Focus: Sweet 16 - Would you give the vote to them?

Tony Blair would. He wants to lower the voting age and allow 1.3 million teenagers their say. But are they ready - and will they bother - to vote? Joanna Moorhead knocks on the bedroom door of a generation to find out
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The Independent Online

Has life at 16 ever been sweet? Not really, and especially not now. Today's 16-year-olds are a generation in turmoil. In some ways, of course, it was ever thus: what is adolescence about if not working through a maelstrom of emotions? When has life at 16 not involved a muddle of contradictions and embryonic big ideas bound together in a big bravado shell?

Has life at 16 ever been sweet? Not really, and especially not now. Today's 16-year-olds are a generation in turmoil. In some ways, of course, it was ever thus: what is adolescence about if not working through a maelstrom of emotions? When has life at 16 not involved a muddle of contradictions and embryonic big ideas bound together in a big bravado shell?

Last week The Independent revealed, exclusively, that the Prime Minister intends to add to the modern teenage burden by giving 16-year-olds the right to vote. Labour will pledge to do so in its next election manifesto, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. But any politicians who eventually tout their wares to this generation will have to understand the ways in which it has been dealt a tough hand.

The first, and most important, is that our society seems to require an increasing degree of emotional maturity from 16-year-olds while simultaneously reducing their economic, and to some extent social, place in the community. Youngsters are growing up in domestic circumstances a lot more convoluted and complicated than they were in the past - families where parents have split up, where parents have remarried, where there are step-parents and step-siblings, for example. And while these circumstances can spark a new degree of emotional intelligence, they can also lead to a lot of angst and suffering.

"It creates real tensions," says Kevin Williams, who works with youngsters as chief executive of YMCA England. "And the fallout is just part of the reason why there's an increase in the level of mental health problems among this age group. What we're seeing now is increasing suicide levels, in young men in particular, and a rising level of incidents of self-harm, of anorexia and of other eating disorders."

But while these tensions can force young people into early emotional maturity - or push them over the edge - the message being promoted from an economic point of view is that they should stay out of the workplace, for the moment at least. The UK has one of the highest levels of 16-year-olds leaving full-time education, a trend the government is committed to reversing. Continuing to study, or going on a training course, is perceived as the better way forward for 16-year-olds - although worries about how to pay for it all are keenly felt among young people themselves, leading some to wonder whether plunging into the workplace would not be the better course.

"Top-up fees are a big issue for me and my friends," says Lauren Coltas, 16. "You come out with loads of debt. And then you can't necessarily get a job anyway, or at least not one you needed a degree for. So some of us are thinking, do we really want that university place?"

Aside from tuition fees and the war in Iraq, perennial concerns continue to dominate the thoughts of activist youngsters. One is the lack of facilities. "Older people complain about the antisocial behaviour of young people hanging around on the streets but youth centres are being closed down, leisure centres are charging up to £10 to go for a swim and we've nowhere to go," says Phillipe Chiarella, 16, a member of the UK Youth Parliament. "In rural areas facilities for teenagers don't exist and in urban areas they exist but they cost a fortune. Many over-14s are made to pay full adult fares for transport, which they can't afford. In rural areas, public transport is both patchy and expensive, so is it any wonder that young people end up driving around in cars which, again, many older people take against us doing?"

Meanwhile, the ever-present stereotype, says Phillipe, is that young people are irresponsible, yobbish, no-good vandals. "We get a very negative press. And we're one of the weakest groups in terms of being able to combat what's said about us."

If Britain's 16-year-olds do not deserve to be called a generation of yobs, do they have sufficient maturity and understanding of the political process to make proper use of the right to vote? The very question is, to some people, indicative of the patronising, paternalistic attitude the older generation has towards youngsters: why, they ask, should young people be any less responsible, caring, or public-minded than the rest?

"The new citizenship programme [in schools] has given a new level of enthusiasm and knowledge of the process and the machinery of politics," says Olivia Bailey, 17, assistant secretary of the Young Labour National Committee. "My view is that young people have valid opinions and deserve to be taken seriously - some people fear that giving us the vote would increase the level of voter apathy, but I believe the opposite would be the case."

The mechanics of registering a vote in person, in a curtained voting booth, must seem archaic to the first truly technology-savvy generation, whose members have never known life without computers and instant communication.

"I've been surrounded by computer technology since primary school," says James Schopp, 16. "It is something I use every day, something I feel completely comfortable about. With older people there's this distrust, this fear - but if I'm working on a computer that does something strange I can almost certainly understand what's happening and put it right."

When their parents were young, use of the telephone was often restricted within the home. Today's youngsters would curl up laughing at the idea of seeking permission to phone a friend. "We text all the time and we talk all the time and we message one another online all the time - you can go on your computer and see immediately who's online and available to chat to, and you start chatting," says James. But doesn't that impoverish, in the sense that there's rarely a moment of space to reflect without interruption? James says he can always turn his computer and mobile off - but he admits it's not something he does very often.

The perceived vulnerability of this age group to media messages has put some people off extending the franchise to them: wouldn't they put their cross down in the box for anyone who was supported by David Beckham or Robbie Williams? Not so, says Alex Folkes of Votes at 16. "We did some research where we asked 16-year-olds who they'd listen to. The idea that it would be pop stars was just laughed at. Most said they'd talk to friends and family to help form their decisions, or that they'd listen to the politicians themselves."

Polls show that 16-year-olds are more politically interested, not less, than their slightly older friends; and research done in 2001 found that they were more likely to believe voting in an election could influence change. "At 16 they're more likely to be a member of a political party or organisation than at any other age under 30," says Mr Folkes. "There's this 'joining culture' that makes them want to be members of, not just political parties, but Amnesty and so on." It's a culture, he believes, that society could foster by welcoming young people into the voting fold and making them aware that where their hearts lead them, their voices count.

Even if the Prime Minister changes his mind and does not open the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds in the near future, it is an idea that will not go away. Our society is ageing fast, making it inevitable that the balance will be redressed in the future by lowering the voting age. This, after all, is a generation on whom the whole of society will depend as never before: with the UK becoming increasingly top-heavy, it is today's 16-year-olds who will carry the can as the rest of us slide into our dotage.

TEENAGERS WHO ARE TOO BUSY OR TOO BORED TO VOTE

James Schopp, 16, Balham, south London

"I know it matters who's running the country, but right now there seem to be more pressing issues on my agenda. Things like studying ... and sport, going out to pubs and clubs and seeing my friends."

Olivia Bailey, 16, Crowthorne, Berkshire

"Young people don't think their opinion is valued, so they're apathetic. Giving us the vote would help stem apathy because it would send the message that society is interested in what we think."

Adam Larter, 16, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

"It annoys me that everyone thinks all young people want the vote when in fact it's a minority that do, but they're making a lot of noise. I think you grow up a lot between 16 and 18, and it's better to wait."

Lauren Coltas, 16, Middleton, near Manchester

"I was talking to my friends and they all think the same as me: 16-year-olds just aren't bothered about voting; 18-year-olds have got the vote and most of them can't be bothered, so why would we?"

Emanuel Hawks, Young Mayor

Metallica fan will turn 16 during his year as Lewisham's first Young Mayor, elected by 11- to 18-year-olds and given £25,000 to improve their lives. His winning manifesto pledged to set up art, music, drama and sports workshops.

AND THOSE WHO ARE ALREADY ACHIEVING REMARKABLE THINGS

Joss Stone, singer

Looks like a 16-year-old from Devon, sings like Aretha Franklin. American record label surrounded her with soul veterans to great acclaim in the US and here. Wants to play Glastonbury "because all my friends would be there".

Judy Bernstein, Liberal Democrat activist

Was 14 when she wrote to a minister about transport policy. Now on the executive of the party's youth wing and leading light of the campaign group Votes at 16. Studying for six AS-levels in Edgware.

Andrew Taylor, entrepreneur

Started marketing and design company Creative Web Design with his friend Simon Jobson while both were 16. Recently won a Best Business award for the North-east, though still at school in Alnwick, Northumberland.

Nicola Benedetti, violinist

Already had a professional career before she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year last week. A graduate of the Menuhin School and regular concert artist, Nicola, 16, from Ayrshire, is now negotiating with record companies.

Seb Clover, yachtsman

By the time he turned 16, Seb had already crossed the Atlantic single-handed, the youngest yachtsman ever to do so. Took a break from school on the Isle of Wight to make the 2,799-mile journey. Now studying for A-levels.

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