At the Young Fabian Jobs Plan held in Manchester yesterday, Victoria Desmond explained how and why youth unemployment must be tackled now. Here, she describes how young people’s economic and political troubles are closely entwined.
Youth unemployment is at epidemic levels. One million 16- 25 years olds have no job. This has the potential to leave a long-lasting impact on the lives of an entire generation, but also has implications for the wider economy. Long term unemployment has detrimental effects on productivity and output, diminishes skills and wastes talent. As young people, we are the ones most affected by the economic crisis; however we are also the ones least likely to engage in the political system, and be engaged by politicians.
Many commentators such as Guardian journalist Shiv Malik go as far as to name us the “jilted generation”; not only are we ignored by the system, but we are wilfully locked-out of the policy debate by those in power.
At a time of acute economic difficulty, this is unacceptable. However, many young people do not make the connection between economic issues, in terms of pay or employment, and political participation, or realise that political participation is vital for the promotion of economic interests.
Alternatively, many young people simply perceive economists and politicians to be in cahoots with the ‘bad banker guys’ who bankrupted the system. Simply put, the majority of young people think that economics relates to money and banks, whilst politics relates to a remote, and disconnected distribution of power in the hands of elites.
Helping young people develop a better understanding of the connection between economics and politics is paramount. The problem that this alludes to is both educational and representational; a key reason why young are locked out of economic and political systems is simply lack of knowledge. Young people should grasp that they are already at a disadvantage because of these systems but that the opportunities to become more engaged exist.
They could be helped to this realisation if the mainstream media bothered to connect questions of economic disadvantage with issues of political representation. News outlets rarely present issues such as the living wage as both a political and economic project that has a real impact on young people’s lives.
Perhaps we can make up for failures of the mainstream media by embracing our status as the ‘socially connected generation’. Of course, there are many accessible forms of engagement; for instance we can follow our elected representative on Twitter, I can ‘like’ the “We hate David Cameron” Facebook page, and I can sign a petition in less than a minute to support the latest campaign fad.
Engagement with social media is important, but we have to accept that there are limits to what it can achieve. Sometimes we miss the obvious fact that those who engage politically on social networks are the same people who engage in the political system anyway.
In addition, when young people who do not usually get involved in politics do take part in an online campaign, they too often limit their participation to a quick tweet or a one-off email. They contribute too little and get back even less from the experience. In light of this, a question we should ask is: ‘when do social networks trivialise political debate to such an extent that it actually harms the cause of further engagement?’
Despite technological advances, it remains the responsibility of political organisations to engage the younger generation. We all know groups that have long mailing lists and comfortable membership numbers, yet still have a problem in getting these people to move from more casual or passive engagement to proactive commitment.
When push comes to shove, political organisations need people to attend events, campaign on the streets and devote time to recruiting new members. Otherwise, a terminal decline in participation is inevitable. People who are already engaged must remember that they have a social responsibility to attract new members – particularly younger members – to ensure future generations reap the benefit of a thriving political culture.
This also means rethinking the terms, themes and direction of campaigns toward younger audiences. We also have to take a critical look at ourselves in the mirror and ask: ‘are we the ones to blame for disenfranchising a generation?’
It’s easy to list the problems facing young people today. Finding serious policy solutions that can be framed and presented on young people’s terms is ultimately the best way to address the twin issues of political disengagement and economic vulnerability.
The father of Burmese heroine Aung Sang Su Kui once said: “you may not think about politics, but politics thinks of you.” The answers that we are looking for are not to be found in a convoluted political thesis or a miracle equation.
The key to solving the lack of active engagement is to go back to basics. Remind people of this simple quote. Perhaps if they feel more connected to political and economic systems they will be more inclined to engage. We need to start talking to a wider audience in a more accessible language, stop debating with ourselves and turn our attention to the people who don’t think that politics is for them.
When they start believing politics can bring real change, the seeds of engagement will be planted and perhaps then my generation can stand up for itself and make our voices heard.
Victoria Desmond is a Young Fabians member