Perspectives September 14, 2023
Why Are Youth Dissatisfied with Democracy?
Young people are disillusioned with democracy, but they’re finding alternative ways to make their voices heard. It’s time to bring them into the fold.
According to Freedom House and other analysis and metrics, democratic backsliding has become a global trend. Amid this environment comes a rash of statistics suggesting that the world’s young people are increasingly disengaged from political life: they’re voting less, rejecting party membership, and telling researchers that their country’s leaders aren’t working in their interests.
But at the same time, young people remain engaged in civic life. They attend demonstrations, use the internet to make their voices heard, and are active outside the traditional political sphere, like in business, at school, and in religious communities.
At a time when political rights and civil liberties are in decline, why are youth so dissatisfied with democracy? And how can civic and democratic leaders bring them back into the fold?
Elections and beyond: youth political participation and attitudes
Lower levels of participation in elections among young people is a long-established trend across the globe. Although official voter-turnout figures are not always available, data collected through surveys and other studies clearly show decreasing voter turnout in all democracies since the 1980s, and that this decline is concentrated among youth cohorts.
According to the World Values Survey (WVS), the world’s average youth (defined as between ages 18 and 29), participation in national elections is 47.7 percent. The figures vary by country and region, with Latin American youth voting at relatively high rates—often reaching above 65 percent turnout—while youth in Europe and Africa voting tend to post turnout rates of between 40 and 50 percent. Voter turnout in the United States among 18-to-24-year-olds for the 2020 presidential election was 48 percent, the lowest compared to all other age groups. Low youth electoral participation reflects apathy, mistrust, and dissatisfaction with democratic processes, and feeds into the democratic backsliding narrative.
In addition to lower electoral turnout for youth, studies reveal other complex challenges that may help explain global democratic backsliding. For one, youth satisfaction with democracy is declining around the globe—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to how older generations felt at the same stages in life. In older democracies, youth discontent is driven in large part by perceptions of economic exclusion, illustrated by high youth unemployment and widening economic inequality. In the emerging democracies of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southern Europe, there is similar disappointment with democratic performance on issues important to young people: education, employment, and opportunity. Researchers also found signs of “transition fatigue” among youth: they are less engaged with democracy compared to generations before them that challenged authoritarian systems, and won greater political and civil freedoms as a result.
Moreover, young people also feel excluded from important government decisions that affect their lives and future. Another UN global survey found that 76 percent of respondents under 30 think politicians do not listen to young people. In South Africa, 90 of respondents voiced such views, as did 80 percent of those in Spain and United Kingdom. These views become less surprising when we consider that while 50 percent of people on our planet are under 30 years of age, 69 percent of countries around the world place restrictions on young people’s ability to run for office—even when they are old enough to vote. Indeed, a miniscule 2.6 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are under 30 years of age.
Other studies show deep skepticism among young people about the efficacy of government. On average across Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, according to a 2021 survey, only 37 percent of people aged 18-29 said they trust the national government, compared to 41 percent of those aged 30-49, and 46 percent of those 50 and over. In one survey of 10,000 young people across the world, 83 percent of respondents said that the government had failed to protect their future.
This lack of trust correlates with data showing low levels of youth political and public-policy participation, and illustrates an ongoing decoupling between what policymakers do and what young people are concerned about. Trust in the system is among the core requirements for meaningful political participation. When the basic conditions for youth political participation are not present, youth may give up. Or—they may find alternative ways to stay engaged, influence policy, and make their voices heard.
Apathy or antipathy? How to reengage youth
The statistics are worrying: they seem to show young people checking out. But are young people truly becoming less concerned with politics and policies, less politically skillful, and more apathetic?
If we take the classic definition of political participation, engaged youth should be casting votes, joining political parties, engaging with their representatives, and participating in local councils. But in today’s more dynamic and complex democratic governance landscape, youth political participation is broader and more multifaceted. It may not even address government directly. For example, statistics likely don’t account for youth involvement in institutions they encounter in everyday life, like universities, private enterprises, nongovernmental organizations, and religious organizations. A great deal of youth participation also takes place online. Moreover, young people today are not a homogenous group. Age intersects with other elements such as ethnicity, disability, migrant or refugee status, and gender identity, resulting in a multitude of avenues for individuals to express their views and participate.
Indeed, even as statistics show that youth are frustrated with democratic institutions, they are finding other ways to contribute to democratic policy dialogue and debates. In the broadest sense, they are natural advocators, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and innovators, and they frequently go to the streets to hold decision makers accountable. Youth are speaking out about corruption, gender, racism, socioeconomic inequality, and rights and liberties, even if they aren’t always doing it from the floor of the parliament or even the voting booth. They are fighting for democracy around the world, in countries like China, Russia, Belarus, Hungary, Turkey, Sudan, Iran, Peru, Nicaragua, Tunisia, Ukraine, and the United States, to name just a few.
Bringing youth into the fold
Understanding how young people view and practice political participation is a key component of any democratic renewal effort. Young people are better educated and more connected than ever. Yet they face significant obstacles in achieving their full potential. Political apathy is among them, but there is also evidence that most have not given up on democracy yet.
However, if existing democratic processes continue to fail them, young people may reject core values of democratic governance, such as consensus, dialogue, accountability, and inclusion. Populist authoritarians will amplify this dissatisfaction to their own selfish advantage.
There is no blueprint to ensure that youth political participation contributes to strengthening, sustaining, and expanding the performance of democratic governance. But, the effort is worth making. It will require working in different dimensions—promoting civic engagement, encouraging young people to engage in decision-making processes, teaching them how to hold decision makers accountable, and fostering cross-generational collaboration. Investing in youth engagement and leadership in the digital space is also key.
In 2023, the world’s population includes the largest number of young people in history. Together they hold the potential to strengthen democracy and halt the march of authoritarianism around the globe. It’s time for democratic leaders to engage them.