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Impact case study

Young People, Voting and Political Engagement

Unit(s) of assessment: Social Work and Social Policy

School: School of Social Sciences


The Young People, Voting and Political Engagement is linked to the Citizenship, Democracy and Transformation research group. This particular project has its roots in two projects commissioned by Nottinghamshire County Council (1998 and 1999), and then developed into two major nationwide projects funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (2002 and 2011).

The 2011 project was subject to a major evaluation in terms of impact by the ESRC in 2013 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". Henn (with Sharpe, University of East London) was awarded further funding by the ESRC to co-create with young people e-tools to aid and support UK youth in making decisions and also influence the national conversation in the run up to the 2016 UK referendum (awarded 2016) and then the 2017 General Election and the UK-EU Brexit negotiations (awarded 2017).

This ongoing research is led by Professor Matt Henn. It examines young people's engagement with and participation in democratic politics in Britain.  In particular, it considers the options and methods that might be deployed to strengthen young people’s connection with formal democratic politics and institutions.

Research background

Since the turn of the new Millennium, the relationship between young people and UK democracy has become increasingly complex and fragile.  In particular, Government austerity policies first introduced in 2010 placed a disproportionate burden on young people who have arguably suffered more than any other social grouping from deepening spending cuts in welfare and public services (Birch, Lodge and Gottfried 2013).  Partly as a consequence of this, evidence suggests that UK youth perceive the political class to have failed to champion the interests of their particular generation, and this has left today’s young people feeling especially ignored and marginalised (Sloam 2014; Hansard Society 2016).  This has exposed a widening gap in aspirations between the generations which has also translated into continued youth abstention from formal electoral politics (Henn and Oldfield, 2016).

The on-going research is important because low-level formal engagement presents serious health and wellbeing challenges for young people and the democratic system. Firstly, the state could lose legitimacy through non-participation, with profound consequences for the health and wellbeing of society, especially as disengaged youth replace older more-engaged generations (Whiteley 2012; Henn et al 2017). Secondly, politicians tend to prioritise the issue-concerns of more democratically-participative (older) groups to the detriment of less-participative groups including young people, adversely impacting young people’s future wellbeing (Birch et al 2013). This may result in their on-going alienation from formal democratic processes, compound existing social and economic inequalities, contributing to a complex decline in their general political-social-economic health and wellbeing.

This project works with key stake-holders to consider how young people can feel enabled and empowered to understand, speak out and influence UK democracy during and after Brexit.


Henn has delivered invited presentations of the research to events with audiences of practitioners who have a specific and scientific interest in the project. These include:

  • Local Area Research and Intelligence Association (Keynote lecture, April 2014). The participants were local authority representatives engaged in election matters
  • Invited presentation to ‘The Participation of Young People in British Democracy’ workshop, Royal Holloway (March, 2013). The audience included practitioners from several citizenship agencies
  • Institute of Public Policy Research North - invited presentations in Newcastle (February 2013) and Manchester (June 2013)
  • Electoral Commission (invited lecture, June 2013)
  • The project contributed expert-evidence for shaping BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat’s “youth vs politics” voter apathy week (July 2012).  The impact enriched understanding and awareness of young citizens and politicians, and informed the practice of the latter in engaging with future youth generations.
  • Invited presentation to a training event for youth activists (Labour Party Annual Conference, 2011)

Specifically, the project has been made use of by the following practitioner-users in their own research work and practice:

  1. Henn, M. and Nottingham Civic Exchange, 2017. Written evidence (CCE0188) given at the House of Lords Citizenship and Civic Engagement Committee. Available at:
  2. Institute of Ideas “Debating Matters” EU Referendum public debate (
  3. EuroChild (who are the premier child and youth knowledge transfer agency in Europe) to disseminate information about the 2016 UK Referendum on EU membership to young people and youth advocacy groups across the EU.
  4. British Youth Council ([BYC] who are the principal youth knowledge transfer organisation in the UK) to increasing the numbers of young people registering to vote at the 2016 EU Referendum via a dedicated voter registration link in our ESRC funded information dissemination e-tool.
  5. Mansfield, C., 2013. Great Expectations: The next step for a new generation. London: New Local Government Network (
  6. Berry, C. 2012. The rise of gerontocracy? Addressing the intergenerational democratic deficit. London: Intergenerational Foundation (
  7. Puffett, N., 2011. Vast majority of young people distrust politicians. London: Children & Young People Now (
  8. Bartlett, J., Bennett, S., Birnie, R. and Wibberley, S., 2013. Virtually members: The Facebook and Twitter followers of UK political parties. London: DEMOS (
  9. Pracilio, A. Compulsory voting – Does it keep the community at large more connected? Have First World countries forgotten the value of the vote? Report for Hon. Alyssa Hayden MLC Member of the Parliament of Western Australia ($file/5429.pdf).
  10. Article for the professional journal, “Teaching Citizenship” which helped to inform practitioners of the impact of citizenship classes in schools (

Related staff


  • Pontes, A.I., Henn, and M., Griffiths, M.D. (2018) ‘Young people’s perceptions about what it means to be politically engaged: A qualitative focus group study’, Societies, Vol. 8(1), 17 doi:10.3390/soc8010017.
  • Henn, M., Oldfield, B. and Hart, J. (2017) ‘Postmaterialism and young people’s political participation in a time of austerity’, British Journal of Sociology, advanced online access doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12309.
  • Pontes, A.I., Henn, and M., Griffiths, M.D. (2017) ‘Youth political (dis)engagement and the need for citizenship education: incentivizing young people’s civic and political participation through the curriculum’, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, advanced online access doi: 10.1177/1746197917734542.
  • Henn, M. and Oldfield, B. (2016) ‘Cajoling or coercing: would electoral engineering solve the young citizen-state disconnect?’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 19 (9), pp.1259-1280. doi: 10.1080/13676261.2016.1154935.
  • Henn, M. and Foard, N. (2014) ‘Will compulsory voting fix the disconnect between young people and the political process?’, in A. Mycock and J. Tonge (eds) Beyond the Youth Citizenship Commission: Young People and Politics, Political Studies Association, pp.18-22. ISBN 978-0-9569661-4-8
  • Henn, M. and Foard, N. (2014) ‘Social differentiation in young people’s political participation: The impact of social and educational factors on youth political engagement in Britain’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 17 (3), pp.360-380. doi:10.1080/13676261.2013.830704
  • Henn, M. and Foard, N. (2012) ‘Back on the agenda and off the curriculum? Citizenship education and young people’s political engagement’, Teaching Citizenship, Issue 32, pp. 32-35, February 23. ISSN 1474-9335.