Young People Around The World Are Calling Bullshit On Politics

And it's about time.

young people

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Is it finally happening? Could the US be about to get its act together and make meaningful gun reform? While there’s still a long way to go on that front, it’s clear who can take the credit if it does happen. Young people, failed by old politics, have had enough.

After the gun massacre that claimed the lives of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month, survivors and their allies are demanding change with the #NeverAgain movement.

Student Emma Gonzalez said in a ripping speech that “the people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call BS”.

The future is theirs and they are taking it into their own hands.

It comes at a critical point in democracies worldwide. As we’ve heard over and over and over again, trust in our democracies has never been so low and people are looking for alternatives. Brexit, Trump, “conceptual penises”, you know how it goes.

But what if the answer is not about an alternative to democracy, but instead a strengthening of our existing democracies to be more representative?

Old People Still Run The World

In the US, 2016 saw millennials outnumber baby boomers as the country’s most numerous generation for the first time.

2016 also saw power entrenched in the the hands of the boomers during the presidential election, with Donald Trump becoming the oldest elected president in history. Of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives, only five were aged under 35. A whopping 312 were 52 or older at the time.

It doesn’t help that people are only eligible to enter Congress at the age of 25. Students campaigning for gun reform will have to wait almost a decade if they want to enter federal politics. Emma Gonzalez joked that she is already president of her school’s gay-straight alliance.

Photo by Barry Stock via Flickr

In Australia, the most high-profile reform of the current government is no doubt marriage equality, however reluctantly it was implemented.

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the third oldest person to become PM ever, announced the unconventional postal survey, young people rose to the challenge.

Talking to people outside a supermarket just after the survey was announced, one thing stood out. Enthusiastic teenagers would earnestly express their support but bemoan that they couldn’t vote. They said they would make sure their parents voted ‘yes’. After reports those as young as 16 might be allowed to participate, many said they had registered. Just in case.

The results reflected this enthusiasm. Despite a voting system that used an outdated mode of communication that many young people had rarely used, if ever, there was a surge of surveys returned by 18 and 19 year olds, with 78 percent managing to find one of those vintage red boxes to post their form.

Through the postal survey, the Coalition government uncovered something it has long been at pains to deny — young Australians are politically engaged and ready for change.

But representation in our democracy fails to reflect that.

Australian Millennials Actually Give A Shit

While those aged between 15 and 34 made up 28 percent of the population in 2016, only 20.8 percent of Australians were aged between 55 and 74.

Yet going by information from the Australian Parliament House website, out of the 224 senators and members (two are missing from dual citizenship woes), only three are aged 34 or under — Liberals Chris Crewther and Senator James Paterson, and newly appointed Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John.

These three compare to the 73 who were born in 1961 or before. Around one in three Australian federal politicians are boomers, despite being just one in five Australians.

And you have older politicians giving young people advice like “the starting point for first home buyers is to get a good job that pays good money”. Insert the emoji of your choice here.

Since the success of marriage equality, politics has been dominated by the scandals and hypocrisy of older politicians. When politicians failed to properly fill in a form about citizenship, it was quickly pointed out that young people are targeted by Centrelink for not filling in much more complicated forms. The PM claimed the woman who was living with his then-Deputy and was carrying his baby was not a ‘partner’. Centrelink would say otherwise, said young people. All this when we know the government considered cutting all Centrelink payments for anyone under 30.

The Coalition government doesn’t even try to engage with young people, with Tony Abbott dumping the ‘youth’ portfolio when he first got in office.

No wonder that young Australians have lost trust with the people who are supposed to represent them. Instead, they are expressing their politics in other ways. Young Australians are more likely than older people to sign a petition, boycott products, attend a demonstration, participate in political activities over the internet and visit a political website.

They are taking things into their own hands.

How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?

This isn’t just a western phenomenon.

Coming up to Malaysia’s 14th general election, the same party has been in power for over 60 years.

The battle is between the current PM, Najib Razak, who has been caught up in a corruption scandal worth billions of dollars, and former PM Mahathir Mohamad, who has put his hand up again at the ripe old age of 92. Yes, Ninety-two.

My grandpa is younger than him and we don’t let him near the keys to the car. Mahathir wants the keys to the country.

Najib is a comparatively sprightly 64 but has been in Parliament for over 40 years, taking over his dad’s seat, who was also PM. The challenge for Mahathir, as put by one analyst, is “to woo people in their 20s and 30s, the country’s dominant — and mostly undecided — vote block”.

To make an elderly man look potent, his advisers have set up social media accounts that have included footage of him driving a car at 110 km an hour and watching the latest Star Wars film. It’s the classic “how do you do, fellow kids” charade that so many older politicians try out. Young people can see right through it.

When it comes to the represention of young people, Malaysia is doing even worse than the US or Australia. There are no federal politicians under 35, and only four born in 1980 or later. And Malaysians can only begin to vote when they are 21, leaving them with little incentive to engage with traditional politics.

Disenchanted by the nonsense they’ve been hearing from old politicians, young Malaysians too are turning to other forms of activism, including campaigning against government programs, volunteering for not-for-profits or just to boycotting the election altogether.

It’s a familiar pattern.

Putting Young People In Power

But we’re seeing the possibilities available when young people are elected to positions of power, like the breath of fresh air Jacinda Ardern has brought to New Zealand politics.

Our Kiwi friends have shown as there is a very democratic solution to restore trust in politics – give young people more of a say in how they are governed and they will respond in kind.

Unless we reinvigorate our representative democracies, young people will continue to be disenchanted by old politics. Whether it is lowering the age people can enter parliament, lowering the voting age, or making sure more there are more young people in positions of power, we must take action.

In Australia, we can start by reinstating a minister for youth. After that, we can give people under 18 the choice to vote in elections. If they want to have a say, they should not have to convince their parents to speak for them.

We must also get over our phobia of electing young people to positions of power. They might not have lived long enough to have developed the networks, habits and biases of their parents and grandparents, but perhaps that is exactly what we need to call BS on the current state of politics.


Sam Drummond is a lawyer and former Greens adviser currently in Malaysia.

Feature image via Vince Reinhart / Flickr