By Esme Hall –
In this blog post I draw on insights from scholarship on political participation and analysis of the New Zealand Election Study from 2008 to 2017 to suggest ways of increasing youth engagement in the policy process.
At every election there is a lot of hand-wringing over how to get young people voting. Young people are often blamed for being too lazy to vote or participate in political action. As noted by political commentator Bryce Edwards, some possible measures to make politics more attractive include introducing civics education, a lower voting age or younger politicians. But, putting all the responsibility on young people is counter-productive. Minor adjustments to the electoral or education system won’t change the fact that the policy process has steadily been drifting further away from young people.
Commentators predicted an increase in youth voting in the New Zealand General Election 2017 election. It was dubbed the ‘youth-quake’ after the phenomena that contributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s higher than expected 2017 general election result in Britain. However, in New Zealand, the increase in youth voter turnout was negligible. While the 18 to 24 age group voter turnout rose from 62.7 to 69.3 per cent on 2014, younger cohorts remain up to 20 per cent behind older voters. There won’t be a real ‘youth-quake’ until politics can turn and face young people.
There are more nuanced ways of pinning blame on young people than calling them ‘lazy’. As Luke Fitzmaurice commented in Stuff in 2017, “the reason politicians ignore young people is because young people ignore politicians.” But, from involvement in online communities to lifestyle changes like veganism, young people are performing a new repertoire of political behaviour. Political institutions and actors haven’t caught up and still look for engagement in traditional channels. Instead of talking about youth engagement with politics, we need to be talking about politics’ engagement with youth. Political actors need to meet young people where they’re engaging.
Step One to creating a Youth-Quake? Stop talking down to us.
Young people are told we’re apathetic and lazy. Minister for Regional Economic Development Shane Jones would have us believe that unemployment is due to young people just “sitting on the couch.” This logic is common. If only young people pulled their socks up and got to the polls, democracy wouldn’t be decaying and deep-rooted, society-wide problems would apparently be fixed.
It is true that today’s young people are less traditionally politically engaged than ever before. In any generation, young people tend to be less engaged with politics as participation tends to increase with age, peaking with middle-aged people. But this ‘life-cycle effect’ can’t wholly explain low youth engagement. Literature from the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand points to a ‘generational effect’ whereby recent generations are less likely to be politically engaged than older generations were at the same age. 
Perhaps when it’s repeated enough times that you’re disengaged, apathetic, lazy and ignorant about politics, you begin to believe it. A 2002 study of first-time voters by Matt Henn, Mark Weinstein and Dominic Wring in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations found that young people were more likely to view ‘politics’ as something remote that goes in on parliament, rather than as things that affect their lives. As a result, they were less likely to be interested in politics, vote or become members of political parties.
However, the authors found that when young people were invited to discuss politics on their own terms they displayed far higher levels of interest and activity. Young people are interested in a new style of politics. A politics that is participative, localised and immediate and takes place through actions like consumer activism or use of social media.
Young people live in a more uncertain world than previous generations. Complex demands on their lives are reducing the time they have for politics relative to previous youth cohorts. As high school student Jackson Lacy eloquently argued on Stuff in 2017, young people “face real problems” like “rising levels of student debt,” “a job market that’s forcing us into precarious work,” “a housing crisis that’s locking us out,” and “poor mental health services.”
In the face of this complex and changing future, young people narrow their focus to immediate, short-term goals. Making consumer choices, like bringing your own bags to the supermarket, or online activism, like signing an online petition, can be one of the only ways young people feel they can make change in society. Social media is an accessible and low cost way of staying politically engaged. Even when most young people move around a lot and may not have a stable income or are studying, they have a phone and social media accounts.
My analysis of New Zealand Election Study data from 2008 to 2017 on questions of non-electoral participation conducted as part of a summer research project at the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland, found that although traditional forms of non-electoral participation such as signing petitions and writing to newspapers have decreased in frequency, the use of social media to promote issues has increased, particularly for young people, women, Māori and those on low income.
However, the methods of engagement young people prefer revolve around social networks so are only visible to those who participate in them. As a result, the political energies of young people can be invisible to other political actors. In a 2013 study of the political engagement of young women in New Zealand, Julia Schuster in Political Science argues that “the older generation did not grow up in the digital age and [keep] looking for the successors within the social networks that they knew.” The study confirmed how “frustrating, discouraging and upsetting” it is for young people’s political efforts to be discredited and ignored. The message to young people that they’re disengaged leads to hesitance around getting politically involved as they feel they are on their own.
Step Two to creating a Youth-Quake? Recognise the challenges we face.
There is potential for young people to be persuaded to turn out to vote in large numbers in the future. As noted by Henn et al., this can occur if political parties recognise the needs of young people as legitimate, rather than solely focusing on the demands of the middle-aged.
Young people make up large proportions of some of the most disadvantaged groups in New Zealand such as the unemployed, those on low income, those in low-skilled work, those with lower educational qualification levels, and Māori and Pacific people. According to the Ministry of Health, as of 2013, the Māori population was younger overall than the non-Māori population with 33.7% of Māori aged less than 15 years, compared to only 18.0% of non-Māori. Pacific people also have a younger age profile than the overall New Zealand population. In 2013, the median age of Pacific peoples was 33.7 years while in the overall New Zealand population the median age was 37.1 years. The median Pacific age was decreasing, while in the wider New Zealand population the median age was increasing. From 2013 to 2016, 15 to 24 year olds experienced the highest unemployment.
Despite facing some of the most pressing issues, these groups are less likely to vote. They don’t engage in formal politics because in many cases they can’t, and because of high levels of alienation and exclusion. Māori are under-represented in electoral and non-electoral participation and report feelings of disempowerment and lack of trust in elected officials. Pacific people also have a lower turnout in general elections than the total population, although turnout is higher among Pacific people than Māori or Asian New Zealanders.
Despite barriers to formal participation, it is these same disadvantaged groups who are participating in politics in new ways. As noted, data collected in the New Zealand Election Study from 2008 to 2017 shows young people aged 18 to 24 used social media to promote issues in the highest proportion, with Māori of this age group promoting on social media more than Pākehā of the same age. Women used social media for issue promotion more than men. In the 18 to 24 age bracket, lower income respondents had used social media to promote issues in higher proportions.
Some people assume that educational and income disadvantage will correlate to low levels of non-electoral participation overall. It was evident, however, that although people with higher education and higher income had signed petitions, written to newspapers and used social media to promote issues at the highest frequency, in the 18 to 24 age bracket, people with low incomes had used social media to promote issues the most. Further, respondents in the lowest income bracket were most likely to have gone on a protest, march, demonstration or hikoi, suggesting they are active in some forms of political action.
To motivate young people, political parties, government agencies and elected officials need to recognise the profound challenges young people face and address them in an accessible and non-condescending way.
Step Three to creating a Youth-Quake? Engage on our terms.
Rather than denigrating people who aren’t voting, political actors need to accept the responsibility and power they have to tackle issues like political accessibility and participation.
Analysis by Victoria University Professor Jack Vowles has argues that political parties are key influencers when it comes to developing political engagement and mobilising voters. He argues that turnout is “elite-directed” around the ability of elites to link people to the electoral process. This applies to non-electoral engagement in the policy process.
Some political actors have recognised their power and progress an ethos of linking people into the policy process. Organisations like the Electoral Commission, RockEnrol and FFS Vote did great work in motivating voter participation, but there are other actors encouraging engagement outside of voting.
An example of a politician encouraging young people to engaged with the policy process on social media is Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. In late January 2018 Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis and Other Matters) Amendment Bill was before the House. Over this period the Party put out statements and videos on social media that encouraged people to contact their local MP, or an MP they felt represents them, and request they support the drug reform. They emphasised that people connect their interest in medicinal cannabis with the policy process. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern has made use of Facebook’s live video tool to share keep followers updated on her activities and answer political questions.
Another instance where citizens were linked to the policy process were the messages coming through in the 2018 Women’s Marches. Organisers called for protesters to think carefully about who is in office and vote accordingly, to try to connect personalised mobilisation with political institutions.
ActionStation is a New Zealand organisation that is linking people into the policy process. It provides opportunities for people-powered collective action drawing on a digital community it has amassed. Anyone can start a campaign on an issue they care about and ActionStation puts its resources behind them. Since beginning in 2012, Action Station has supported people to instigate a range of online actions such as “petitions, social media swarms and mass emails to decision makers” to offline actions like “creative stunts, vigils or hikoi” and a mixture of the two like “crowdfunded creative campaigns like TV ads or billboards.”
ActionStation operates on social media, as well as sending out emails encouraging people to get involved. It has successfully campaigned with other organisations for an “independent inquiry into the public mental health system and an increase in government funding for critical mental health services;” an increase to “core benefit levels for the first time in 30 years;” “the first funding increase in nine years to RNZ to help diversify media and hold government to account;” and raising “the age of state foster care from 17 to 21, and age of youth justice from 17 to 18.” All of these policy issues have generated support and debate among young people on social media.
Younger people are still demonstrating their interest in policy issues, albeit in a less traditional way. Political actors need to stop talking down to young people, recognise the challenges we face and engage on our terms. The way forward can only be found when young people and political actors face and listen to each other. That’s when we’ll get a real youth-quake.
 See for example, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Jervis, 2017), ‘Complacent young citizens or cross-generationals solidarity?’ (Stoker et al, 2017), and ‘A Political Outlier: the Distinct Politics of the Millenial generation’ (Fisher, 2018).