It seems to be a modern mantra that the political engagement of young people (say 16-24) is universally a good thing. When young people are drawn to support a political movement or special issue it is hailed as a great success for being ‘inspiring’ and ‘engaging’.
Contrast this however with the counter-trend of recognizing young peoples vulnerability to being seduced by radical and extremist ideologies of all types. The suggestion is that they are in some way more naive, vulnerable, immature and manipulable than older, more ‘worldly wise’ members of the public.
These two attitudes appear contradictory and I would like to explore this a little.
Let us take a look at a few psychological ideas about adolescence and early adulthood. This period of life is often characterised by a struggle to develop a sense of identity (Erikson’s Identity Crisis for example). It is a phase of life where the main developmental task involves reconfiguring relationships with parents, often by rebelling against the perceived oppressive authority of the parent-child relationship.
I would suggest that the idea of ‘freedom from an oppressive authority’ becomes the leit-motif of the issues and political ideologies that seem to fire up young people. The teenage mantras of ‘leave me alone’ and ‘its not fair’ that get played out in family dynamics becomes mirrored in the political engagement of ‘stick it to the man’.
I think this could help explain the tendency for young people to be drawn to left wing causes and ideologies. As explained in the post Beyond Left and Right 1 the left wing tends to attribute causality for all problems as due to external factors and frames the individual as a victim of these circumstances.
Political ideas that offer a simple narrative of oppressors vs oppressed and offer a strong identity of belonging are particularly potent. Movements that identify the same oppressor as ‘the great Satan’ can form all sorts of alliances. For example both the hard left and Islamists identify corporate America as the source of all evil (note the bizarre sight of the Students Union sharing platforms and rhetoric with Islamo-fascists!).
Hence I feel we should be suspicious when a political movement hails as a success its ability to draw in young people and suspect a rather simplistic narrative is being peddled.
This natural and normal phase of being anti-authoritarian can be channelled into a very healthy activism to stand up for the weak, oppressed and victimized. The natural maturation to seeing the complexity, difficulty and compromised nature of many issues can be seen as a ‘selling out’ to whatever causes one has been attached to.
I feel that a problem with all forms of authority can become a deep-seated character habit for many people who have been through this early activist phase. It often becomes apparent when they themselves take on an adult role, like that of parent, that involves the exercising of a healthy position of natural and appropriate authority. Some of the tangles of modern parenting revolve around a deep confusion on the role of authority in facilitating healthy child development.
One last point. The category of young people is often spoken of in the same terms as other disenfranchised groups such as women, ethnic minorities, homo-sexuals and the disabled. There is a crucial difference however. No-one is a young person all their life, we are all young people for a while, it is a transient identity and any restriction on their access to full adult involvement in society is purely temporary (unlike all the other categories listed above).
You can probably guess I do not think extending voting rights to 16 year olds is a particularly wise idea!