Headlines: January 23rd, 2004

Young people are alienated from politics but not apathetic, according to researchers from the University of Birmingham who say that the Government should pay more attention to what young people want and not take their views for granted.The ESRC-funded research, published today, found that young people feel politics is something that is done to them, not something they can take part in. That, the research team say, is a sign of alienation rather than apathy and if government wants to encourage young voters it must first listen to them.

The findings are based on focus groups and individual interviews with 16 to 25 year olds from a wide range of social backgrounds, ethnicity and education in levels and drawn from seven areas of Birmingham. They included school-leavers, the homeless, university students, young offenders and single mothers.

In a break from previous work on young people’s attitudes to politics, the researchers did not define politics in their questions but used photographs to prompt free-association and discussion of political matters. The results showed young people defined the images that related to their own lives, such as pictures of single parents, authority figures or boarded up housing, as being ‘political’ but not the images that reflected activities in which they could take part to influence government.

The research leader, David Marsh, said, “The young people felt they were rarely consulted or listened to, even in connection with issues that directly affect them, such as the introduction of AS levels and the types of courses they can do on the New Deal programme.”

The results showed that despite feelings of alienation, young people were often highly articulate and aware of the political implications of issues like racism and housing. They did not, though, consider the environment – except for local parks – or animal rights as political issues. Some of the young people said they would like the voting age to be reduced, as a sign of acknowledgement, even though they still believed no-one would take notice of their views if they did choose to vote.

David Marsh said young people lived politics but were not concerned about politics in a way that governments would understand. The only times they were involved in mainstream activities was at a local level and he said, the findings suggested many people would like a more participative form of democracy, especially at the local level.