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Why Are Young Men So Disillusioned With Politics?

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As part of our Mentor Project, TV host and campaigner Rick Edwards looks at why young men are disillusioned with politics

I’ll start with a confession – I’m no longer a young man. So everything I have to say about the situation of young men is based on previous experience or the time I spend with them. In addition, the majority of the issues I want to talk about affect all young people, not just young men. It seems to me an entire generation is being alienated – detached from society.

It was through my work on BBC’s Free Speech, a lively political debate show for young people, that I first became aware of a very serious problem. 

A Hansard Report in 2013 suggested that only 12 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds would vote at a general election if it was called tomorrow. This had risen to 24 per cent by the next report, but still – that is alarmingly low. A few months ago I did a TEDx talk in which I suggested five practical solutions; ways to get young people to the ballot box (first – don’t use ballot boxes). I am now involved with organisations dedicated to promoting ideas like this.

Since giving that talk, I seem to do a lot of explaining – usually to older people – that younger people are not lazy, or uncaring, or apathetic. Actually, the opposite is true. They are socially conscious and passionate about causes. They are volunteering in greater numbers than ever before. They want to work. They want to have families. They want a home.

Moreover, I am compelled to point out that young people don’t feel hard done-by; they are categorically being hard done-by. For evidence of this, take your pick from youth unemployment – which is nearly three times higher than the rest of the population – an age-discriminatory minimum wage, astronomical tuition fees, the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance, high rents making it impossible to save money, a living wage being out of reach of many, crazy house prices and a lack of stock meaning home ownership is a distant pipedream, the shared accommodation rate extended to under-35s, recently unveiled plans to take away out-of-work benefits for 18 to 21-year-olds… It doesn’t matter how you cut it, the youth of today are getting the rawest of deals. It’s a sushi deal. Sushi, by the way, is something they probably can’t afford.

Youth in revolt

The Intergenerational Foundation has developed something called the Intergenerational Unfairness Index. In the research it published this year, it showed something that, frankly, we knew already: the prospects for young people appear to be worsening across a range of key areas, including government debt, housing costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Given these massive areas are all controlled pretty much exclusively by our government (I’d say ‘their government’, but that feels like a cruel joke), is it any wonder we find our youth disengaged and disillusioned with politics?

It is my belief that the best way to attack any of these issues is by getting young people to use their vote on 7 May next year. And we can do that by ensuring the next generation are involved in the next election. That way they can’t be ignored. I am not advocating any sort of intergenerational war – young vs old, in a battle for government hearts. Apart from anything else, that doesn’t make sense. They are not distinct groups like rich and poor. They are continuous. The young will become the old. This is a problem that will affect our whole society, not one isolated section of it.

Young men are entering, or trying to enter, a working world where there has been an erosion of the value of traditionally male traits, because the workplace is fundamentally different now. |The post-industrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. I read a quote that stuck with me – it said men are “fixed in cultural aspic”. Men, unlike women, seem to be slow to adapt, but adapt they must. Their role is not as clear as it once was.

Furthermore, political action and engagement is often borne out of the organisation of anger and frustration. Exactly the kind of attributes and emotions you would expect to have found among the workforce in old industrial jobs – groups of men in unions stirring each other up at work and beyond. Corporate employers are not looking for those attributes. They want compliance and service with a smile. That doesn’t feel fertile for the growth of political agitation.

Nevertheless, the logical conclusion is that young men will be feeling frustrated. So where is that frustration being vented, if not at politicians? Well, occasionally
it is – the riots and the student protests – but elsewhere it may be happening closer to home. The problems facing young people, not just men, are overwhelming.
If you don’t feel in control of your own life, how can you be expected to feel any control over politics? To believe you can have an impact on the way the country is run? Look at the emotional effect of struggling to find a job or move out of the parental home. The path to adulthood has changed almost beyond recognition.

A time of change

I’ve been working on a campaign called #swingthevote by youth charity vInspired. We made a short film that went into the details – 6.8 million ‘youth votes’ up for grabs, the potential to swing nearly 200 seats – and also explored what needs to change to make these young people vote. On the night we launched the film, we were given a preview of some research that the think-tank Demos has been working on. It contained a surprising and encouraging piece of data. When they asked “Do you intend to vote at the May 2015 general election?”, 52 per cent answered “Yes”. Remember that a few months earlier a Hansard report stated 24 per cent. What could possibly account for this huge increase?

Of course, I hoped that everyone asked had simply seen my TEDx talk and been immediately galvanised. But I concede that is unlikely.

The three stooges

Now, the questions asked by the Hansard reports and Demos are subtly different. One asks about a general election called tomorrow, whereas the other asks about the actual general election next year. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to be struck by what seems to be a colossal spike in voter intention.

The most probable explanation is a kind of ‘referendum effect’. Irrespective of the result, the whole process in Scotland had a tremendously positive impact on the perception of democracy. Here was a clear example of the power being in the people’s hands – or, rather, their votes. The people were going to decide the fate of their own country in a very obvious way.

Watching what actor and Yes campaigner Martin Compston memorably described as ‘The Three Stooges’ cancel PMQs and race up to Edinburgh was fascinating – and one of the only occasions I can remember where it was obvious that the party leaders were desperately trying to curry favour with the people. Where they knew that their positions were in the public’s hands. That’s how it should always be. They should be working for us. The reason it felt so true is that they knew turnout was going to be really high, and also in the balance. For me, this is very heartening. If we can replicate a similar level of engagement at the general election next year, then we will see the same thing happen again. Power to the (young) people.

Rick Edwards supports Swing The Vote by vInspired

 

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