Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Notes from political engagement panel in Calgary

Here are the rough notes from a talk I gave at the NOW conference, organized around the Dalai Lama's visit to Calgary. The topic was young people's political engagement. We were asked to address the oft-stated comment that young people, despite their low voter turnout, are much more engaged than people realize, just not in the traditional ways.


A. I was first presented with this type of question about 8 years ago, as a result of my work with Canada25. More frequently, however, it was presented as "why don't young people vote more?" Usually, fingers point at one or more of the following four groups:
  • Young people themselves - lazy, apathetic, don't understand etc.
  • Parties or politicians - not inspiring, don't have a message that appeals to young people, don't provide accessible ways to participate
  • Media - too negative, focused on personalities or the horse race, turning us all off, and young people in particular (even more so in that they don't follow traditional news - see bullet one)
  • Our representative institutions - out of date, too complex or difficult to understand, uninviting or unappealing
B. While I don't know the reasons (and it's likely a combination of many), I'm not sure the the dichotomy set up in the initial question is productive. Both government and non-governmental ways of participation are important, and serve to both provoke but ultimately strengthen the other. Furthermore, we know that participation in one often leads to participation in (or at a minimum, understanding of) the other. More specifically:

Government has big bucks to spend, regulatory and agenda-setting power and the ear of the media. However, they are not the be all and end all.

Non-profit and civil society work is also crucially important to having a strong public sphere. It is a wonderful source of ideas, it provides important services to people, it helps educate the public. Furthermore, it serves as an important check on government power, and can be adversarial. This can push government and create better policy.

C. So that said, what do we know and not know about young people's participation? In short, what evidence is available suggests they don't really participate quite as much as we'd think. They vote far less. They're less engaged in other political activities (such as rallies and the like), and in other causes (e.g., the environment) or civic associations. Furthermore, their participation is not only lower than in other age cohorts, but it's falling, particularly since the 1970s. In addition, those with lower levels of education and income are even less likely to participate.*

The reasons for this are less known. Perhaps it's a stage-of-life issue (i.e., young people are doing "grown up stuff" like marrying, buying houses and having kids later). Perhaps it's generational (i.e., something particularly unique to young people today). And naturally, there's lots of stuff the stats don't capture.

For example, employment in non-profit and public service is growing, which may indicate people are more engaged through their employment. The internet is likely changing people's frames of reference, increasingly their awareness of public problems and perhaps making them feel greater affinity to them. Whether this translates to action over time remains to be seen. Finally, demographics may also play a factor. There are a lot of people in Gen Y, and they're said to be a very globally aware generation. As they come of age, they will invariably shape a form of public engagement as the last large cohort, the boomers, did in their youth.

D. That said, we still have good reason to be concerned about what appears to be a growing level of disengagement among all age cohorts. Voting, party membership, campaign participation, protests... all these activities are low and getting lower. Furthermore, polls suggest Canadians have pretty low levels of political knowledge, even after campaigns.

On one hand, Canada has, on the whole, pretty good government. But on the other, there are signs of drift. It's never healthy to take good government for granted. So we're back to where we started.... what is at issue and what should we do about it?

*Data are from the book Citizens by William Cross (part of the Canadian Democratic Audit).