Lorraine Courtney: Parties failing to show youth they have a vision for their future
Published 12/02/2016 | 02:30
The majority of our political parties are still failing to engage the youth vote, and when you look at the obstacles that people my age and younger are facing, it's difficult not to blame it all on generational injustice. It's the young who are most apathetic about politics right now and yet they have the most to lose.
According to Spunout.ie, one-third of 18 to 22-year-olds are still not registered to vote. And in the 2011 General Election, the turnout figure for 18 to 24-year-olds was 20pc below the national average. A European Social Survey in 2011 showed young Irish voters were among the least likely to vote in Europe, falling 10pc below the EU average for youth electoral participation.
This time around, things could have been different. Young people were enormously engaged by the marriage referendum and we also have Smartvote - an app that asks you 20 questions on topical issues, like water charges, abortion, and the legalisation of cannabis, and then matches you with the candidates whose views are most similar to yours. Independent.ie has also launched Count Us In, giving people aged 18-24 a public platform.
The marriage referendum showed us that young people and their ideals can make a difference. #VoteYes trended for weeks on Twitter and 66,000 people registered to vote at the last minute. But young people don't tend to vote in general elections because the major topics don't affect them directly. Young people don't have mortgages or pay water charges.
Youth unemployment is so high that they don't pay much in taxes either. The 18 to 35-year- olds are the ones who have been disproportionately affected by austerity and theirs is the first generation that will be worse off than their parents. There's an untapped stream of young people in Ireland who feel their politics are not being represented. You see them on the austerity marches and on social media.
If political parties want to engage with the young, they need to tackle issues such as college fees, rent prices and the employment prospects for graduates. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has highlighted higher education funding, student accommodation and repealing the Eighth Amendment in its election manifesto. The union is also calling for the abolition of JobBridge, more support for postgraduate students and measures to counter zero-hour contracts. But subjects that disproportionately affect the young get bumped down the political agenda.
The main parties are finally waking up to the housing crisis - perhaps because middle-aged homeowners started wondering why their children are still living at home and because the scandal of those sleeping on our streets couldn't be ignored any longer. It's not just the thought of buying a house that leaves young people nervous, even renting is becoming increasingly unaffordable. But the solutions offered are limited. We need to hear how politicians are going to make housing affordable again - be it by building new houses, helping first-time buyers or calming the market to bring prices down.
Young people bear the brunt of many of the country's economic problems, especially the lack of first-time jobs. Many are now forced to accept unpaid JobBridge internships if they are to stand any chance of getting paid to work. The problem is that only the well-off can afford to work for free. We need politicians to tackle business's expectation of free labour and the exponential rise of unpaid internships, or risk seeing professions becoming even more elitist. Every policy attacking the young hits poorer young people harder. Those who are able to rely on the bank of mum and dad, with parents who can subsidise their rent, support them through a JobBridge internship and guarantee their first mortgage, are mostly invulnerable. But this is only creating a massive gulf between the haves and have nots.
Those with wealthier parents can climb the property ladder and work in their unpaid dream job. Those who don't, emigrate or languish on the dole. Our class divide grows ever wider.
Similar to same-sex marriage, young people have strong views on repealing the Eighth Amendment. It follows that it is the parties that have pledged themselves to this, like Labour and Sinn Féin, who will get their votes. Young people are not stupid or apathetic. They recognise that the political system has not been built with them in mind and, despite this, thousands of them are involved in it somehow, whether through community projects or online campaigns.
To engage the young, politicians need to show that they have a credible vision for their future. Otherwise, we'll eventually be left with a public so disengaged from politics the prospect of their voting at all becomes a doubt.