If there is one stereotype that Gen Z has to face, it is their activistic nature. The similarities with the younger generation in the 80s seem to be appearing more and more. Especially, since the threat of a nuclear war is appearing again. We seem to be a somewhat doomed generation that actively needs to go to the streets to fix their problems. Today, a climate crisis, increasing inequality, and housing problems are part of these protests, however, young people are often not the biggest voting group. Thus, the question stands, why aren’t young people voting?
How Many Young People Vote?
After this months’ local elections in The Netherlands, I got reminded by the news and my Twitter feed that many young people did not vote. Even though these elections were local, it seems to be a problem with every election that the voter turnout of the youth is below average. The last big elections in The Netherlands were last year, in 2021. 80% of Dutch citizens aged 18 to 24 voted. A lot more than the elections in 2017, where only 67% of the people in this age group showed up to vote. An increase sure, but still less than the average voter turnout.
So, how big is this problem? In the United States of America, elections we often follow closely, they have been dealing with a low voter turnout for young people for quite a while now too. Are there countries where young people vote as much as older people do?
In 2020, The New York Times stated that young people don’t outvote elder people anywhere in the world. They did find out that in the countries where the general voting turnout is higher, more young people get themselves to the ballot boxes too. So, countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and The Netherlands, therefore, have a relatively higher voter turnout when it comes to young people.
But even though there are some differences between countries, young people vote less than elder people anywhere in the world. So then, why aren’t young people voting as much? Especially, if they are so involved in the current challenges, why are they staying away from elections?
Reasons to Skip Voting
There are generally three broad themes in political science research that help explain the gap for young voters.
Habit formation. Voting is a habit formed over time, and one possible reason young people do it less frequently is they have had fewer opportunities to form and reinforce the habit.
Opportunity cost. Voting for the first or second time may also be harder than voting in subsequent elections. There is a direct opportunity cost for young adults, who may have less flexible employment schedules or less financial cushion to take time off to vote. Or who may be in temporary housing situations where they lack deep community ties. There is also an indirect opportunity cost to learning the process of voting, like finding a polling place and learning about the candidates.
Alternative participation. Youth turnout data may be less dispiriting when viewed in the context of participation in other forms of political action. Lower election turnout in general over time has been accompanied by a rise in other forms of citizen activism, such as mass protests, occupy movements, and increased use of social media as a new platform of political engagement.
Is the Politically Active Frame a Myth?
So, with this information, can we say the stereotype of a politically active Gen Z is a myth? Have the media been covering a generation in the wrong light? In my opinion, no. It is true that not every young person nowadays is politically active, or feels the need to show up to a protest or let their ballot be counted in an election. But generally speaking, this generation is participating in politics more often than we’d think. They may not be there yet, but in several countries, the voter turnout of young people has increased a lot. When you combine this information with the fact that young people do not only get politically involved by voting, but they find other ways, it becomes clear that one number cannot describe how politically active a generation is. We also can’t overlook the fact that young people often vote for other parties than elderly people. In The Netherlands, young people often vote for either very progressive or very conservative parties. This means that the people who do vote are also often more politically involved.
Is Not Voting Problematic?
Then, if this generation is still activistic at heart, is it a problem that they don’t vote as much as older people? Is finding other ways to participate, such as social media activism and protesting enough?
It can be since the elected people have the most say in the political future. If you don’t vote and your voice doesn’t get heard by policymakers, the chances that you are disappointed about future decisions are higher.
It is important that we don’t live in a world where young people are constantly left out of political decisions just because there are not enough of them voting
If young people don’t vote, it also means that they let older people decide the course of a world that they will need to live in. Since youth is already a decreasing part of the population, voting is essential to have some representation of the country’s youth in politics. It is important that we don’t live in a world where young people are constantly left out of political decisions just because there are not enough of them voting, causing them to be not as well represented in parliament.
What Can We Do to Make More Young People Vote?
As for the last elections, it is clear that when topics actively involve the life of younger people, such as the Covid-19 crisis and climate change, more youngsters will show up to elections.
Besides that, there can be some more active work delivered into convincing young people to vote, and make it easier for them. Make sure to include young people and explain why voting is so important for their future. Let them know how they can vote, and how they can learn what they find important in politics so they know who what to vote for.
Maybe by the next elections, Gen Z will surprise us by voting as much as the older generations always do. After all, with the current increasing voter turnout, it seems well enough that we are on our way.
Edited by: Pritha Ray
Cover: Tara Winsteid