Young People and Politics in Europe –Two Parallel Worlds

A dramatic decline in electoral participation, decreasing membership of political parties (especially among young people), disenchantment with politics, together with the growing complexity of politics – all these news point to the fact that citizens’ involvement in political processes is changing. This seems far away from the optimal shape of a representative democracy, which aims at involving people in policy-forming processes and promoting civic competencies (John Stuart Mill 1861). The acceleration of economic development as a result of globalization and the digital revolution, as well as an increasing lack of democratic legitimization of major political decision-making institutions (European Central Bank etc.) have led to doubts about a sustainable future for liberal democracy. As a result, a continuous discussion ranging from a ‘crisis of democracy’ to promising new forms of democracy in a third stage of modernity is packing libraries worldwide with pertinent literature. Taking a sharper view into reality, how are young people´s (in the age group 16 – 25 years) attitudes towards the liberal democracy in Western countries, are they interested (or not) in politics in general?

Taking the example of Germany, where, after the disaster of WWII Western, allies introduced a stable democracy for the first time in the country´s history, we experience good news first:   The majority of young people, who will take over the societal responsibility in 10 or 15 years, favours democracy as such to govern the society, their satisfaction with democratically oriented rules of social dialogue is rather high. But now the other – worse (?) – news: Despite relative high electoral participation rates, young people are very sceptical against political parties and politicians, even more: the majority rejects them. It is striking, that one fifth of this age cohort has not participated in elections consciously. Nevertheless young people are often politically active, but far away from the procedures of the representative democracy: They favour any forms of direct protest (like demonstrations, boy(buy)cotts), signing petitions etc. More than half of the young people are not politically active anyhow.

And further: Young people are measuring their activities in terms of effectiveness in the short-run. Thus, at least in Germany, two parallel worlds of political participation are arising: On the one hand a growing professionalization of the representative (political party dependent) democracy, combined with frozen procedures, as we can see in the following picture.

Photo: Tobias Koch, BB BY-SA 3.0 DE. Discussion at the German Federal Parliament – German chancellor Angela Merkel is talking and some deputies are listening.

Within its decision-making processes, this kind of democracy leaves little or no room for un- conventional political activities, especially favoured by young people. On the other hand, the majority of this age group refuse to participate within these traditional forms of politics. Instead, young people are focussed on more informal, regional limited political activities, which leave room to express the phantasy and political will of the individuals directly. Have a look at the Occupy demonstrations:


Photo: Paul Stein, CC BY-SA 2.0. Occupy Wall Street

Insofar two scenarios for the future are possible: Either a subtle de-democratization und increasing power of the elites by formalization of political participation. In fact this would lead do a crisis of the liberal democracy. Or an integration of alternative forms of political activities into the current rituals of decision-making processes, e.g. by introducing elements of direct democracy (e.g. referendum). That would mean a dynamic advancement of the representative democracy. But I have some doubts as to whether our political parties will have the courage and the self-confidence to hand over a part of their power to the people.

tholenprofilJochen Tholen teaches at the University of Bremen/Germany and leads a research group on “Young People and Politics in Europe and Beyond”. Contact:



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