On Campus

Apparently we don't care

Young people aren't voting, and therefore stuff is our fault

I’ve had this opinion column forwarded to me by a couple different folks now. The premise is an old one. Because young people are not participating in traditional democracy and party politics, whatever problems that may exist in the system are therefore our fault. I say “our” without fear of contradiction because Mr. Lawrence Martin has managed to define young as anything under 50 or so. Here’s his piece.

The young reject the political status quo, as they should, but they are too lazy to do anything about it. Most of the under-25s don’t even bother to vote. Instead of fighting for change, they wallow in their vanities and entitlements. Not much turns them on except the Idol shows, movies with smut humour and the latest hand-held instruments. Their disillusionment with the political class is understood. Their complacency isn’t. It will soon be their country. You’d think they’d want to take the reins.

Now with all due respect to Mr. Martin, and his very old view of politics, we moved past this level of analysis by the third week in my first year political science course. It’s well understood that young people are turning away from voting and traditional democracy. Hell, everyone is turning away from voting and traditional democracy. The numbers are down across the board. It’s just that younger demographics are down more than others. Maybe that just means we’re ahead of the curve.

What this column ignores are all the other means and venues through which young people express their views and their politics. Cause-based organizations draw all kinds of support from youth. Electronic communities and participation in web-based media has been transformative. Citizen journalism alone, for all its buzzishness, has given a level of voice and initiative to young people that they’ve never enjoyed before. Scratch the surface of any effective political action, from what’s going on in Iran to the mainstream but nontraditional success of Obama’s Presidential campaign, and you’ll find young people doing what no one has ever done before. Okay, so we aren’t voting in high numbers. Maybe that’s because we’ve become convinced there may well be something better than traditional party politics out there.

Anyway, I throw the topic out there for comments. But it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. The most amusing thing about the whole piece is that a man in his 60’s could write about how kids today are lazy and don’t care, imagine he’s saying something original, and fail to see the irony of his own perspective. Some of his points are valid and important but the tone he brings to the topic seems calculated to piss off the very people he claims to want to reach.

For the record, I do vote, and I’ve participated in mainstream politics for some time. I encourage everyone to do so as well. But I participate from a sense of obligation and a willingness to try every avenue – not from the belief that traditional party politics are the solution to our problems. I believe very strongly that new solutions will come from new means of participation and social organization. The kinds of engagement that are on the rise among the young may well turn out to be far more important than the votes they aren’t casting.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.