The federal election is now well underway, yet politicians are seemingly unconcerned with one demographic in particular: young people.
While the concerns and priorities of seniors and middle-class families are catered to, those of youth unemployment and student debt — the issues most immediately relevant to students at the U of T — are being ignored.
For politicians, this strategy of exclusively targeting older Canadians seems the most logical for winning elections. This is because youth (i.e. individuals aged 18–34) are statistically less likely to vote; in 2006, 47 per cent of youth voted in the Canadian federal election, and this figure dropped to 43 per cent in 2011. This is a meager turnout compared to individuals aged 35 and over, of which 70 per cent voted in 2006 and 65 per cent in 2011. In fact, the general decline in voter turnout since the 1980s has been attributed, almost entirely, to the decline of the youth vote; meanwhile, older Canadians have voted consistently over the past 35 years.
There seems to be no reasonable expectation therefore that politicians will win elections by appealing to a demographic that remains largely absent from the polls. Unfortunately, this attitude creates a vicious cycle: if youth are ignored, then they will continue to be less likely to vote, as campaigns fail to recognize their interests or their value as citizens. Indeed, a report by Samara Canada released this September has shown that “younger Canadians aren’t more politically apathetic or tuned out than their older counterparts; they’re more ignored by parties, candidates and leaders than older Canadians, which may partially explain declining voter turnout amongst youth.”
Since national issues affect all Canadians, it is also undemocratic to base decisions only on the opinions of older individuals. This is not to mention the fact that it is young people who will be left to deal with the long-term consequences of current policies.
Perhaps what is even more troubling is that voter apathy can become an entrenched habit. A 2013 Parliament of Canada study found that more young voters than ever are not participating in elections at all levels of government, and that their habits do not change once they grow out of the age bracket.
Considering that young voter turnout has consistently dropped since the 1980s, it is not unreasonable to assume that this will continue if something does not change. Eventually, this could escalate into a general disinterest in politics; faith in government and democracy itself may erode completely with future generations.
It is clear, then, that the consequences of youth disengagement set an appalling precedent for the future of politics. That being said, experience suggests that there is nothing inherent or unsolvable about youth apathy. Therefore, apathy itself is no excuse for politicians to continue to ignore youth interests.
Following the 2011 federal election, Elections Canada conducted a National Youth Survey to better understand youth disengagement. To solve this problem, the study recommended increasing both access and motivation: this includes anything from education on the political process to direct contact between youth and political leaders. Moreover, when politicians have reached out to youth, the result has been overwhelmingly positive. Examples include Barack Obama’s social media campaign in 2008, or Jack Layton’s strong youth fan base in 2011.
While youth apathy is certainly not an easy problem to solve, it is not impossible. We need to take initiative and reignite the relationship between youth and politics.
Firstly, politicians need to make youth more of a priority by targeting young people in their campaigns, and providing clear policies that will help solve their unique issues. Fortunately for leaders, this is as practical as it is democratic: not only will youth representation increase, politicians themselves will benefit from the youth votes.
We as youth also have a responsibility to participate in politics if we ever want to see things change. We must attend protests and demonstrations, join political associations, and be first in line at the polls. This will demonstrate that the opinions of young people matter and cannot be ignored.
As university students, we also benefit from an education that exposes us to a variety of issues and perspectives. As a result, we are often the leading voices for social change — and change must happen if we want to protect our democratic interests. We have the power to take action, and motivate other youth to do so as well. With election day approaching, let’s put it to good use.
Teodora Pasca is an Associate Comment Editor at The Varsity. She is a second-year student at Innis College studying criminology and ethics, society & law. Her column appears every three weeks.