Give Youth a Seat at the Political Table to Combat Dissatisfaction with Democracy
External challenges from authoritarian regimes, like the ones in China and Russia, are not the only threats to democracy’s future in the Europe or the wider world. There is a growing internal threat too—the political apathy and declining satisfaction with democracy among youth. If young people are not interested and engaged in democratic political processes, there is a risk of a slide further into authoritarianism in several countries.
One study published in 2020 concluded that “Globally, youth satisfaction with democracy is declining—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to how older generations felt at the same stages in life.” That survey found “notable declines” in Western Europe. Unfortunately, the news is not getting any better and more recent surveys show that young people’s participation is declining further and that their interest in and support for democracy is waning. The news is not all bad; on the more positive side there several new organizations that have emerged throughout Europe that help young people get involved and develop networks that build relationships. This is a good start, but it is too soon to see how impactful these efforts will be.
Globally, youth satisfaction with democracy is declining—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to how older generations felt at the same stages in life.”
The dissatisfaction and lack of participation by youth in political life is compounded by polarization. These are times where it has become harder to find common ground. The combination of polarization with a 24-hour news cycle and social media creates an atmosphere conducive to detachment, disinformation, and potentially dangerous outcomes. It does not take more than a conversation with a few members of “Gen Z” (those born after 1996) to see that polarization between political parties, dissatisfaction with political processes, and frustration with the lethargy of government action are the primary contributors to their lack of interest and participation.
percent of Ukrainians between the ages of 16 and 35 have ever engaged as a volunteer for a social or political cause, while less than 10 percent of them has ever joined a formal or informal organization.
While this a problem across the continent, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are often most severely affected by these different issues. According to one poll, only 17 percent of Ukrainians between the ages of 16 and 35 have ever engaged as a volunteer for a social or political cause, while less than 10 percent of them has ever joined a formal or informal organization. In Poland, the satisfaction of youth between 2018 and 2020 has sharply decreased from a majority to less than one-third, according to yet another poll.
Democracy will always be messy, but in recent years it has become increasingly dirty. For example, troll farms in North Macedonia have spread malicious disinformation while political campaigns through the region cross the line with personal attacks and misrepresented facts through social media. As a result, young people can become quickly fatigued with the process, particularly when their main priorities are as fundamental as finding a job or starting a family.
Politics Is “Everything that Surrounds Youth”
At the same time, a young leader from Bosnia and Herzegovina, recently told one of the authors, “politics is a part of their everyday lifestyle. It’s their school, it’s their parents’ salary, it’s their jobs, it’s everything that surrounds them.” But where political activism can have consequences that include defamatory disinformation and negative career outcomes, no wonder the young are tuning out. In fact, some even lament their family members engaging in politics at all because of the negative exposure it can bring regardless of the facts.
The path forward for youth participation must be more than encouragement from the older generation. Addressing the root of the problem must start with getting young people to realize how politics intersects with their daily life. Beyond that, the solution must give them the skills and experience to operate effectively within the political system. Finally, current political leadership needs to give youth a seat at the table to meaningfully participate in the political process.
With the realization that youth can bring a new perspective to politics, it is not only possible that their participation can be more than an added benefit but a lesson for an older generation and path to a better world.”
Talk is cheap to young people these days, especially given the disfunction of political parties within current structures and the polarization holding back real answers. Finding common ground on basic issues such as economic development, environmental protection, or energy independence can become clouded and even shaded by age and political affiliation. With the realization that youth can bring a new perspective to politics, it is not only possible that their participation can be more than an added benefit but a lesson for an older generation and path to a better world.
It is crucial to make sure youth are represented in fair proportion to their composition within communities. They must be given time, consideration, and respect in all interactions. And they must be allowed to shape outcomes and leads efforts when it comes to decision making.
Moreover, youth need mentoring in a way that is guiding and not dictatorial. They need and want help with their own growth. They want advice and learned experience. But the road to success must be paved with more than good intentions—it must be paved with fairness and opportunity that allows them to ultimately make mistakes without risk that their participation will end.
Young people might be focused on their career path but, regardless of political affiliation or religious beliefs, most believe that a simple commitment to upholding the values of liberty, justice, equality, and respect for human rights can be agreed upon at the very start of any conversation. That is something that the older generation should not only stand behind but on which they allow the youth to take a lead.
The European Democracy Youth Network
Fortunately, there are several organizations supporting youth participation. We are board members of one, the European Democracy Youth Network (EDYN), that provides networking, practical local and international training, and programs paired with microgrants, as well as an introduction into the world of youth activism in politics. We ourselves benefited from opportunities to lead at a young age and are excited to do our part to try and give back to future generations. In less than three years EDYN has built from the ground up a solid organization that includes 22 countries in Central and Eastern Europe while working to involve young people in the coronavirus pandemic response and environment-related issues. Several of its members have been elected to public office including in parliament and city Councils.
While the future looks bright for groups like EDYN, positive overall outcomes are far from assured. What we do know is that young people need a helping hand. Functioning networks that support them in participating and working together to find common ground and solve problems through trust and dialog must be a top priority. The youth of today do not lack for enthusiasm, energy, or passion. What they need is a listening ear, an open door to participation, and an honest commitment to supporting their ideas.
Most young people say there is interest to participate within their ranks. They realize they are the future and must start working for a better tomorrow. But they must have a seat at the table, and it is incumbent upon us all to nurture that interest and allow them to be part of the solution.
Rye Barcott is Co-Founder and CEO of With Honor and a board member of the National Democratic Institute.
Brock Bierman is a visiting fellow for Democracy Initiatives at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Tamala Longaberger is the Global Head of Partnerships at C5 Capital and a board member of the International Republican Institute.