The midterms are fast approaching and, once again, voter turnout among young people is expected to lag behind other age demographics. According to Gallup, for example, 82 percent of people age 65 and up have an interest in voting, whereas only 26 percent of those under 30 do.
Young people have an image problem. Even if they turn out in the midterms, they likely still will be berated for not participating, from both left and right.
Of course, many young people are engaged in politics. Look at the leaders of grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, the climate justice movement, or March for Our Lives. And young people are running for and winning public office in impressive fashion.
But over and over again, the question keeps resurfacing: Why aren’t more young people involved in politics?
If we are seriously interested in increasing participation in politics among the generations coming of age in the 21st century, we need to alter our approach.
Taking Hopelessness Seriously
It’s time to stop castigating young people and instead try to understand and empathize with why disengaging is often their default position.
For those under 30, the earliest political memory is likely Sept. 11 and the rise of a surveillance state, one that instilled in them the idea that we are never safe and should always prepare for the worst.
Young adulthood was marked by two unsuccessful, never-ending wars and the entire financial system collapsing.
All the while, American politics became dysfunctional. The radicalization of the Republican Party brought brinksmanship and obstructionism to Washington, denigrating government and public service and leading to poorly designed public policy. Why would anyone coming of age aspire to work in this “swamp”?
And even if one wants to make a difference, student debt destroys career flexibility. Nearly 40 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 have outstanding student loans. The total student debt that Americans owe has more than doubled in just the past decade and is now over $1.5 trillion—a sum greater than total U.S. credit card debt.
On top of all of this, many young people since childhood have experienced the existential weight of whether the Earth will remain inhabitable by the time they retire. The bleak forecast about climate change alone would justify some nihilism.
More so than apathy, nihilism, or disengagement, hopelessness plagues young people. And overcoming that hopelessness requires showing empathy and making clear that our crises are being shouldered by allies of all ages. Also, we need to finally stop gaslighting young people with tales of previous generations’ tribulations and how they overcame them.
Everyone Deserves a Mentor
We also have to teach young people how to fight back.
“There’s a strange myth that has developed about the 1960s, that students turned into progressive activists spontaneously,” explains Joan Mandle, executive director of Democracy Matters, a nonpartisan organization that teaches students to organize for democracy reform. “But we all had mentors. We were taught how to organize by those who came before. Many of us even went to organizing school!”
Mandle would know. She joined the civil rights movement as an undergraduate and was an active participant in Students for a Democratic Society and later in the emerging women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s.
Participating in politics is difficult and often scary. Most of us don’t wake up and become political organizers. In fact, even after becoming politically aware, it’s not immediately clear how to actually engage in our complex political system.
Many people don’t know how to vote or research the issues and are ashamed to ask for help.
We need people in older generations to be mentors, to guide political newcomers through the process of becoming involved.
Mandle was my mentor. When I first started organizing at Vassar College, we would talk once a week to go over successes and failures and to discuss strategy. She gave me the space to be creative but also kept me focused. Her mentorship gave me the confidence to tackle the previously unknown world of political action.
Many people don’t know how to vote or research the issues and are ashamed to ask for help. And that’s understandable because it is taboo to admit as much, and civic education is hardly robust anymore.
Today, one of the most common forms of political engagement on college campuses is through College Democrats or College Republicans organizations. Yet, more often than not, these undergraduate clubs only serve as networking opportunities for like-minded individuals. Little political action is involved.
Moreover, as Mandle explains, community volunteer work has been favored over political engagement by high schools, colleges, educational and religious institutions. “There are many avenues and organizations for young people to ‘help others.’ But involvement in political issues or elections is, if not actively discouraged, not promoted by these same institutions. As a result, in building their resumes and looking for what are seen as ‘legitimate’ volunteer activities, many young people shy away from politics.”
Instead of shaming young folks for not knowing where to get stamps, why not help them learn?
It’s time to ask: Why aren’t more adults willing to be mentors?
Shifting attitudes are no substitute, of course, for laws that make political participation easier—such as strong civic education, automatic and same-day voter registration, and lowering the voting age. But mentoring is a big step everyone can take immediately to help end critical barriers to youth participation once and for all.
Adam Eichen is a Democracy Fellow at the Small Planet Institute. He is co-author of “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.” He serves on the board of Democracy Matters.