The Politics of Age
Kevin Kühnert, chairman of the SPD’s youth organization, shook up the formation of Germany’s government in early 2018. His campaign to prevent a new edition of a grand coalition government demanded that the SDP take the concerns of younger generations more seriously. In doing so he was dismissed as young and inexperienced. Similarly, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz— the youngest head of government in the world at age 31—also encountered patronizing behavior as he took office. Both were dubbed “baby face” and have been called out by older colleagues for making unnecessary fuss. Media jumped on this bandwagon by questioning their competence because of their age. Through dismissive, belittling comments and attitude, sincere political arguments, attempts for input are waved aside and a debate based on knowledge is rendered impossible.
With all the current conversations on gender discrimination, this experience highlights another impediment for inclusion: age. In this paternalistic culture, young people’s political comments are treated lightly if at all. Yet, just like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion, age is a criterion for diversity. In a time of citizen’s discontent about their political elites, when societies are more diverse and when domestic and foreign policies frequently converge, politics must be more inclusive. Politics and policies can only be effective if the consultative processes that shape them and organizational structures that sustain them are diverse and inclusive. If political parties want to be representative of their society and gain voters, they cannot neglect the younger generations — and need to adjust their public image.
With the demographic aging of Western societies, most research on age discrimination covers bias against older people in the workforce leaving young people aside. According to the World Health Organization, ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people, on the basis of their age. It is the most socially “normalized” of prejudices, and is not widely countered — like racism or sexism. In fact, women are especially affected as often not only their gender but also their age is being held against them. Once they reach child-bearing age, further biases perceive them as an economic liability. Yet, ageism is a socially constructed idea made up by society, and thus can transform over time. It is time for political debates to be more inclusive of younger generations to ensure a diverse spectrum of perspectives on current policy solutions.
In the current German Bundestag only 12 out of 709 members of Parliament are under 30 years old. Voter participation among those under 30 is at 68 percent, which is almost ten percent lower than that of the older population in the 2017 election. In comparison, in the European Parliament, the age of parliamentarians ranges from 28 to 88 with an average age of 54. On Capitol Hill the average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 114th Congress was 57 years and 61 years for Senators. Furthermore, nearly half of Senators defending their seats in 2018 will be over 65 on Election Day. Although millennials and baby boomers each account for about 30 percent of Americans, boomers hold 55 percent of seats in statehouses, compared with millennials’ 5 percent.
Young people are underrepresented in their governments and legislative bodies. But their views and concerns are relevant — from security, education, and economic opportunities to work-life balance. Policymakers should not be indifferent about these apprehensions but should encourage young people to participate in discussions and formulations of policy recommendations. The political establishment could create space for new and younger voices by building more inclusive party structures, diversity in policy discussions, adapting ways of communication, and leadership development opportunities and professional trainings. S&D for example brings a new form of debate through their “TOGETHER — A New Direction for Europe” initiative to the citizens. The aim is to foster a debate among citizens from across Europe, as well as in an online space on a wide range of topics that affect the lives of European citizens. ALDE, for example, hosts a Young Elected Leaders Summit that brings together young local and regional elected politicians of the ALDE family to exchange experiences. During Brussels Forum, GMF’s Young Professionals Summit connects the next generation of leaders with influential politicians, thinkers, journalists, and business representatives and fosters dialogue, leadership training, and peer-to-peer learning.
It is also up to the young people to seize the opportunity to stand up, voice their opinions, and contribute their expertise. Examples from the United States could serve as inspiration in Europe: As Time magazine notes, the loudest outcry came from young people when Trump banned transgender troops from military service in early 2017. According to a Gallup survey, young people are twice as likely, as baby boomers, to identify as LGBTQ. The same holds true for the discontinuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program shielding 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation. And after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, students rallied support across the country and took their protest to Washington, urging the political establishment to finally take action on gun control. Their numbers were no longer negligible — it is a first step toward more sustainable political engagement. In Germany the SPD’s youth organization rallied a considerable amount of the party’s members, as well as the general public, to support their fight against another grand coalition and for the internal renewal of the party. Almost 44 percent of the party’s membership voted against the coalition. And younger politicians of high visibility like France’s Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern are already serving as roles models for a new way of doing politics.
Building expertise, networks, and developing communication skills are leadership traits that can help increase recognition. Beyond this, self-confidence and good sense of humor further help in standing one’s ground and dealing with paternalistic treatment. This and their clarity enabled both Kühnert and Kurz to fend of attacks based on their age.
While ultimately time will put an end to baby boomer dominance and make way for a new generation of political leaders who could re-shape politics, now is the time for more inclusion to ultimately provide opportunities for intergenerational exchanges on policy challenges and more diverse perspectives in one room. The younger generation is getting increasingly tired of politics being driven by the interests of older leaders and voters only.
 According to the Federal Statistical Office: https://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/dam/jcr/e0d2b01f-32ff-40f0-ba9f-50b5f761...
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.