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It’s a Mistake to Assume Young Voters All Want the Same Things

It’s a Mistake to Assume Young Voters All Want the Same Things

Ilona Dougherty is co-founder of Apathy is Boring, a national non-partisan charitable organization that uses art and technology to educate youth about democracy and encourages them to vote. She is a regular commentator in national media, a published author, and speaks to audiences internationally about redefining intergenerational relationships and encouraging active citizenship. Below, Illona writes on why we shouldn’t assume all young voters want the same thing:

Over the 12 years I’ve been working to encourage young people to vote, I’ve been asked one question more than most: What do young people care about?

Often, the person asking the question ends up answering it with the prevailing wisdom — that young people are particularly concerned about tuition fees and youth unemployment, issues affecting their lives right now. Which is why politicians often assume that getting young people to vote means talking about tuition and unemployment.

And so, the Green Party promises to “abolish tuition fees for college, university and skills training programs” and “create a national Community and Environment Service Corps, which will provide $1 billion/year to municipalities to hire Canadian youth to do work that needs to be done.”

The Liberals plan to “invest $1.3 billion over three years to create jobs and opportunity for young Canadians so they can get a strong start in life” and “restore a modernized Youth Service Program and provide $25 million per year to help young Canadians gain valuable work and life experience.”

The New Democratic Party promises to “create opportunities for 40,000 young Canadians through NGO and private sector training partnerships.”

And try as I might, I couldn’t find a single mention of ‘youth’, ‘young’ or ‘student’ anywhere on the Conservative party website. So there’s that.

Now, the fact that three out of four main political parties are making youth ‘issues’ a major part of their platforms is a very good thing. It means that, even though not enough young people have been getting out to the polls, they’re still seen as a powerful potential voting block. But if politicians are really interested in connecting with the young, they have to move beyond what they think they know and stop assuming every young voter has exactly the same interests.

Young people are diverse. Parties don’t paint all Baby Boomers with the same brush. An executive living in Toronto and a rancher in High Prairie can’t be expected to want the same things just because they were born in the same decade. So parties use sophisticated polling and micro-targeting to determine which issues will appeal to specific segments of that generational cohort. If they want to reach younger voters, they have to stop treating them like clones.

For example, only 60 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 are currently enrolled in post-secondary education. The millennial cohort has the highest percentage of visible minorities. Young people living in cities tend to lean more to the left, while young people from rural areas lean right. All political parties have the opportunity to capture a segment of the youth vote, and their policies should reflect that.

And young people care about more than what affects them right now — which makes sense, given that they tend to see their lives as still ahead of them. When I’m asked to talk about youth issues, I often bring up retirement. When the retirement age was raised from 65 to 67, it didn’t affect my parents — but it will affect me and my peers. We need to give Millennials the benefit of the doubt and appeal to them not only on the issues that affect them right now, but on those that will affect them in the future. The youth advocacy group Generation Squeeze has started this conversation from a youth angle but the parties would do well to pay attention.

Young people are wired to innovate. Research consistently shows that youth is a time for risk-taking, creativity and lateral thinking. Rather than worrying about how a specific policy might appeal to the youth demographic, perhaps our political parties should look at Millennial-friendly policy from a different perspective.

In other words, the policies that are going to get young people to sit up and take notice as the ones that are creative and innovative, the ones that suggest new ways of tackling difficult problems. The current election campaign is still too close to call, but we still haven’t seen much in the way of a creative, audacious vision of Canada’s future. Perhaps the closest thing to one was the so-called Leap Manifesto — which, whether you agree with its content or not, certainly can’t be called timid. Youth is a time of audacity. The leaders and parties that connect with the youth vote are going to be the ones who propose striking out in new directions.

The youth vote doesn’t belong to one party or another, to one end of the political spectrum or the other. It’s not all cut from the same cloth. But it is looking for a political alternative that isn’t content with doing things the same old way, forever.

Ilona Dougherty/ipolitics/October, 2015