Over the past 20 years, many commentators have argued that there is a crisis in young people's civic and political engagement. This is because youth who are eligible to vote in national elections tend to do so less frequently than older generations. In addition, over the past few decades, there has been a decline in many countries in the percentage of young people who vote in national elections. These trends have been used to argue that the future of democracy is in jeopardy, because political engagement in later life is rooted in the habits developed in youth, and the youth of today will eventually become the adults of tomorrow.
I have argued elsewhere for a different reading of these trends. (1) First, very clearly, these trends have not occurred in all countries--they tend to be specific to Western democracies. In addition, there are many ways in which people can be civically and politically active. Some ways involve engaging with electoral processes such as voting, trying to persuade others to vote for a particular candidate, and working for a political party. These are conventional forms of political participation. There are also non-conventional forms of action, however, such as participation in political demonstrations, protests and marches, signing petitions, writing political articles or blogs, and liking and sharing them on social media. Other forms of engagement may be focused more directly on providing help to people in need, solving community problems or raising money for charitable causes. These forms of engagement are perhaps better termed 'civic' rather than 'political' actions because they sidestep the political arena.
While young people's commitment to conventional political participation does indeed appear to be in decline in many democracies today, research clearly demonstrates that large numbers of young people are nevertheless strongly committed to non-conventional and civic action in their respective countries. Whereas, in the past, issues of concern might have mobilized them into voting for particular candidates or writing to their elected representatives, these same issues today might be tackled instead through consumer activism, protests and demonstrations, activity on social media, charitable fundraising or voluntary work in the community.
A further feature of youth political and civic engagement today concerns the specific topics on which youth activism tends to be focused. Because of their sense of frustration and cynicism about politicians and conventional political processes, many youth instead choose to focus their energies on single issues or causes about which they have strong feelings. Issues that commonly attract their attention include global warming...