The one narrative that has dominated politics in recent times, is about how a new insurgency led by young people may be changing the face of politics. This conversation received a recent fillip from the outcome of the elections in the U.K. where a Labour Party that appeared ready to be consigned to oblivion when first Mrs. Theresa May called the snap elections ended up winning far more seats than most pollsters predicted. Before that, though, Emmanuel Macron, France’s youngest president, at 39 years old, had provided faggot for the debate. As had the build-up of youthful support behind the populist position of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party ahead of the presidential elections in the U.S. last year.
Part of the difficulty that this trend represents owes to the fact that in older democracies, younger folk have not always voted in numbers consistent with their share of their respective populations. And across so many other aspects of life in their countries, including criminal activities, their participation rates are on the decline as new forms of (online) engagement have arisen. So, there is a case for wondering how much of the emergence of young voters as decisive variables in election results in recent times is the consequence of psephologists needing to re-write their models as the latter have consistently called voting outcomes wrong in recent times.
Beyond this possibility, however, there are strong arguments for increased involvement by young people in politics worldwide. As communities in the OECD economies grow older, younger people find that their economic contributions increasingly support a larger share of pensioners. Most of these older people left work relatively early, and retired on defined benefits pension schemes. These pension schemes, few of which are fully funded, have subsequently blown holes in both public and private finances, forcing most employers of labour to force new (and younger) employees into defined contribution schemes.
The 2008-2009 global economic and financial crisis, and the resulting deceleration of most economies mean that the latter schemes are unlikely to guarantee to participants the comforts that today’s younger workers are invited to guarantee their predecessors. In addition, a quirk of the new economy has seen the return to capital rise much higher than that to labour — making it that much difficult for younger employees to find the additional funds needed to beef up their savings if they are to ensure a decent old age.
In a sense, then, the structure of mature economies around the world today makes a very strong case for 18 – 24 year olds to take a more active interest in political outcomes. That they have often opted for radical approaches is easily explained by a sentiment so readily captured by Lloyd George: “A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head”. At bottom, this speaks to a changeability of perspective on economic and social issues that is not exactly absent even today.
In less developed economies, the dilemma youth’s face is of a different vintage. High birth rates and improvements in basic health care means that these are invariably young populations. Low levels of economic growth confines most of these people to uncomfortable levels of poverty. In between, levels of inept and invariably corrupt stewardship of domestic resources make the design of possible solutions that much difficult. However, if youths in the West have been apathetic, their colleagues in the South have had fewer opportunities for making their opinion felt. Until recently that is. An affliction of new democratic practices across the South, especially in Africa, but including places like Myanmar, now hold out the prospect of a change to this dynamic.
Because of these new trends, a large part of the discussion around how establishment politicians and their pollsters have floundered in most recent elections globally has focused on the changing dynamics of the voter. The average voter is less brand loyal, and more likely to browse for and pick policy mixes a la carte. If this sounds a bit like the discourse around online retailing, it clearly isn’t accidental. For much of the political dialogue has moved online, with politicians now able to directly target their pitches at individual voters. Is it surprising then that voter intentions are as consistent and predictable as are an online shopper’s?
From this conceptual miasma to conversations about the trajectory of politics locally is a distant haul. Yet, much of the local discourse has had what passes for millennials in Nigeria bemoaning how they have failed to replicate the dynamics that we have seen elsewhere. Very easily, this dialogue has pointed to the health concerns of our septuagenarian president in the face of France’s spring chicken. And there has been a sizeable contingent that would blame the incompetent organisation of the Nigerian state on the profusion of doddery old men in our politics.
A lot of this argument, however, misses the point. Invariably, all conversations around the age of our politicians today start from the image of the country’s politics that we see when we contemplate the mirror, today. But this way of imagining forgets that most key players in our political space today have been around for like forever. Our president may be in his dotage, to take but one example, but he’s been part of every non-democratic change of government since he was a very young man. So, the Nigerian youth has not been without his/her opportunity to redesign this space.
S/he may, however, be especially unqualified for the job. The percentage of our population with a higher education qualification is far lower than in these other places where the fortunes of the youths have moved to the fore and centre of conversation.