Youth apathy – it’s a stereotype favoured by the British media and politicians alike. A quick Google search of the term returns no less than 847,000 results, including headlines that read “Apathetic and Disaffected: The Generation Who May Never Vote”, while another asks “Has Our Generation Lost Faith?” Only 43% of people aged 18-24 voted in May’s election, the lowest turnout of any age group, but with young people increasingly at the forefront of social media and grassroots activism, are voting statistics really the fairest way to determine the enthusiasm of British youth?
Since the general election, anti-austerity marches have lined the streets of many cities up and down the country, from Leeds to Liverpool to London. Among the protestors were hundreds of students who will arguably be some of the hardest hit by new Conservative Party measures. Regardless of whether these people voted or not, their involvement in these events undoubtedly demonstrated their willingness to engage with politics, be it directly or indirectly.
One of the most frustrating and unfortunate things that young people have to deal with as they engage with the world of politics is the constant backlash from other voters telling them they’re too young to understand how politics works. It seems that young people just can’t win; first they’re stereotyped as apathetic, yet when they do engage in politics their views are rendered irrelevant.
In the lead up to the General Election, Abby Tomlinson came to prominence as the leader of the “Milifandom”, something she describes as a “movement against the distorted media portrayals of Ed Miliband”. At 17, she isn’t currently eligible to vote, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing about politics day in day out, whether it be on her Twitter (@twcuddleston), or for newspapers and websites such as the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. Having met Abby at one of the Labour hustings in July, it’s not hard to see that she’s someone who knows what she’s talking about. She’s had the opportunity to interview all of the Labour leadership and deputy leadership candidates, and she’s appeared on BBC and Sky News alongside the likes of political writer and war veteran Harry Leslie Smith. Yet she’s still experienced an ardent amount of online abuse, most of which uses her age as the main insulting factor. One tweet reads: “who cares what @twcuddleston says? She isn’t even 18 yet. Talk to her about One Direction and alcopops”, another: “since when did the political opinion of little girls matter enough to air on the news?”
What is conveniently forgotten amid such backlash is the numerous things that young people can legally do before they’re 18. At 16 years old, teenagers can legally have sex, join the army, leave home, and have a full-time job. For those who choose to exercise these new rights, they can be huge steps; steps that arguably put teenagers on the path towards adulthood. Yet in the world of politics, they’re still seen, and spoken to, as children who have no experience of the real world.
The aforementioned Conservative austerity measures won’t necessarily have the heaviest impact on those who currently sit in the 18-24 age bracket. Instead, measures such as the reform of maintenance grants, and cuts to housing benefits will have a drastic impact on those who weren’t even able to defend their voice in May’s General Election. There is no better case for reducing the voting age to 16 than knowing that young people will finally get to have a say on the matters that affect them the most.
The media, politicians, and what seems to be just about everyone on social media has got it wrong about young people. They do care. Some have no faith in a political system that speaks to them, not for them. Some are too young to be allowed to express their opinion. Some are simply too afraid to speak out in a world that constantly tells them that their opinions are irrelevant. But make no mistake about it, whether it be by campaigning on the streets or debating on social media, young people are going to stop at nothing to ensure that their voices will be heard.