustration and resentment about politics and social or economic trends was channeled through activism, protest and social media, rather than through formal political parties or government processes.
This brings us back to Graves' warning about the growing voting gap between older and younger generations. We are in turbulent times here in Canada and around the world. How Younger Canada participates in public affairs is critical, as the choices our governments, businesses and civic organizations make about the direction of the economy, public investments, and other critical issues like climate change will shape our future. The recent examples of activism and protest are inspiring, but they aren’t enough if our generation hopes to influence social and economic change.
Whether we are turning away from formal political participation because of the dismal state of our politics or because we simply aren't interested, the critical insight is this: we will have little influence on the affairs of our country and in our communities until we 'get back in the game.' The 2011 federal election was a case in point. Voting age under-25s expressed the greatest displeasure about the election’s outcome, and yet they were also the least likely to cast a ballot by a wide margin.
The long decline in younger Canada’s political participation
Younger Canada’s influence on this country’s politics has been in long-term decline. An important part of this story is shifting demographics. Over the past five decades, Canadian society has greyed with the median age climbing from 26 to 42. This has obviously diminished the influence of the younger Canadian vote. Still, while the perception is that the Baby Boomer generation represents a dominant electoral bloc, 2011 census data shows that younger adults – comprising Generation X in their 30s and early 40s, and the Generation Y offspring of the boomers – actually represent the most sizeable demographic footprint.
More striking has been the falling voter participation rates among younger Canadians. During the 2011 federal election, only 47 percent of 18 to 44 year old Canadians voted. Even worse, only 39 percent of voting age under-25s cast a ballot. By contrast, 68 percent of both the baby boomer and seniors cohorts voted. These patterns of turnout by age are the same across the country, with men generally voting at lower rates than women. Ekos’ analysis of the 2011 federal election puts things in simpler terms: Younger Canadians between the ages of 25 and 44 were twice as likely not to vote as baby boomers, with under-25s six times less likely to vote than seniors.
Though data is scarce, very few younger Canadians appear to be in political parties either. The last survey of party participation, undertaken in 2000, revealed that only about two percent of all Canadians belonged to parties. Those who were members were not representative of the general population, and actually contributed little of their time to party activities. Parties were also aging rapidly. The average member was 59 years old and nearly half of all members were seniors. Only six percent were under age 30. Researchers William Cross and Lisa Young argued at the time that parties’ inability to attract younger people threatened their very viability as political institutions. A decade on, despite Harper's organizational prowess, Mulcair's 2011 success and Trudeau's charisma, there’s little reason to believe these trends have been reversed by in any meaningful way.
What’s been causing these trends?
It is not entirely clear why rates of political participation among younger adults have been falling, but there seem to be a few factors. First, there are some practical barriers. New communications technologies, including cell phones and social networking tools, make younger Canadians harder to contact and to poll. Younger people move around more and often do not have fixed mailing addresses to receive voting cards. Surveys of non-voters identify other barriers such as inadequate access to information about candidates or the location of polling stations, and the inability to get time off work or care for the kids.
Probably more important though has been a shift in values. The characteristics of younger generations – for instance, less religious and deferential to hierarchy; more urban, culturally diverse, educated and technologically savvy – have significantly influenced their worldview. Among other things, expressions of their values and interests reflect a more cosmopolitan and less security-minded outlook, as well as a focus on enhancing knowledge and skills, and addressing environmental and climate issues.
Compared with older Canadians, the young actually tend to indicate higher levels of satisfaction with democracy and democratic institutions. They just don’t like how politics is currently being practiced. Studies by Samara, a non-profit focused on improving political participation in Canada, have revealed a growing cynicism about government and politicians. For many, parties all seem the same, politicians are self-interested, and the issues younger Canadians care about are not considered or dealt with. Combined with the fact that younger Canadians are also less inclined than previous generations to see the act of voting as a civic duty, this helps to explain why fewer are choosing to vote.
The values shift also helps to explain falling rates of identification with, and participation in, political parties. Those who join parties tend to be more traditional in their outlook and respectful of authority. Looking at survey data of young non-party members, Young and Cross concluded that this group sees parties as “hierarchical organizations that do not welcome young people and that do not give members an adequate role in directing the organization.”
There are also important socio-economic predictors of who casts a ballot. A study of voting patterns among 18-to-30 year-olds over the five federal elections from 1997 and 2008 found that education and place of birth (i.e. more education, and whether you’re born in Canada) are the most powerful demographic predictors of voting. Even more crucial though is a person’s interest in politics and their levels of political awareness. Younger Canadians who consume more news and are more attentive to politics are about 90 percent more likely to vote. Given the voting trends, it is not surprising then that other research about non-voting in Canada and in other countries has found that younger generations consume less news and pay less attention to politics than prior generations.
To make matters worse, disengagement seems to be a chronic condition. Paul Howe of the University of New Brunswick has written about how “non-participation” is habitual - carrying over from election to election and to other civic activities. It is also bred at a young age: civics classes in school and political discussions at the family dinner table are important determinants of political knowledge and interest later in life. Moreover, first time voters signal long-term, generational trends. This is a bad sign: while about 70 percent of newly-eligible voters (i.e. just turned 18) cast a ballot in the 1960s, just 41 percent did so in 2011. This has been a steady decline.
We want to participate! We just don’t like politics
Is it just that younger Canadians are apathetic or lazy? Some are, but most of us are not indifferent to civic affairs: we just want to engage differently. Public opinion surveys suggest that younger people generally express a strong desire for civic participation and voluntarism. In fact, according to another recent Samara study, younger Canadians (18 to 34) are participating at higher levels than older generations in all types of political activities - with the exception of formal politics. This includes online discussions about political issues though social media, blogs or email; off-line conversations, letters to the editor, or civic events; activism through protest, petitions or boycotts; and voluntarism, donations or work in the community.
This might seem surprising, but they are not unique findings. Generation Flux, the 2012 report of the Community Foundations of Canada, noted that "interest in public policy through direct action is seen by youth as more likely to have an impact than joining a political party." In short, younger Canadians are increasingly preferring ‘non-tradition’ political activities, often working on specific projects through looser networks rather than organizations, as their vehicles to make change.
Other studies show that younger Canadians are eager to volunteer their time and participate in their communities. In an article for Policy Options magazine, Neil Seeman and Adalsteinn Brown argued that younger Canadians exhibit higher levels of desire for civic participation than other generations. They suggest that, while it may not fit the Millennial stereotypes, "people under 30 today are more empathic and willing to volunteer and ‘give back’ than baby boomers."
Younger Canadians' attachment to technology and new forms of media is having a major impact. In his book Growing Up Digital, technologist and thinker Don Tapscott concedes that there are reasons for concern about how our generation engages with technology - particularly around privacy issues. Overall though, he writes, "the kids are more than alright.” Stereotypes about the selfishness, indifference and narcissism of the ‘Net Generation’ could hold some weight. But he finds that the digital immersion of younger generations, rather than presenting a threat, offers the potential to create a “culture of interaction, collaboration and enablement” that is needed to help address the complex economic and social challenges of the future.
These trends provide a reason for optimism, but there is a critical caveat. They survey as also find that younger Canadians are not substituting activism and new forms of participation for voting and party politics. Rather, 18 to 30 year-olds who participate in these new, non-traditional ways are also 10 to 15 percent more likely to vote. What does this mean? Those of us who are more politically engaged and aware are also looking for new ways to participate; those who aren’t are increasingly not participating at all. This is really the crux of the issue, reinforcing the critical links between civic awareness, voting and political participation in its different forms.
So, how do we get back in the game?
We are understandably cynical about politics and government, but they aren’t going away. In fact, as our society’s problems become larger and more complex - think climate change, inequality or regulating global finance - our democratic institutions will have to play a central role in addressing them. This isn't a bad thing. With our large demographic footprint, we in Younger Canada could be a potent political force for change. The problem is, we are ceding the discussion and the agenda to the older generations that are paying attention and using their vote. This is a losing strategy. Put another way, the lament that we don’t participate because politicians are not talking about “our issues” is a catch-22 – our interests and the issues we care about will not be addressed until we force them onto the agenda.
What is clear is that, to get in the game, we need to be more aware of the issues and our personal and collective interests in them. This is not to say though that our only avenue to participation is through political parties and lobby groups or by watching “The National” every night. Getting in the game means we can also start to change the rules.
The ‘non-traditional’ forms of participation are one avenue. This includes activism and protest - whether through popular movements like Occupy, Greenpeace and other environmental groups or younger Canadian-led organizations like LeadNow. There are also a growing number of ways to participate online, whether through web-based public consultation tools, social network “clicktivism,” and other online blogs and forums. The key, however, is that we find effective ways to collect, aggregate and communicate our views. Facebook campaigns can spark and mobilize opinion, but they need to be able to exact a price on politicians, governments or rogue businesses in order to have an impact.
Changing our democratic institutions is another avenue. Electoral reforms to move towards models like proportional representation, which make most people's ballots more meaningful, could encourage more voting. Recent referenda in Ontario, BC and PEI to put these types of systems in place failed, but electoral reform remains a hot topic. The City of Toronto has advanced proposals to adopt a ranked ballot model and let permanent residents vote, both of which could get more younger people to the polls. A blunter approach would be to make voting mandatory as in Australia.
Reforms to parliamentary institutions - like the raucous and mostly irrelevant Question Period - could help to make debates about public issues more meaningful and accessible to the public. Political parties can also be remade to appeal to a generation of younger Canadians that is less partisan and seeks more meaningful ways to get involved. All the major federal parties talk about the ‘youth vote’. But to really engage younger generations, bolder steps might be needed to decentralize party decision-making, crowd-source policy platforms or better connect with citizens outside of election season.
For any of these reforms to have an impact, Younger Canada needs to start paying more attention. This is the real challenge. How can we increase our levels of awareness about important issues of public affairs, and begin to better recognize how they matter to us as individuals and as citizens? The traditional solutions usually focus on increasing civics education, providing more access to information about election campaigns, or improving news reporting. New media groups like Vice have had success attracting younger audiences to news and international affairs with edgier coverage, and fresh and interactive formats that feature more video.
The truth is, nobody has a good answer, and we can’t wait for other generations to find it for us. To have voice and influence in the critical public debates that will shape our communities and the future of our country, we simply have to become more active participants. It’s time to get back in the game – and Generation Squeeze aims to help get us there.
André Côté is a co-editor of the Generation Squeeze Echo Blog