Youth Citizenship and Politics, Part 2: So how different are young people?

By Emily Rainsford (Politics & International Relations) 

If the first theme from the workshops at Royal Holloway was the diversity of kinds of ways that young people participate in and their wide understanding of citizenship and politics, the second theme is somewhat more critical. By recognising the diversity of ways of participation among young people the question arises whether this is something about young people as a social group and a generation, or something about young people growing up in this particular period. Andy Furlong, author of Young People and Social Change, made the argument that transition from child to adult that the period of youth represents has become more fragmented than before. Young people stay in education for longer, and either live at home or return home after university studies, the job market is more uncertain and leads to precarious jobs, all of which contribute to a delayed transition into adulthood. This combined with the alienation from formal politics that young people feel has, according to Furlong, led to new cleavages in terms of intergenerational conflict that could potentially be explosive. Erik Amnå took the idea of a generational or period effect further in his research where they are seeking to understand changes in young people’s political behaviour through conducting a longitudinal study on how young people’s behaviour and attitudes change over time. He argued that three assumptions are often made about the quantity, quality and development of political participation, where it is assumed to be monolithic, manifest and stable. Amnå also argued that we need to move beyond a simple understanding of political passivity: the initial results from this longitudinal study suggest that it can be fragmented (i.e. take different forms at different times), latent (i.e. not always manifest as an action, but as a potential) and develop over time. Understanding political behaviour as something that develops rather than something that is static and determined opens up for the importance of socialisation in this development. Ben Kisby and James Sloam addressed this in terms of what role education has in this process of fostering civic participation. They found that education determines participation to a larger extent than social background. Citizenship education is the third and final theme from the workshops that we will be reporting on separately.

Furlong and Amnå do however take an interesting perspective on the particularity of youth. Whilst many others focus on the change in attitudes or behaviour, both Furlong and Amnå focus more on the position young people have in society, and in particular the transitional nature of this position, and the consequences it may have on their political participation. As such this becomes something about what is particular about youth as a group in society rather than this particular generation of young people. This detail is important because first of all we see similar trends of political disenchantment and changing patterns of political participation that for example Bang highlights among adults, although the causes and solutions look different with proposals for more direct democracy for adults and citizenship education for young people. But secondly, even if this trend may have other causes or look different among young people, we have no data that can show us whether this is something about being young or something about being young in this period of time. As such, it seems like a more productive way forward is to focus on the position young people have in society, what opportunities they have for political participation and voice and what consequences this may have on policy that affects them.

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