Experts defend youth civic engagement

Australia’s youth are more democratically engaged than they’re given credit for by those in power and are devalued for their contributions, according to new research by Monash and Deakin universities.

Monash University Associate Professor Lucas Walsh has been working with Deakin University’s Dr Rosalyn Black to better understand young people’s democratic engagement.

Contrary to the view of young politics in crisis, the research found young people prefer to engage in issue-based interests through channels such as youth volunteering and social enterprises that work between the government, non-profit and business sectors.

Associate Professor Walsh said alternative acts of citizenship went under the radar of what it typically means to actively participate in shaping society. Instead young Australians were often portrayed as civically and politically alienated.

“Sometimes, young people are portrayed in very negative ways but we need to look more closely at what the evidence is telling us, which includes listening more carefully to young people themselves,” Associate Professor Walsh said.

“It is critical that we support young people to participate in political, economic and social activities and become agents of positive change in their communities. Unfortunately, these negative misconceptions can discourage their engagement.

“Instead we need to better recognise, measure and support the ways in which young people are choosing to enact their citizenship.”

Dr Black said young Australians tended to shy away from representative bodies and big institutions such as mainstream political parties, opting instead for more cause-based or issue-based politics and local engagement.

“But when young people do engage in alternative acts of citizenship – such as protest or social unrest – they’re portrayed as democratically deviant and dangerous”, Dr Black said.

“There is a desire among many young people to make an active contribution and to have their voices and actions taken seriously by those in power.

“Despite evidence that volunteering matters to young people in Australia, their contributions are going unrecognised, and their forms of youth volunteering and social enterprise appear to be largely invisible to most researchers and commentators.”

Dr Black said “Civic and political institutions need to take a more positive view of young people’s citizenship and social participation.”

Dr Black and Associate Professor Walsh’s chapter “Off the Radar Democracy: Young people’s alternative acts of citizenship in Australia” was recently published in the international collection Young People Regenerating Politics in Times of Crises, edited by Sarah Pickard and Judith Bessant. Dr Black and Associate Professor Walsh’s upcoming book, “Rethinking Youth Citizenship after the Age of Entitlement”, will be released this March.