Interest Rather than Civic Duty: Explaining declining youth political participation

Blogger:  Jaime Morrison 

People from my generation interact with politics differently. I shared a birthday with one of my peers in high school, the year we both turned 18 there was a federal election held 10 days after our birthday.  I was excited to finally get the chance to vote. I decided to vote in my home riding and I made plans to get a ride home from school that day to make sure I was there before the polls closed.

I asked my friend later that weekend if she was going to exercise her right to vote. She was not planning to.  She told me she didn’t care about it because it didn’t matter to her and she didn’t know any of the people or anything they were talking about. This is typical of those in my generation.

Is voting "old school"?

This lack of formal participation in political life has become the defining feature of our role in the public life of Canada.  While there is a subgroup of Millennials who are intensely motivated and active in political life most Millennials are not engaged in politics, do not vote, and cannot name significant political leaders.

Today with about 5 million people aged 18 – 29 Millennials make up 20 percent of the voting population. In 2020 we will make up about 35 percent of the Canadian electorate. Yet, by all accounts, Millennials are not participating at the same rate as other Canadians thus limiting the true power of the generation.

Paul Howe, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, examined the decline of youth political participation in Canada.  In his book, Citizens Adrift (a Canadian Millennials Must Read by the way), Howe examined historical and current patterns of participation and engagement concluding that young Canadians are, in fact, increasingly detached from the political and civic life of the country due to waning political knowledge and changing norms and values about social integration among Canadian Millennials.

Heightened individualism, or “emphasis on self-direction and self-regard has tended to undermine political engagement among younger generations.” Howe explains that these norms have contributed to weaker regard among the young for relevant social norms that have sustained participation in the past.” Millennials in Canada no longer feel it is necessary to take an interest or participate because of societal obligation; rather we are prone to take an interest if there is actually something that affects us.

Howe explains that, “political behaviour has instead come to be more closely guided by personal interest.” Governed by self-regard “that which affects me,” and self-direction “that which intrigues me.”

Can he replicate that success in 2012?

These motives influence processes of personal engagement (why and whether I might get involved) as well as dynamics of interpersonal mobilization (why and whether I might encourage others to be involved).”  It was this interpersonal mobilization “most notably from one young person to the next,” that accounted for much of the momentum that led to Barrack Obama’s successful nomination bid and eventual election in 2008.”

People who are my age take the view that if there is something I want to know about I will look it up online. If there is something I need to know, someone will tell me about it.

If there is something we are interested in we will find out about it. Millennials know that we can either find out about a topic or issue we want to know about or someone who we know will inform us if it is relevant. Millennials value connection above knowledge.

In a recently released American study, the 2012 Millennial Impact Report reported how Millennials (defined as those between age 20 and 35) interact with non-profit organizations. Their study shows that more than eight in ten Millennials included in the study prefer to learn about ways to participate from friends or family where fewer, less than seven in ten said they would prefer to look to an organization’s website for information.

This new data reaffirms that when it comes to working with my generation interpersonal engagement holds as the best way to get Millennials involved. In measuring political attitudes of Millennial voters we should not measure whether they are engaged (we know that mostly they’re not) but who they’re connected to and what are they affected by.