January 2018, No. 4 Vol. LIV 2017, Global Citizenship

Over the past 20 years, many commentators have argued that there is a crisis in young people’s civic and political engagement. This is because youth who are eligible to vote in national elections tend to do so less frequently than older generations. In addition, over the past few decades, there has been a decline in many countries in the percentage of young people who vote in national elections. These trends have been used to argue that the future of democracy is in jeopardy, because political engagement in later life is rooted in the habits developed in youth, and the youth of today will eventually become the adults of tomorrow.

I have argued elsewhere for a different reading of these trends.1 First, very clearly, these trends have not occurred in all countries—they tend to be specific to Western democracies. In addition, there are many ways in which people can be civically and politically active. Some ways involve engaging with electoral processes such as voting, trying to persuade others to vote for a particular candidate, and working for a political party. These are conventional forms of political participation. There are also non-conventional forms of action, however, such as participation in political demonstrations, protests and marches, signing petitions, writing political articles or blogs, and liking and sharing them on social media. Other forms of engagement may be focused more directly on providing help to people in need, solving community problems or raising money for charitable causes. These forms of engagement are perhaps better termed ‘civic’ rather than ‘political’ actions because they sidestep the political arena.

While young people’s commitment to conventional political participation does indeed appear to be in decline in many democracies today, research clearly demonstrates that large numbers of young people are nevertheless strongly committed to non-conventional and civic action in their respective countries. Whereas, in the past, issues of concern might have mobilized them into voting for particular candidates or writing to their elected representatives, these same issues today might be tackled instead through consumer activism, protests and demonstrations, activity on social media, charitable fundraising or voluntary work in the community.

A further feature of youth political and civic engagement today concerns the specific topics on which youth activism tends to be focused. Because of their sense of frustration and cynicism about politicians and conventional political processes, many youth instead choose to focus their energies on single issues or causes about which they have strong feelings. Issues that commonly attract their attention include global warming, pollution, global poverty, the use of low-wage labour in the developing world, the greed of multinational corporations, and human rights (at the global level), as well as graffiti, unsafe streets, transport and recycling facilities, and youth amenities (at the local level).

This twin focus on global and local issues emerged clearly from a European Commission-funded large-scale research project called Processes Influencing Democratic Ownership and Participation (PIDOP) that I led from 2009 to 2012.2 We collected data from 16- to 26-year-olds drawn from 27 national and ethnic groups living across Europe. We found that these young people often chose not to engage with conventional politics because they felt they had no voice, were ignored by politicians, and did not have the resources or the competences needed to engage politically. They also tended to think that conventional political engagement was ineffective in bringing about genuine change.

At the same time, these young people’s interest in and enthusiasm for global issues were often very pronounced. These issues were usually experienced as having considerable personal meaning and relevance for their own lives. For this reason, I would dispute the claim that there is a crisis in young people’s civic and political engagement due to their apathy and alienation. Instead, youth today are more likely to focus on specific issues that are of personal concern, using alternative modes of action that differ from those that were used by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

That said, it is important not to make overly simplistic generalizations based on studies that have been conducted in Western democracies, which is where the bulk of the research in this field has taken place. The lives, concerns and range of political and civic activities that young people undertake are often very different from one country to another. They also vary considerably within countries.

Differences between countries stem from the specific historical, economic and cultural characteristics with which young people are living, and also from the design of political institutions within those countries. For example, the importance which youth attribute to conventional political participation tends to be lower in countries in which there are long-standing democratic traditions, and higher in countries in which conventional democratic institutions and forms of participation have been strengthened over the last 30 years. Political knowledge and engagement of youth also tend to be higher in countries which are more economically developed. In addition, political institutional structures can be designed in such a way that they either provide plentiful and diverse opportunities for youth to participate and contribute, or they can be designed to inhibit, restrict or even prevent such possibilities. Finally, all countries have their own specific internal cultural and political concerns and preoccupations, which also influence patterns of youth engagement.

Young people’s political and civic engagement also varies considerably within countries. For example, those individuals who are of a higher socioeconomic status usually display higher levels of participation; males are more likely to vote and to engage in illegal actions, such as spraying political graffiti, whereas females are more likely to be interested in social and environmental issues; while ethnic minority and majority individuals participate in different kinds of volunteer activities, with the former participating much more in activities relating to their own ethnic communities.

Variations within countries are also linked to social factors. Parental behaviours are extremely important. For example, parents who engage in protests are more likely to have offspring who also engage in protests, and adolescents whose parents are interested in political and social issues also have higher levels of such interest. Other relevant social factors include peer group relationships, since young people are more likely to commit to civic and political goals and values when they feel a sense of solidarity with their peers at school. Membership in youth organizations and involvement in organizations that provide a context for activities such as public speaking, debate and community service, are also linked to political participation for years to come.

The education that young people receive at school is also critical. If schools enable students to raise ethical, social, civic and political issues in the classroom, allow them to discuss controversial topics, encourage them to express their own opinions and to listen to one another in order to explore a variety of different perspectives, students will tend to acquire higher levels of political interest, trust and knowledge, which in turn will boost the likelihood of them voting in the future. It is also beneficial for students’ engagement if schools themselves operate on democratic principles and provide opportunities for students to contribute to formal decision-making, for example, through class representatives, student councils and student representation in working groups.3

Educational effects are further amplified if schools adopt a competence-based curriculum in which the competences required for civic and political engagement are targeted. Such a curriculum aims to enhance not only students’ knowledge and skills, but also their values, attitudes and critical thinking, so that they are empowered to act as autonomous agents capable of pursuing civic and political action effectively. The competences that need to be targeted in order to achieve this outcome include, among others, knowledge and understanding of politics, analytical and critical thinking, civic-mindedness, responsibility, empathy, communication and cooperation skills, and the valuing of democracy.4 A large range of pedagogical methods, such as cooperative, project-based and service learning, can be used for promoting precisely these sorts of competences.

These same competences are also required if young people are to take effective action on the global issues that are of concern to them, such as global warming, pollution, global poverty and human rights.5 However, in this case, civic-mindedness—i.e. concern for other people within one’s community and a sense of civic duty—needs to take the form of global-mindedness—i.e. concern for the whole of humanity and the planet.6 A very positive feature of many young people’s civic and political engagement today is precisely their concern for the global community, and not just for their own local community.

Research into global citizenship is still in its infancy. However, studies have revealed that young people who have a high level of global-mindedness are more likely to be:

  • Engaged in intercultural contact, cooperation, interaction and dialogue.
  • Tolerant of cultural differences and appreciative of cultural diversity.
  • Supportive of global human rights and humanitarian needs, and willing to contribute to international humanitarian relief.
  • Concerned for the environment and engaged in pro-environmental activities.

Likewise, these studies have revealed that a range of actions can be taken by schools to enhance young people’s global-mindedness and global citizenship activities.

These include:

  • Building on students’ existing motivations by providing opportunities for them to explore, learn about and critically understand the global issues with which they are already engaged.
  • Using the curriculum to target the competences required for engaging in effective and appropriate action on global issues, and using the pedagogies  that are the most suitable for fostering the development of these competences.
  • Providing opportunities for students to practise their competences (i.e. to use their values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and critical understanding) on global issues.
  • Providing opportunities for students to engage with different cultures in the classroom, in their neighbourhood and, through the Internet, to enable them to experience meaningful intercultural contact and respectful communication with others.

The civic and political engagement of young people is certainly in tremendous flux today. But my reading of the research literature is that we have a great deal to be optimistic about in relationship to their engagement, although national education systems could be employed far more effectively in supporting and promoting their global competence and global engagement.    


  1. Martyn Barrett and Dimitra Pachi, Youth Civic and Political Engagement (London, Routledge, forthcoming).
  2. Processes Influencing Democratic Ownership and Participation (PIDOP), European Commission, 7th Framework Programme. Available from http://www.pidop.surrey.ac.uk/.
  3. These findings come from CIVED and ICCS, which are large-scale comparative international projects conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Available from http://www.terpconnect.umd.edu/~jtpurta/and http://www.iea.nl/iccs.
  4. Council of Europe, Competences for Democratic Culture: Living Together as Equals in Culturally Diverse Democratic Societies (Strasbourg, Council of Europe Publishing, 2016). Available from http://www.coe.int/en/web/education/competences-for-democratic-culture.
  5. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Global Competency for an Inclusive World (Paris, 2016). Available from https://www.oecd.org/education/Global-competency-for-an-inclusive-world.pdf.
  6. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Global Citizenship Education: Topics and Learning Objectives (Paris, 2015). Available from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002329/232993e.pdf.