The rise of nationalism across the European Union and in the United States has led to much discussion about its impact on global trade, the future of trading blocks and the changing nature of politics. One common factor among these developments has been that young people’s voice appears to have been largely ignored. France seems to be different in that the new president had vocal youth support. However, if youth are visible on the stage alongside candidates, does that mean their voice will be heard after the election?

Old and new lenses on the past

One characteristic of the rise of populism across the EU and the US is a romanticisation of a past time when a country was ‘great’ and times were somehow ‘better’. This nostalgic view of the past is something held largely by older voters, while younger voters have only ever known more precarious times. Indeed it could be said that those young people who entered the labour market during the economic and financial crisis were truly in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With the UK’s EU referendum, it was older voters who helped swing the vote towards leaving the EU: 60% of voters over 65 voted leave, while just 27% of those under 25 did. If we factor in the lower participation (and registration) of young people, the missing voice of young people becomes even starker (O’Reilly 2016).

Paying the price of nationalism

Young people have much to lose from a more insular perspective of nationalisation and a desire to turn back time. Open borders and the promotion of a spirit of inter-nation cooperation have created a youth cohort that has seen the benefits of European integration. Admittedly, these young people are among the more privileged in each country, but their concerns around the end of student mobility and loss of European identity are very real. While the consequences for youth in Britain are now becoming obvious, these risks are present across Europe with the rise of nationalism.

Young people’s weak position amid these emerging political trends can be replicated in terms of their representation in key political decisions. Research confirms that young people were among the hardest hit by the economic crisis, experiencing rapid rises in unemployment and declining employment opportunities. Yet we also see that the policies enacted to address the crisis were not necessarily in their interests or were weakly implemented. Young people are on the wrong side of an intergenerational divide that threatens to deepen inequalities across age groups as well as inequalities between households and families.

Can young people engage politically?

Election turnout has long been lowest amongst youth, and this trend seemed to be on the rise. In the 2014 European elections, only 28% of under-25s voted. Furthermore, Europeans’ membership in political parties has been declining.

Yet elections are not the only means of political engagement. Research has shown that protests are especially popular amongst those aged under 34. Likewise, Nuit Debout, similar to the Occupy Movement elsewhere in the world, has offered an alternative form of political engagement – a space for public discussion and cooperation without traditional hierarchies.

Investigations of young people’s use of social media as a form of political engagement highlight the potential for these platforms to encourage critical engagement by increasing their ability to share and discuss politically relevant information.

Online engagement, offline influence?

Yet while alternative forms of engagement are invigorating, they may be difficult to translate into political power and influence. Although there is some evidence to suggest that online political engagement is correlated with offline participation, as long as young people fail to turn out for elections, politicians have fewer incentives to cater to their interests, fuelling a cycle of disaffection.

France is perhaps different in this respect. The foregrounding of young supporters and politicians by the Front National appealed to a neglected demographic: polls ahead of the first round of the presidential election showed that 39% of 18- to 24-year-olds intended to vote for Le Pen. Other parties made efforts to build their youth share. The same polls showed Macron, the subsequent election winner, to be the second most popular candidate among young people, perhaps in part attributable to the Youth with Macron group’s online engagement strategies.

There are also attempts to mobilise young people without an explicit agenda. In the run-up to the French presidential election,  attempted to capitalize on and develop the link between online and offline engagement with the #Hello2017 initiative. Their website offered attractive, video-heavy explainers of parties, candidates and policies with debates taken into the ‘real world’ at cafés and bars.

This seduction of youth is a trend emerging in other elections as well: in the UK, the Green Party and the Labour Party were foregrounding youth interests. It seems young people are now motivated to have their voices heard in post-Brexit politics – over 100,000 under-25s registered in the three days following the announcement of the snap General Election in the UK in 2017. The power of social media can also be seen in an earlier spike in online voter registration, attributed to a UK-wide Facebook reminder.

The extent to which these youth engagement initiatives deliver a higher youth turnout and a true voice for young people’s concerns will be seen in the short term in the election results but then only in the medium term as we observe the extent to which policies are put into place. Whatever the outcomes, the rise of precariousness and disaffection means that building a political voice for young people has never been more important, both in Europe and elsewhere in the world.