According to UN Youth, people aged 15-24 make up one-sixth of the world’s population but, in roughly one-third of countries, the eligibility for parliamentarians begins at 25 years old and only 1.6% of parliamentarians are in their twenties. Young people are largely being excluded and overlooked, both as political candidates and even as participants in political processes, giving them limited political control over their own futures.
If politics continues to be regarded as a space for older, more politically experienced individuals from particular backgrounds, young people will continue to be left systematically marginalized, and overall disengagement with politics within societies will continue to grow. Global leaders may increasingly point out the importance of youth representation in national and international fora, but the reality is their real policymaking impact still comes mainly from self-organized and informal activities.
And yet, despite this continued exclusion, huge numbers of young people are interested in political and civic engagement, and they have been driven to create new spaces. Youth networks, movements, and constituencies have emerged which provide the opportunity for younger voices to express political stances, and thus enhance the diversity and inclusivity of political debate.
From the global Extinction Rebellion protests, to the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa and the UK, there are numerous examples of the power of informal youth networks and movements pushing for change. In certain cases, such as Sudan’s political revolution in 2019, we can see how direct action by young people creates major impact, but unfortunately these successes are few as most informal initiatives remain overlooked and undervalued.
Putting youth representation into government
Creating diverse representation requires the linking of vital informal networks to formal political processes. In response to a recent Common Futures Conversations challenge, one mechanism with the potential to achieve this aim that emerged is creating dedicated youth representatives within government departments, so that qualified young people with relevant expertise are formally appointed to act as the link between government and informal youth movements.
These individuals should be hired as employees rather than volunteers and take up the responsibilities of a government employee, supported by a large network of youth-led movements and initiatives as well as a smaller, voluntary advisory board of young people.
This network then acts as a sounding board for the representative, gathering the opinions in their local communities and bringing forward crucial concerns so the youth representatives can confidently feed into policymaking processes with a clear sense of the substance of youth opinion. Alongside the network, a voluntary board of young people could provide additional support to the representatives when required to consult a broader range of youth organizations.
Both in the youth network and the board, a key priority is to involve different movements and initiatives reflecting diversities such as geographic spread, people who are marginalized due to ethnicity, gender or sexuality, educational and professional backgrounds, and other factors.
Implementing such a structure would ensure more diversity in youth representation, something which is missing in many existing youth participation and formal political structures. Representation needs to move away from only highly-educated youth living in cities to ensure more influence for those young people usually left on the sidelines.
Youth involvement in politics leads to better civic engagement overall. It improves the influence and access of young people, and supports governments becoming more inclusive and responsive to the plurality of voices they are representing. It also has the potential of encouraging millions more people to become properly engaged with politics.
In order to gain support from parliamentarians and policymakers, it is crucial to highlight these benefits and demonstrate how the support of young people helps shift the political landscape for the better. All the necessary parties already exist in most countries, so all that is required is to drive a collective initiative and for both governments and the youth to take responsibility for making it work.
As the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson said during a recent Chatham House Centenary event: ‘We need to make space for young people so we can hear their voices, their imagination, their commitment to question and speak truth to power. We need young people to feel that they are part of the solution.’
Building formal structures is a necessary step to achieving this vision, as it provides practical solutions to realize a more diverse, inclusive and meaningful participation of the youth in politics, and also creates more representative and responsive governments.