It is Thursday afternoon and I am in a room full of 200 teenagers listening, debating and cheering as 14 of their peers pitch to be Camden’s new youth MP. These teens are part of what a new Demos and the National Citizen Service report calls “Generation Citizen”.
They are a group more used to the label “Generation Apathetic” because of their disengagement from formal politics. Kai, 15, and Jordan, 17, sitting by me, echo young voices I’ve heard across Britain when they say “politics just isn’t for us” – almost in the same breath as they give their deeply political views on Stop and Search, and inequality in education provision, and reel off all their voluntary work.
It is this paradox that the Generation Citizen report draws out, the mix of activism and optimism about social change and deep cynicism about political institutions. Young people are engaging in social change in myriad ways – from community campaigns and online activism through to spoken word poetry. Often they express political values in the choices they make in their lives; where to work and what to buy. As one young social entrepreneur put it to me: “I am the change I want to see in the world.” Some are leading activism in their communities, like Camilla Yahaya, who at 16 bought 10,000 teenagers together in Lewisham to campaign for safer streets.
It can be hard to map because their activism is springing up in loose, organic networks. They are creating new models of organisation, leadership and change. The rest of us struggle to keep up – especially politicians.
It is a tiny minority who will stand for a party – the average councillor is 60. This matters because young voices get lost in the resource questions we face. In the 2010 budget those aged 16 to 24 faced cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared with just 10 per cent for those aged 55 to 74.
But young people haven’t given up on democratic change. The Generation Citizen report finds that 84 per cent of 14- to 17-year-olds plan to vote. Unfortunately we know this support evaporates in an actual election. But instead of blaming young people we need to ask why this is happening.
Young people tell me that they want to see more authenticity and honesty from political leaders. They want to see Parliament reflect their classroom diversity and they want to be more involved in decisions. They want political parties to engage them over issues and they want to hear leaders talking about youth unemployment with the same fear, anger and urgency that they feel for their futures.
Ignoring young people threatens the future of our democratic institutions, it narrows the potential pool of candidates and worst of all it wastes the energy, ideas and enthusiasm of a generation ready and willing to redefine citizenship.
Georgia Gould is a Labour councillor for Kentish Town ward in Camden, north London. Her book, Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future, will be published by Little, Brown later this year.