Jake Gordon

Is Youth Culture Apathetic Towards the Modern Political Process?

Often it is cited that young people lack interest and concern in politics, showing indifference to the modern political process. This claim will be explored in the context of contemporary Britain, acknowledging possible explanations for this apathy and analysing how recent trends may be affecting the level of political interest amongst the youth culture. The difference between old and modern politics will also be discussed, examining how this fits in with youth culture.

To begin to acknoweldge why young people may be apathetic towards the modern political process, it is crucial to understand how the youth view politics and how these views have been acquired. For some it would seem that there is a definite lack of education in what politics is, rather than a complete lack of interest. The National Curriculum consists of 4 key stages and it is not until Citizenship lessons at key stage 3 (11 - 14 years old) that British children are taught "knowledge and understanding about becoming informed citizens" (National Curriculum Online: nc.uk.net) which includes topics on politics. Further, Citizenship lessons only becomes a statutory requirement in the National Curriculum starting in August 2002. Because of the legal obligations to schools to abide by the National Curriculum many find it difficult or impossible to offer content outside of its scope - the result being that only National Curriculum material is covered. In terms of political education, this means that many children have had no educational of politics since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989. Hence large numbers of those who are now in the age category considered to be 'youth' are politically uneducated, at least through formal sources.

In appreciating that there is inequalities in the political education of the youth, it should be realised where these inequalities have arisen. With no statutory political education, political understanding must have either been acquired from: the environment through interactions with friends and family andthrough personal experiences; or from privileged schools with the ability and resources to be able to offer subjects outside the scope of the National Curriculum - many of these of course being public/private schools. To a greater extent, from both instances it can be seen that a child from a well-to-do family and/or in a privileged geographic area is likely to have a more diverse political understanding than one who is not.

The role of the media must not be underestimated in its positive and negative influences on the policitcal understanding and education of the youth. In a discussion of media (and in paricular TV and radio) in "Youth Culture in Late Modernity" we read that "they [tv and radio] have helped to shift the centre of gravity in everyday life from public to the private." (Forrias & Goran, 1995: 59). Private orientations include the home and family, with pleasure and reproduction as the key goals, whilst public orientations are seen as work and politics, with productions and serious activities being of importance. Hence their argument follows that the media has helped to create an apathy towards politics.

However, these readily accessible media also provide channels for almost everyone (rather than just privileged individuals, as discussed earlier) to learn about political issues. Whilst TV stations and newspapers open issues of contention over their rigid control over coverage and content, and censorship of issues not to their own political tastes, the latest medium - the Internet - largely manages to sidestep this. The Internet puts publishing in the hands of the masses, giving most people the opportunity to let the world know what they think. The result is a diverse collection of electronically published material, which is generally also easy to find. In the past if somene found a matter of interest to them they may not have bothered to research it futher because it would take too long. An web search can take just seconds, encouraging political involvement. This is especially true for young people who are generally more computer literate than their older counterparts.

Consumerism, the driving force of capitalism, brings with it the promise of choice. There is a reason behind every consumer choice and with advertising campaigns targeted at susceptible young people in search of 'cool' (Klein, 200: ch.3 - "The Youth Market and the Marketing of Cool") it is obvious that most choices are made in the pursuit of the pleasure which the advertisements portray. Whilst satelleite and cable tv brings such choices as the 'Parliamentary Channel' and a plethora of news channels, it is of little wonder that young people choose instead to watch music channels, sports channels and movie channels. Mainstream youth culture is apathetic towards politics because there is a choice: 'boring' politics or 'pleasurable' entertianment.

Through a qualitative study of young people in the 14-24 year age group, "Young People's Politics" (White, Bruce & Ritchie, 2000) found that, of their sample (not selected to statistcially represent all young people, but to ensure diverse coverage across levels of political interest) over two-fifths "reported having 'no interest' in politics, another two-fifths had 'some interest'... just over one-tenth had 'quite a lot of interest' in politics'" (2000: 11). The results clearly show a generally apatethetic approach to politics.

White et al did, however, find that whilst individuals may not consider themselves interested in politics, they did find certain political issues of interest to them. These issues were generally those affecting the individual directly ('identity politics'), and hence were predominately identity politics, rather than primarily issues such as the environment as it is often believed. So whilst when first recruited for the study many believed themselves not to be interested in politics, by the end of the study many had realised that they were actually interested in it, but just didn't know that what they were interested in was counted as politics. When assessed at the end of the study, under two-thirds reported having no interest in politics.

In Britain the voting age is 18 - many below this age are indifferent about politics as they feel they cannot change anything without a vote. Those of voting age similarly feel disengaged because the two main political parties who are believed to have a chance of winning a General Election would appear to have converged towards the political centre over recent times. At the same time, as the following quotation illustrates, the need for party politics aimed at different classes of people would seem to be disintegrating:

"Social tensions have gradually lessened in western societies... Individualisation is increasing and class solidarity is decreasing; various categories of people are being erased and replaced by individual differences" (Forrias & Goran: 1995)

So perhaps youth culture isn't apathetic towards the modern political process after all. The modern political process is shifting from parties catering for classes and broad groups of people to parties providing for all people, allowing people to get on with their lives without having to busy themselves with leftism versus conservatism. Whilst young people may be generally apathetic towards political parties, they are far more engaged with the modern political process - one which isn't the same as politics several decades ago.

However party politics does continue and young people feel alienated from it. Politicians are often viewed by young people as being out-of-touch, rich, old, upper-class, uncaring about issues affecting the young. Minorities groups feel alienated in their representation in parliament - similarly, young people feel cut-off through the age of politicians.

Throughout an assumption has been made: that an apathy towards politics is a bad thing. Surely it is important to take an interest in politics to uphold a democratic and just society. But perhaps its not. Perhaps its best for politicians to deal with politics, and for young people in particular to enjoy the time they have, the privileges we all have when we are young.

Whilst it seems apparent that youth culture is generally apathetic towards politics, it has also been discussed why this lack of interest prevails, through education, the media and consumer choice. A lack of understanding of what is political has also been used to illustrate how many who beliee themselves to be apathetic may in fact be more active than they had thought. The political process itself has also been used to show that politics is changing, and the youth culture may simply be staying in touch with the new politics that has resulted from it. From this it can be concluded that whilst the youth may in large be apathetic of traditional style politics, the apathy does not necessarily extend to the modern political process.

[1,510 words, written in 2002]


Forrias & Goran (1995) Youth Culture in Late Modernity, London: Sage Publications
Garratt, Roche & Tucker (1997) Chainging Experiences of Youth, London: Sage Publications
Klein, N (2000) No Logo, London: Flamingo
White, Bruce & Ritchie (2000) Young People's Politics: Political interest and engagements amongst 14- and 24-year olds, London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation
http://www.nc.uk.net/ (2002) National Curriculum for England Online

by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved