The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One reason young people inspired a global anti-climate-change movement? They lost trust in politicians.

People wear masks of President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they take part in the Global Climate Strike in Berlin on Friday. The sign on the right reads: "Mother [Merkel] has blown it. ... Now the youth have to do it." (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
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Only a decade ago, the seeming lack of youth participation in politics and their plummeting turnout in elections led some to believe that young people no longer cared about politics.

This year’s climate protests around the world — largely driven by young people and rallied by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — have not only suggested the opposite, but also revealed a trend that should worry politicians: Young voters appear not to be fed up with political issues, but with them.

A growing amount of research from around the world suggests that young voters in democracies are increasingly frustrated with political processes, which they feel have failed to address their concerns, most notably climate change.

“I have the feeling that politicians are often just [focusing on] the next vote,” said 25-year-old student Jakob Lochner, who was attending the climate change protests in Berlin on Friday.

The commitment of political parties to act remains insufficient, but mass turnout at protests could change that, he hopes. “If you look around, there are so many people on the street; there is kind of a social tipping point,” he said, as thousands rallied around him in the center of the German capital.

In Australia, where more than 100,000 rallied in Melbourne on Friday, the impact of inaction on climate change and environmental degradation has made young people lose “faith in our leaders and decision-makers,” according to a UNICEF report this year, based on a number of surveys. Researchers examining the same phenomenon in Europe have come to similar conclusions. Almost half of all young European respondents said in a recent survey that they had no trust at all in politics.

Thousands took to the streets of Melbourne and Brisbane to participate in a global strike Sept. 20 urging world leaders to adopt measures on climate change. (Video: Reuters)

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. In a separate survey, about two-thirds of British 18-year-olds said in 2012 that parties did not care about young voters’ concerns.

What is new, however, is that young people have become vocal about their priorities to an extent that millennials — the generation born in the 1980s and ’90s — never were.

“The generation that grew up before 2000 was shaken, almost traumatized, by the financial crisis, 9/11 and other incidents. As a result, they focused on ensuring their own social survival and to not fall behind. They rarely became politically active,” said Klaus Hurrelmann, a researcher focusing on youth issues at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance.

“Now, young people in most parts of Europe are encountering very different conditions, including excellent career prospects and largely a lack of existential fears, which is liberating to them,” Hurrelmann said in an analysis that mostly applies to Europe’s north, which has escaped Southern Europe’s continuously high unemployment.

Economic security “has stimulated their ability to think about the bigger problems affecting the world and their societies,” he said.

In Europe, combating climate change is now the top priority among younger people, after pushing aside a prior focus on economic issues. In the United States, demands for more gun control and climate action are gaining momentum among teenagers, too.

In some cases, this has led to growing participation in established political processes. During the U.S. midterm elections last year, for instance, college student turnout more than doubled in comparison with 2014, growing from 19 percent to 40 percent.

“We need to start listening to a constituency that has not been heard very much in the past and that is now making their voices heard,” Nancy Thomas, director of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, told The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner.

Young-voter turnout also increased significantly during European elections this year, rising from 28 percent to 42 percent. But relatively few of those young people said in a survey by the European Parliament that they voted because “they felt they could change things by voting.” Instead, most considered it to be their “civic duty” — probably a result of surging populism in parts of Europe, which has threatened European Union values that many long took for granted.

Overall, the persistent gap between the share of young people who say they care about politics and those who vote in elections reflects a sentiment among many that in aging societies, “they cannot influence things too much” if they focus on elections alone, said Hurrelmann. “They’re pragmatic."

Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.

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