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Friday, April 12, 2024


What Youth-Led Movements Teach Us About Democracy

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Youth-led mass mobilisations in recent years have challenged the argument that young people have no interest in politics or democratic processes. Young people displayed a commitment to change and modelled an inclusive approach to participatory democracy through street actions, events, and debates as seen in the climate movement. Jasmine Lorenzini explains how young people challenge the norms of participation today, as well as the opportunities their actions present for democratic renewal and long-term change.


In 2019, young people took to streets in cities around the globe to protest political inaction on climate change. The Fridays for Future movement showed young people’s ability to mobilise for more than a year and rally other generations around their cause. This widespread mobilisation helped put climate change high on the political agenda and sparked a society-wide debate that continues today. The climate movement shows how young people are participating in politics on their own terms.

Outside of the climate movement, young people have long engaged in political consumerism and lifestyle activism. They make political choices in their diet, how they travel, and as they shop. These choices include cycling in the city, adopting a vegetarian diet, buying fair, local, or organic food, or turning to second-hand shops and barter networks for clothes.

These forms of political participation are not accessible to all young people; political consumerism and lifestyle activism require significant time investments and depend on financial resources, as fair trade or organic goods can be expensive. For example, young people without children are over-represented in participatory supermarkets that ask consumers to work at the cashier or fill the supermarket shelves.

However, what is clear is that youth-led action has become more widespread. For political institutions, the challenge today is to make room for a practice of democracy that differs from the established norm. Praising youth political participation on the streets is insufficient; new avenues in democratic institutions are needed to sustain the expression of young political voices and to give them the power to shape public policies.

“New avenues in democratic institutions are needed to sustain the expression of young political voices and to give them the power to shape public policies.”

Diversifying political representation

Young people aged 15 to 29 years old constitute 17 per cent of the European population. Yet, the average age of elected representatives in the European Parliament is 50 years old. On average, less than 5 per cent of the members of national parliaments in Europe are younger than 30 years old. Young people will bear the cost of political decisions made today during their entire life and personal choices, such as having children or not, depend on the policies that are adopted today.

Representative democracy needs to embrace diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, profession, and social status to reflect European societies of today. Politics is not only about ideas and diverse opinions defended in abstract political debates, it is also about fair participation of people who have different lived experiences. Young people can be engaged through new political institutions such as randomly drawn third chambers, citizens’ assemblies, and Officers for Future Generations. Within these institutions, different social groups can collectively imagine and work towards their ideal society.

For many years, young people appeared to be withdrawing from politics. Looking at national elections in 2010, 61 per cent of citizens aged 22 to 29 years old reported having voted at the last election compared to 78 per cent of citizens aged 30 years and older. In 2019, however, the trend reversed and the European Parliament observed an upward swing in election turnout among young people.

But electoral turnout alone does not tell the full story of young people’s participation and contribution to democracy. Young people find innovative ways to get involved: from street protests to holding public debates founded on inclusiveness and empowerment. They act as guards of institutional politics, taking a stance when elected representatives use violent rhetoric for instance. In 2019, the Sardines movement in Italy saw young people organise from the grassroots to oppose the right-wing populist rhetoric of Matteo Salvini.

When asked about today’s most pressing issues, young people demonstrate concern for climate change as well as social inequalities: those surveyed in 2019 identified protecting the environment and fighting climate change, improving education and training, fighting poverty and economic and social inequalities, boosting employment, and tackling unemployment as the most important problems facing the world.

Young people’s pattern of engagement with politics can be explained on several grounds. Many have long felt dismissed by their elected representatives and institutions. Research shows that individuals who feel that their economic situation has deteriorated during the last five years are more likely to engage in protest and less likely to engage in institutional politics. Young people also face difficulties entering the labour market, earning a decent income, and benefiting from open-ended contracts. In countries facing economic crisis, young people have played an important role in wider mobilisations. During the Great Recession in Spain and Greece for example, young people were central to the organisation of the Indignados movements.

Young people have fewer vested interests; their identities and social status depend less on their income and employment situation than is the case for older citizens. Hence, they are more likely to challenge societal models and embrace proposals for far-reaching social change. In contemporary democratic politics, elected representatives prioritise their political careers and often weigh their chances of being re-elected in the future when taking political decisions that have long-lasting impacts on society. These representatives are therefore more likely to focus on short-term solutions that only consider the needs and desires of current generations.

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Three initiatives for youth inclusion

Youth-led movements and political action have dispelled the myth of their detachment from politics. More than that, they are learning experiences for a renewal of democracy and enhancing youth inclusion. Three initiatives – randomly drawn assemblies, citizen assemblies, and, Offices for Future Generations – offer potential routes to tap into the political vision of young people and empower them to create long-lasting change.

Randomly drawn assemblies could bring more equality and diversity to the representation of young people in institutional politics. Randomly drawn assemblies take different forms such as citizens’ panel for debates or third chambers in parliaments. In both cases, participants are randomly selected which gives every individual an equal chance of being selected to participate in policymaking. An inclusive approach to selecting the members of assemblies could ensure minority groups are represented.

“Youth-led movements and political action have dispelled the myth of their detachment from politics. More than that, they are learning experiences for renewal of democracy and enhancing youth inclusion.”

Citizens’ assemblies are temporary political institutions that bring together ordinary citizens to deliberate over specific political issues. They take different forms such as mini publics, citizens’ juries, or deliberative polls. In Ireland, a citizens’ assembly discussed responses to climate change. In the framework of this process, during 26 hours, 99 citizens listened to experts and deliberated recommendations that they could submit to politicians and for citizen approval. In addition to scientific evidence, the discussion of personal stories contributed to the adoption of radical propositions to face climate change. Citizens who participated in this initiative were of different ages, genders, and social classes, and lived in different regions.

Three conditions are important to enhance the legitimacy of decision-making by citizens’ assemblies. First, the design of citizens’ assemblies should guarantee the inclusion of a representative sample of citizens who bring a wide range of perspectives. Second, the deliberation should take place in a respectful climate that allows the expression and consideration of not only experts but also activists and ordinary citizens. Third, the recommendations must result in new policies and be adopted in parliamentary debates or government action.

An Office for Future Generations is composed of experts who propose laws to protect the rights of future generations and secure a livable environment for the future. In Finland, the Committee of the Future is a permanent parliamentary committee in charge of studying the future. It has existed since 1993 and has had a permanent role since the early 2000s. Although this committee does not produce legislation, it generates reports and holds dialogues with the government on future problems and opportunities. These innovations bring longer-term visions into decision-making processes. They offer opportunities to consider the interests of young people of today and the future more systematically.

Although promising, these democratic innovations might only partially solve the agenda-setting problem, namely that issues discussed in political institutions result in public policies that only partially reflect the priorities of young people. Institutional reforms can truly empower youth when their recommendations lead to binding decisions and when debates are not set up to validate pre-defined solutions. Moreover, elected representatives and existing political institutions also need to share power with young people to offer real opportunities for social change. The process of re-engaging young people with institutional politics goes hand in hand with a reinforced interplay of political parties and social movements.

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