In my day, young people knew how to protest! Fifty years ago, students and other young people took to the streets in mass public demonstrations, marching against war, oppression, nuclear weapons, segregation, capitalism (in the West), communism (in the East), and any number of causes. The 1968 protests have gone down as one of the largest global youth protest movements in history.
How do today’s young people measure up? The youth of the 1968 questioned everything, from old role models, to sexual and gender norms, to mass consumption. New parties such as the Greens were founded, and organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace began mobilising worldwide. Today, those former young revolutionaries are now retired and encouraging greater political commitment from their own children and grandchildren. Is their call being answered?
Want to hear more about young people committed to political engagement today? Every year, our partner think-tank Friends of Europe invites future decision-makers to join its European Young Leaders project and jointly plan a better future.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Tom, who is worried that political engagement today is less than it was in the past. For example, he argues people are today more interested in sharing pictures of cats on the internet than marching in the streets. Is that correct? Would young people today rather surf the internet than protest?
To get a response, we spoke to Gesine Schwan. She was an activist during the 1968 protests, and has been politically active ever since (including running twice as a Social Democratic Party candidate for German Chancellor). She is currently President of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform. What would she say to Tom’s comment?
[Political engagement] has declined quite a bit in the last 30 years… [However] the election of Donald Trump in America has provoked a lot of people in Europe and increased their political commitment, because more and more people now realise that we have something to lose if we allow social problems to undermine our democracy.
Of course, it’s true that the internet takes up a lot of time [but] distraction has always been a problem. Moral philosophers have been complaining for centuries that you need a certain strength to push back against distraction.
Without the internet we could not conduct politics nowadays. In fact, the internet can also be very helpful in terms of mobilising people. So, I do not believe that young people are less interested politically than previous generations…
I have two points to make: Firstly, we can decide ourselves what to do with our free time. People have always had free time. It is not without reason that we have representative democracies. Our elected representatives have to deal with politics so that we do not have to do it every day. That’s fine.
Second, there is certainly more information out there today. But that also means that we are better informed. For example, there is so much leaked government data and information available. We are better informed about politics than ever before – better than in the ’50s and ’60s.
Of course, this also fuels political disenchantment because people no longer trust the institutions as much as they once did. But I do not believe that this leads to less political engagement.
Next up, we had a comment from Frieder, who thinks young people are less politically engaged today with good reason. He believes Europe’s demographic trend mean that young people are destined to always be a minority, out-voted on issues by a more conservative older vote. Is he right?
How would Gesine Schwan respond?
On the contrary, we urgently need all the citizens to engage politically, but especially young people because they bring new thinking and experiences. I do not think that young people are politically disinterested. But they need to be given the opportunity to take real political decisions – starting from in their schools and neighbourhoods – and not just engage in political fights online…
Finally, how would Dominik Kirchdorfer respond to the same comment?
In general, you cannot say that someone should not get involved in politics just because they belong to a minority. You need the participation of every minority, especially when it comes to young people. They are the future!
Even if we are outnumbered now, we will probably be the majority of the future. If the youth are not engaged, it will lead to political lethargy; they will not be able to serve as role models for their own children, and then nobody will get involved anymore. Therefore, youth engagement is very important.
Are young people less politically engaged than previous generations? Does it matter if they engage with politics, given they will always be outvoted by their parents and grandparents? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!