Young people’s boredom with politics ‘should not be confused with apathy’

15 May 2000

“There’s nothing appealing about politics to young folk.”
17-year-old male interviewee.

“On TV you can see all of them (politicians) sitting there… half of them’s falling asleep…They’re like me, they find it boring.”
21-year-old female interviewee.

Young people are less apathetic and more interested in public issues and current affairs than is commonly supposed. But politicians - along with the word ‘politics’ - are widely seen as boring, irrelevant and an immediate turn-off.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests that low levels of interest in the political process, underlined by the turnout in this month’s local elections, do not tell the whole story where young people are concerned. Even those who declare themselves least interested in politics share ‘political’ concerns, and may have taken part in activities such as signing a petition, attending a local protest or voting in an election.

Based on in-depth interviews and focus groups with a cross-section of 14- to 24-year-olds, the study demonstrates that young people vary widely in their level of interest in politics and cannot be treated as a uniform group. Those interviewed ranged between those who were actively involved, to others who claimed to be wholly cynical or indifferent. In between were groups who took a general, but passive, interest in current affairs and those whose political interests were limited to issues that affected them personally.

The research by the National Centre for Social Research also found that:

  • The limited way in which young people viewed ‘politics’ was a key reason for their apparent apathy. The range of issues that concerned the interviewees covered a broad political agenda, even though they talked about them in ‘non-political’ terms.
  • Politicians were commonly viewed as untrustworthy, boring, remote and self-serving. The young people interviewed belong to the first generation to have grown up with Parliament being televised - and their impressions were extremely negative.
  • Irrespective of interest in politics, young people had engaged in ‘political’ activities relating to issues that affected themselves or their communities. Some had signed petitions or attended demonstrations in support of local campaigns to protect leisure facilities, prevent hospital closures or improve funding for further and higher education. Others had signed petitions concerned with moral issues such as animal rights.
  • Although some of those who declared they had no interest in politics were over 18 and had never voted, there were many others who had. They were more likely to vote in a General Election than in local or European Parliament elections. A clear link was made between voting and the ‘right to complain’.
  • Whatever their interest in politics, young people consistently said they felt powerless. They suggested a number of ways that politics could be made less dull and more accessible. For example:
    • more imaginative and entertaining political education lessons in schools and colleges;
    • media coverage of politics focused on issues relevant to young people;
    • more effort by politicians to consult young people, understand their concerns and discard ‘power suits’ in favour of a less stuffy, more accessible image;
    • a wider cross-section of politicians in terms of age, sex, ethnic origin and social class.

Clarissa White, co-author of the study, said: “Too much emphasis is placed on the supposed apathy of the young without recognising that young people are already interested in a range of political issues, even if they do not see them as ‘political’. Our study suggests that politicians, educators and all those who bemoan young people’s lack of interest in politics should give greater consideration to how best to represent their interests.”

She added: “If we want young people to take a more active interest and play a bigger part in public affairs, then we must show them that politics means something more than the ‘yah-boo’ of party politicking. They need to feel confident that politicians share their concerns and have a genuine interest in their views. However, politics needs to be delivered in a more accessible way if it is to engage their attention in the first place.”



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