Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Is it their duty to vote? Young Canadians say ‘meh’

A few years back, Keith Archer and I conducted a study of youth turnout in Canada.  Contrary to common wisdom, we found that today’s youngest generation of voters is no more cynical or pessimistic about democracy than its elders;  they do not appear any more “turned off” of politics than older Canadians.  Rather, Canadian youth seem largely “tuned out” of the political process.  They lack the interest, attention, motivation, knowledge, and other resources necessary for meaningful political engagement.   

Critics may attribute this failure to engage to sheer laziness or apathy, but our research suggests otherwise.  At a much deeper level, the voting behaviour of Canadian youth appears grounded in a very different set of democratic values and expectations.  In particular, would-be electors in their late-teens and early twenties are missing the sense of democratic obligation that older Canadians possess.   While many youth consider voting to be a civic “duty”, very few reported “feeling guilty” if they failed to cast a ballot.  In the absence of this sense of democratic responsibility, younger members of the electorate lack a key motivator turnout at the polls. 

The question is, “why”?

The most convincing explanation suggests that youth have experienced a much higher level of ‘democratic security’ than older Canadians.  By contrast, the fact that attitudes of baby-boomers and their elders reveal a much strong sense of duty and obligation may be due to the scarring effects of the Second World War and Cold War.  A certain democratic Zeitgeist surrounded each conflict and its immediate aftermath.  When compared to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, the voting rights enjoyed by Canadian citizens appeared to be cherished luxuries.

In the absence of any comparable threat to their democratic rights, those Canadians born after 1980 seem to take their democratic security for granted.  Considering the fact that Canada’s youth have spent their entire lives under the protection of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), many of them may treat their ‘right to vote’ as a secure entitlement, rather than the privilege perceived by their parents and grandparents. 

From this perspective, today’s youth appear to approach politics from an entirely different perspective than their elders.  Their high levels of optimism and satisfaction, in this sense, may reflect a different set of democratic standards and values.  Youth may demand less of government, and demand less of themselves in terms of formal politics.  Thus, what appears to be a higher level of democratic contentment among youth may be attributed, at least in part, to lowered expectations. 

This makes sense, considering that today’s youngest generation of voters grew up in a tumultuous period in Canadian political history.  Those under the age of 30 were raised during the contentious period of Constitutional development, for instance, stretching from Patriation in the late 1970s to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown rounds of constitutional amendment.  Many of them also witnessed two referenda on the separation of Quebec, in 1980 and 1995, each of which exposed the raw nerve of nationalism and the seemingly insolvable question of biculturalism in Canada.  Throughout the period, media attention to politics was decidedly negative.

The democratic value shift is attributable to more than crisis points, however.  If their elders were reared in an age where the welfare state was consistently revered and expanded, youth have experienced precisely the opposite in the era of neo-liberalism.  Whereas seniors and baby boomers were raised to demand more of government, the cumulative effect of over a decade of retrenchment and protracted restraint has encouraged youth to expect much less from the formal political process.  In this way, the legacy of neo-liberal leaders – of all political parties – may lie less in their structural reforms to the welfare state, and more in their restructuring of people’s expectations of government.  Moreover, in an era of post-materialism, when Canadians of all ages are beginning to focus more on quality of life as opposed to standard of living issues, youth may feel the least interest in engaging government to fulfill their personal goals.    

Thus, democratic contentment may have as much to do with lowered expectations of politics as any other factor.  Youth may expect less from government, and be satisfied with less than their elders appear willing to accept.  All of this, in turn, may have led to a lower sense of duty and obligation toward the formal political process.

The consequences of this change have serious implications for how the issue of low youth turnout should be addressed.  While a voter education campaign focused on the importance of fulfilling one’s civic duties and responsibilities may be effective for older citizens, the effect is likely to be much less successful in encouraging voter turnout among youth.  The same goes for advocates of making elections more accessible, through initiatives like online voting.  If youth have little interest or see little reason to vote, they won’t turnout regardless of how easy the process becomes.

Rather than improving access or invoking the rhetoric of democratic obligation, more effective messages may focus on a sense of group identity, of equating the vote with the expression of voice, and of making a difference on policy matters.   For recognizing this, we applaud the efforts of elections authorities like Elections Manitoba, whose “Your Power to Choose” initiative is breaking new ground.

To continue the discussion on youth involvement in Canadian elections, U2011 is proudly hosting a Café Politique at Windsor Park Collegiate on May 4, 2011.   Dr. Henry Milner, Mary Skanderbeg (Elections Manitoba), and Carly Welham (MB4Youth Advisory Council) will visit with high school students to shed light on why Generation-Y appears so disengaged from democracy.  The event is open to Windsor Park Collegiate students, and will be webcast on the U2011 website shortly thereafter.

In the meantime, do you have an idea of how to boost youth turnout ?  We’d love to hear from you!   Visit our new Facebook group, where we invite young Manitobans to suggest why we all should “VoteAnyWay” – despite all the cynicism surrounding politics, and for any candidate or party we choose.

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