It’s almost a truism to suggest that today’s youth disappoint. Indeed elders in every age are notorious for complaints. In fact, youngsters have commonly at least equal reason to protest the world handed down to them. But that is another story. The argument here considers contemporary concern about youth apathy as a key component of the democratic deficit and then turns to evidence of a generation who give their elders plenty of reason for hope.
‘Habitual non-voting’, what Canadian political scientist Paul Howe describes in Citizens Adrift, has been strongly correlated with youth. Since the 2000 federal election when turnout slipped to about 60% (the decline had been especially noticeable since 1988), Canadians have been urged to confront special disaffection among those in their twenties and younger. Ultimately failed referenda in Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and British Columbia on electoral reform (whether proportional representation or the single-transferable vote) of the existing ‘first past the post’ political system signaled a desire in particular to counter the supposed disengagement of the under-30s.
Explanations for disinterest regularly focus on shifts in values and lack of political knowledge among young people. The origins of this malaise are diverse but as another Canadian political scientist, Elizabeth Gidengil, suggests “there is a strong association between structural inequalities in society and lack of engagement with democratic politics”(172). Women, Aboriginal people, and the poor in general have typically been less well-served by political institutions but the young among them have special reason to feel mis- and un-represented. Unsurprisingly, such communities are less likely to view voting as a potential source of power and change. In response to British research suggesting a political knowledge gap (Curran and Iyengar), some commentators in summer 2013 nonetheless confessed ‘shock’ about women’s relative disinterest in politics (Daugherty). That response seems disconcertingly similar to the disappointment expressed by many first wave feminists when asked to reflect on the next generation (see the interviews in Appendix A in Cleverdon).
Remedies for apparent disengagement are not easy. As Gidengil and Howe conclude, they need to be systemic multiple, diverse and persistent. Addressing the “information gap”, just the aim of womensuffrage.org is only one part of a complex set of possible solutions.
For all the bad news, investigators have also found cause for optimism. In Citizens Elisabeth Gidengil also stresses widespread involvement in voluntary associations and protest. Since that important volume’s publication in 2004, evidence of activism’s diverse channels has mounted even as environmental and economic collapse everywhere demonstrated the inadequacy of existing politics. Young people often stand at the centre of dissent. In particular, womensuffrage.org has directed attention to Canadian Parliamentary intern Brigitte DePape and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafrzai, both of whom embody young women’s courage and determination in contesting the status quo. Much the same message emerges in our site’s posts on Idle No More, created by four female champions of indigenous rights. Elsewhere on the ground and in the air, multiple initiatives confirm the appearance of what is being increasingly termed ‘fourth wave feminism’. Associated commonly with the Occupy and Idle No More movements, it goes well beyond them to include growing global campaigns to end violence (support for Mahala Yousafzai and Canada’s missing and murdered women), win symbolic recognition (the campaign that secured Jane Austen on the UK’s 10£ note and the inauguration of a similar effort to educate the Bank of Canada by Merna Forster of Victoria, BC), infiltrate and direct the new media (The Vagenda from the UK, Feministing from the US, Shit Harper Did from Canada), and to demand equality as a national commitment (Russia’s Pussy Riot and Egypt’s protesters in Tahrir Square in 2012 and 2013) . In June 2013 BBC’s venerable radio programme and podcast, Woman’s Hour, packaged recurring evidence of feminism’s vitality in a special production, ‘Modern Feminism’, which highlighted global ‘New Generation Feminists’.
What can we make of such evidence? Detractors prefer to see a flash in the pan or little more than a variant on the traditional feminism that they readily dismiss as elitist or irrelevant. While only time will ultimately tell, the omens augur quite the contrary. In particular, women’s rising educational and paid employment levels around the world, their unprecedented access to media, and common commitment to partnerships (across class, race, ability, nation, religion, and ability, among other divisions) so often inspired by the hard lessons in diversity and oppression taught to second wave feminism by extraordinary activist intellectuals such as Canada’s Patricia Monture-Angus, India’s Vandana Shiva, and the U.S.’s bell hooks, token a long over-due sea-change in this sorely tried world. Nor is mobilization restricted to women. Young men everywhere have been far readier than previous generations to listen, to cooperate, and envision a cooperative politics. Feminist mothers have reason to be proud.
The evident resolve of so many of the world’s young women and men throws democracy the life-line that so many old-line politicians in every nation have so far frequently denied the next generation. Today the ‘second chance’ (the suggestive title of her 1910 novel with its themes of resistance and resilience) envisioned by Canadian first wave Nellie L. McClung is within the grasp of young people.
Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950, 1974).
Curran, James and Shanto Iyengar. Media System, Political Context and Informed Citizenship: A Comparative Study (Swindon: ESCR, 2012)
Daugherty, Amber. “Women knew less about politics than men, study finds (that goes for Canada, too), Globe & Mail, 3 July 2013.
Gidengil, Elisabeth. Citizens. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004).
Henn, Matt, Mark Weinstein and Dominic Wring. “A Generation Apart? Youth and Political Participation in Britain.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 4:2 (2002): 167-92.
Howe, Paul. Electoral Participation of Young Canadians. Ottawa: Elections Canada, 2007. http://www.elections.ca/res/rec/part/paper/youth/youth_e.pdf
—-Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
MacKinnon, Mary Pat and Judith Maxwell. “Youth Do Get the Bug for Democracy.” Commentary for Canadian Policy Research Networks (18 January 2006). www.cprn.org/en/doc/cfm?doc_1378#
McClung, Nellie L. The Second Chance (Toronto: William Briggs, 1910).
“Modern Feminism,” Woman’s Hour, BBC, 27 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02yl2fr
O’Toole, Therese, David Marsh and Su Jones. “Political Literacy Cuts Both Ways: The Politics of Non-participation among Young People.” The Political Quarterly 74:3 (2003): 349-60.
Plutzer, Eric. “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood.” American Political Science Review 96:1 (2002): 41-56.
Shit Harper Did, http://www.shd.ca.
The Vagenda, http://vagendamag.blogspot.co.uk.
Wattenberg, Martin P. Is Voting for Young People? (NY: Pearson Longman 2007).