Middle-aged to old men have dominated politics for centuries. While women and ethnic minorities have gained representation the past decades, the absence of youth in politics is a fairly new subject of debate.
By Jana Belschner*
For centuries, there was never any question about who should govern countries. Fairly irrespective of regime types and world region, one would find a relatively homogeneous group of middle-aged to old men at the center of political power. Surprisingly, with representative democracy on the rise, this has only changed at a slow pace. Even today, nearly 60 per cent of MPs worldwide are men over the age of 45 (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2016).
Whereas the underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities has been problematized and, partially, improved since the 1990s, the sheer absence of youth from politics has only recently become subject of debate. While the idea that a good politician should be male has at least receded considerably, many still agree that he or she should be ‘experienced’. Although 30-year-olds win chess world cups, lead businesses, and have been active in political parties for years, the notion of political experience is still tightly related to age.
However, political parties, rather than voters, are the most skeptical towards young newcomers in parliament. This is partly due to how political careers work and the fact that parties have a tendency to stick with previously successful candidates and re-nominate them over and over again – according to the principle of ‘never change a winning team’. On the other hand, parties also tend to show a remarkable misunderstanding of voter preferences. For example, an experimental study in the UK found that voters prefer a candidate who did not finish high school to one who completed a PhD, whereas age had no significant impact on their appreciation of the potential politician (Campbell and Cowley 2014).
And, indeed, youthful political leaders seem to be highly popular nowadays. Justin Trudeau (47 years), Emmanuel Macron (41 years), and Sebastian Kurz (32 years) have all had unprecedented political support when elected heads of state in Canada, France, and Austria respectively. But though there are increasingly more prominent examples and faces, youth as a group is still far from being fairly represented. This is mainly a problem in regards to global challenges that will disproportionately affect the youth of today: climate change, globalization, and ageing populations. In the last decades, some states have therefore introduced electoral youth quotas to guarantee youth’s political inclusion and representation.
In a recent article (Belschner 2018), I take a closer look at the motives and arguments behind those measures, which are clearly inspired by the great and worldwide success of gender quotas. The article focuses on the North African ‘Arab spring’ countries Tunisia and Morocco, that both adopted youth quotas in the wake of the uprisings. So, what convinced them to do so? Did youth in those countries mobilize for representation, as did women’s activists for gender quotas? The answer is no. In my comparison of Tunisia and Morocco, I find that, although political representation was one of the issues in the youth movements at the time, socio-economic concerns were more important to them. However, the post-uprising elites – a new democratic government in Tunisia and the Moroccan King – had to find ways to, at least symbolically, appease youth, and to demonstrate their inclusion into the new political systems. Although there is a will to include and represent youth in politics, the quota itself was a top-down initiative from the respective political elites. It thus remains to be seen to what extent the presence of youth in parliaments will translate to their voices being heard.
The fact that young people still face specific challenges, even when finally elected, is evident through the recent example of 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to the US Congress. Besides her age and clothing, one of the hot topics around her election was an issue that she made public, and probably shares with many of her generation: She can’t afford the rent for an apartment in Washington D.C.
Belschner, Jana. 2018. “The Adoption of Youth Quotas after the Arab Uprisings.” Politics, Groups, and Identities, November, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2018.1528163.
Campbell, Rosie, and Philip Cowley. 2014. “What Voters Want: Reactions to Candidate Characteristics in a Survey Experiment.” Political Studies 62 (4): 745–65. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.12048.
Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2016. “Youth Participation in National Parliaments 2016.”
*Jana Belschner is a PhD candidate at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen.