What would motivate a young person in 2016 to be politically or civically engaged? Voters on both ends of the political spectrum are as unhappy about their party’s candidate as they’ve been in decades, trust in bedrock institutions like Congress or the Supreme Court has plummeted, and large numbers of the public have described the tone and rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election as “repulsive.” Combined with the fact that 5.5 million 16 to 24-year-olds are not in school and not working, young people have very good reasons to be deeply cynical about politics and the world they’ll inherit.
The good news is that they aren’t. Young people are actually much more engaged than one would expect, as they view political and civic life as extending beyond the limits of national elections to local issues and action.
All Politics is Local
For many young people, their connection to political life is expressed at the community level and has become personal. “I think that the youth are more engaged not just in the election, but in politics and civil life in general because of what’s going on in the country and election at large,” said Laura Furr, Program Manager, Justice Reform and Youth Engagement Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC). “They are really seeing it in their daily lives, and I think that has definitely been different than even five or 10 years ago in terms of the level of engagement in politics and government.”
Furr pointed to the March 2016 National Youth Convention, where high school-age youth delegates from around the country gathered to hold a mock caucus at NLC’s Congressional City Conference. Together, they came to consensus on five policy issues for their final platform, including issues like environmental sustainability and a commitment to supporting small businesses.
The delegates came from 35 different U.S. cities, represented the full range of the political spectrum, and are all very involved at a community level. In fact, many of them place a higher value on local politics, and there is a sense that that’s where meaningful engagement occurs. “The young people who we engage with are involved with local politics quite heavily, and many of them do view local politics as the place where activity, and change and progress is actually made,” said Furr. “I think a lot of them are also disengaged to an extent with national politics because they have seen the level of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and feel like the answer is what they and their local government are able to accomplish at home.”
What defines young people’s politics? One way that young voters are actually similar to previous generations is in their concern about their economic futures. Growing up in the shadow of the Great Recession has certainly had an effect on young voters, and economic anxiety is a defining quality of many young people’s lives. “The number one answer every time is the economy, jobs and the economy,” said Layla Zaidane, Managing Director for Generation Progress at the Center for American Progress, an organization dedicated to mobilizing youth political engagement. “Family-friendly policies in the workplace, paid leave, things that really contribute to economic stability are really important for young people,” said Zaidane.
They are also concerned about education and how to afford it. In a recent Generation Progress Action poll of 18-35 year-olds, access to affordable higher education is listed three times out of the top five issues most likely to bring young people to the polls this November, and 78 percent of them would vote for a candidate that addressed student loan refinancing and free community college. With educational achievement so closely tied to economic success, it’s no surprise that issues like college affordability and student debt are at the top of their political priorities.
Skeptical but Idealistic
So how are young people different, politically speaking? Economic woes, political gridlock, and what they perceive to be an agenda-driven mass media have produced a generation that is decidedly skeptical of traditional trusted institutions like the criminal justice system, Congress, or financial institutions. A narrative about millennial civic disengagement has thus emerged. Why should young people participate in the political process if they don’t have any faith in it?
It’s important to understand that this distrust doesn’t mean young people are pulling back from political engagement, however, they are just participating in a different way. “Frustrated and apathetic are two completely different things,” said Zaidane. “Young people are still very idealistic, very issue-driven, and want to make change in the world, and you see that in volunteering and things that happen outside of institutional frameworks. That’s how young people are finding their role in democracy.”
While young people may express frustration with the political landscape, their engagement is simply harder to measure by traditional metrics like voter registration numbers and participation in national elections.
As NLC’s mock caucus demonstrated, “I think part of being a young person is that optimism that things can change, that things can be better, and I think that’s translating and becoming very real for the young people that we engage with,” said Furr.
George Knowles is the Communications Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum.