Over the last decade, policy makers have become increasingly concerned that young people are turning their backs on British democracy. This unease has centred primarily on the fact that only 44% of young people voted in 2010. Based on a national survey of 1,025 young people and 14 focus groups, we examine reasons for this generation's apparent rejection of formal political life. We also consider the impact of gender, ethnicity, educational career and social class in shaping their views.
The Young People and Politics project has been awarded funding by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It has recently been subject to a major evaluation by the ESRC, which concluded that, "(the) research is of strong international quality and strong impact within its field, with publications in leading journals or other academic outlets; and high quality research with evidence of substantial impact on policy and practice".
The research project examines young people's attitudes towards politics in Britain, and considers the widely-held view that today's generation of youth is increasingly reluctant to play a role in political life and is dismissive of the formal political process and democratic institutions. This viewpoint is not new, and the issue of youth disengagement has vexed politicians and policy-makers over the course of the past decade. Indeed, there has been growing anxiety within government circles that, despite attempts to reform the political system and make it easier to access by citizens, the British public – and young people in particular – remain broadly disaffected from politics.
Our study follows on from a national survey completed by one of the researchers in 2002 that investigated the attitudes towards politics held by British 18-year-olds. That earlier study identified a significant degree of disengagement among young people, of whom only 39% voted at the 2001 General Election. The current study focuses upon a new generation of young people a decade later, and examines whether and to what extent the views and political orientations of today's 18-year-olds differ to or mirror those expressed by the young people that we researched in 2002.
Specifically, we consider the following key issues:
- Young people's levels of interest in, and understanding of, politics and elections
- Youth attitudes towards democracy in Britain
- The degree of faith that young people have in political parties and politicians
- The likelihood that young people will take part in differing political activities in the future, including voting at elections
- What the political parties need to do if they are to engage young people in the future.
The national survey
We conducted a national online survey of 1,025 attainers – 18-year-olds for whom the UK General Election of 2010 offered the first opportunity to vote in any contest (including any previous local or European elections). The representative national sample of young people from across England, Scotland and Wales was drawn from an online access panel.*
Prior to analysis, the data were weighted to accurately reflect population estimates of gender, ethnicity and region. Data collection took place from 20 April to 4 May 2011, thereby ensuring that respondents had not yet had the opportunity to vote in the Alternative Vote referendum of 5 May 2011.
The survey was designed to measure attitudes towards politics, politicians and democracy, and behaviours including participation in a variety of formal and informal political activities. By collecting data on a variety of socio-demographic characteristics we were able to analyse these attitudes and behaviours against young people from a variety of different groups.
In addition to the online survey, we conducted 14 online focus groups during November 2011, with 86 attainers who did not vote at the 2010 General Election. The purpose of these focus groups was to examine what influenced the participants' decisions to self-exclude from the election, and more generally to uncover some of the deeper perceptions and meanings that the young people in the survey attached to politics and political activity.
Through this research, we were able to gain a deeper insight into young people's views and opinions than was possible through the survey alone. For example, while some survey respondents indicated that they strongly disagreed with the statement that "The Government generally treats young people fairly", the reasons behind such feelings could only be fully explored within the more detailed discussions of the focus groups. In this respect the focus groups provided an opportunity to contextualise the data gained from the survey, and supplement that data in very important ways.
The focus groups also allowed the participants to express themselves in their own words. This is important, given that the young people in our focus groups were encouraged to communicate to us their meaning of 'politics', rather than respond to conventional definitions.
We have worked with a number of groups in the development of this project, including:
Our findings reveal that, when it comes to "Politics", today's generation of young people are not as apathetic as conventional wisdom would have us believe. Instead a picture is emerging of a British youth keen to play a more active role in the political process, but who are turned off by politicians and the political parties. Our study also indicates that there is no uniform youth orientation to politics; social class and educational history both appear to have a crucial bearing on political engagement, while views also differ according to ethnicity and, to a lesser extent, gender.
Our findings have been disseminated across a variety of outputs, listed below.
Young people, power and politics in Britain. Journal article for Sociological Review, forthcoming 2014
Social differentiation in young people's political participation . Journal article for Journal of Youth Studies, forthcoming 2014
Young People, political participation and trust in Britain . Journal article for Parliamentary Affairs, 2012, 65 , pp. 47-67
Back on the agenda and off the curriculum? Citizenship education and young people's political engagement. Journal article for Teaching Citizenship: Professional journal for the Association of Citizenship Teaching, 2012,  pp. 32-5
Politicians fail to win young people's vote. Article for ESRC - Society Now: ESRC Research Making an Impact, Spring Issue 15, 2013, Swindon: Economic and Social Research Council, p.4
A lost generation? Article for N. Stevens [ed] Britain in 2013: Annual Magazine of the Economic and Social Research Council, 2013, Swindon: Economic and Social Research Council, p.64
Chasing the teen vote. Article for Economic and Social Research Council, 2013
Why don't young people vote, and what does it matter anyway? Lecture presented to the IPPR North [Institute for Public Policy Research], Manchester, 27 June 2013
Disconnected youth? Workshop paper presented to the Political Participation of Young People, Network: Youth and Participation Project, Istanbul Bilgi University, 21-22 June 2013
Why don't young people vote and what can we do about it? Lecture presented to the Electoral Commission, London, 4 June 2013)
Why don't young people vote, and what does it matter anyway? Lecture presented to the Ideas on the 3rd Floor, IPPR North (Institute for Public Policy Research), Newcastle, 19 March 2013
Disconnected youth? Workshop paper presented to the workshop 'Crisis and Transition: The Participation of Young People in British Democracy' Royal Holloway [University of London], 8 March 2013
Social differentiation in young people's political participation. Conference paper presented to the Alternative Futures Conference, Nottingham Trent University, 13 February 2013
The political engagement of young people in Britain. Conference paper presented to the Fundamental Rights and Political Participation, Granollers [Barcelona], organised by the Autonomous University of Barcelona, 23 April 2012
But will they vote?: An examination of young people's political engagement in Britain. Conference Paper presented to the 83rd Southern Political Science Association annual conference, New Orleans, LA, 12-14 January 2012)
Young people and politics in Britain: How do young people participate in politics and what can be done to strengthen their political connection? Conference paper presented to the Pacific Northwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting 2011, Seattle, WA. 13 - 15 October, 2011
Young People and Politics in Britain. Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Labour Party, BT Convention Centre and Echo Arena in Liverpool, 28 September 2011
Young people, political participation and trust in Britain . Conference paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties specialist group [Political Studies Association], University of Exeter, 9-11 September 2011
Young people and politics in Britain today. Invited lecture for the Michigan State University 'Political Science Summer Programme' Contemporary Political Activity in Britain, Regent's College, London, 21 July 2011
Politics.co.uk, 15 September 2011
First-time voters are interested in politics but less than one in five have a positive view of political parties, according to new research. A poll of young people by Nottingham Trent University academics found two-thirds viewed past and present governments as dishonest and untrustworthy. Eighty-one per cent had a negative view of political parties and MPs, but this did not reflect a broader disengagement with politics. Sixty-three per cent said they were interested in political matters and would consider voting in future general elections.
Children and Young People Now, 15 September 2011
Young People and Politics in Britain, a study conducted by Professor Matt Henn and Nick Foard, aimed to investigate why less than half of young people (44%) voted in last year's general election. It involved surveying 18-year-olds who had been eligible to vote for the first time. The study revealed that just 17% of participants felt positively about political parties and MPs, while the vast majority (81%) held a negative view.
The Guardian, 19 November 2011.
New research from Nottingham Trent University suggests that it's politicians themselves who are the problem. According to the study, fewer than one in five young people have a positive view of political parties and two-thirds see past and present governments as dishonest. Professor Matt Henn, who led the research, says that young people have a "pretty sophisticated set of views on political issues", with higher education and youth employment topping their list of concerns. "What our survey reveals very clearly is there's support among young people for the general notion of democracy but a deep unhappiness and distrust of politicians," he says. "Young people don't feel their concerns are being adequately represented and championed by the political parties. They feel that the parties are treating them cynically as voting fodder".
By Dave Howard, Newsbeat politics reporter, BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – 9 July 2012.
Newsbeat reports on the latest research from Professor Matt Henn and Nick Foard at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), indicating that it is politicians themselves that turn younger people off politics. NTU's findings formed the basis of much of the rest of our week. We also meet Michael, Nicola and Kae for the first time. They are Newsbeat's 'listener panel' of three angry young voters who all told us via social networks that they are angry about politicians' behaviour. An audio version of this article is available on Audioboo.
By Rick Kelsey, Newsbeat politics reporter, BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – 10 July 2012.
Newsbeat discusses the long-running arguments for and against reducing the voting age to 16, with Rhammel Afflick from the British Youth Council, and a group of sixth formers from Essex. An audio version of this article is available on Audioboo.
By Dave Howard, Newsbeat politics reporter, BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – 12 July 2012.
Research from Nottingham Trent University suggests almost two thirds of 18-year-olds have little trust in politicians. Three quarters of those surveyed also said political parties didn't keep promises once they were elected.
By Dave Howard, Newsbeat politics reporter, BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – 13 July 2012.
Newsbeat's listener panel meet Commons Speaker John Bercow. He agrees with them that it's "a pity" MPs don't behave better in Parliament. There is also a robust exchange about politicians setting a bad example, ie. by fiddling their expenses, drinking to excess and brawling. An audio version of this article is available on Audioboo.
By Dave Howard, Newsbeat politics reporter, BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – 12 July 2012.
Newsbeat's three listeners go head-to-head with prominent MPs from each of the three main parties at Westminster – Louise Mensch from the Conservatives, Labour's Shadow Children's Secretary Lisa Nandy, and Lib Dem President Tim Farron. An audio version of this article is available on Audioboo.