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No stake for youth

Steven Allen ponders the political limbo for young people aged 16 to 18 years

John jumps into his new Ford Focus, reels down the window to let in some fresh air and then slowly turns the key in the ignition to start the car’s engine. It starts purring like a kitten. He then drives through his local streets down to the tax office – he needs to pick up a self-employed tax form for the last financial year, which he gets with the minimum of hassle (in fact, the guy behind the counter in the office seems almost too happy to give him the forms!)

Back in his car, John again winds down his window and – whilst waiting for some traffic lights to change – lights up a Marlboro Light (he knows it’s a bad habit, but hey, no-one’s going to try and stop him). He’s now heading towards his girlfriend’s house – today is a very special day. He arrives at the house and is let in by Keji’s parents. Both him and Keji are nervous, but when John finally plucks up the courage to ask, Keji’s parents graciously accept his request for her hand in marriage. Now there’s much to sort out!

After that intense experience, John now needs to head down to the local Armed Forces Careers Office on the Strand – he’s going to sign up to join the RAF and hopes to become a top-class Tornado pilot soon. He has an interview and, with very little difficulty, is accepted to join up, subject to getting certain grades in his exams (which’ll be no problem for him). He’s sure that already having a pilot’s license was the thing that clinched it for him.Back in his BMW, John turns on his radio. There’s a news programme on and they are updating about the local election campaigns. John changes channels. He isn’t old enough to vote yet so that has no interest for him at all. He then carries on home after his busy day.

OK, so it is a pretty eventful day for John, at the age of just 17. However all of these events are totally plausible – at the age of 17 John has many legal rights, and with these come some pretty weighty responsibilities. However, he is still not old enough to vote.

In the last few years we are constantly being told that democracy in our country is dying. It’s not necessarily a view I subscribe to, but members of society seem more disengaged from that society now than at any other point in history. Election after election it seems that less and less people are turning out to vote. People are becoming more and more sceptical about the politicians and decision-makers that run our society.

At the heart of these high levels of societal civil disengagement, young people between the ages of 15 and 25 seem to be the most turned off. ‘Apathy’ seems to be a word that is inextricably linked to our current conception of youth, particularly with a view to voting. But why?

There are a number of reasons for this ‘apathy’. Firstly, and most importantly, young people do not have any stake in their own society until they reach the age of 18. At the age of 16 they can be taxed on the income that they receive yet most are all too aware that they have no formal representation for how those taxes are spent. It seems that the State wants to take from young people as soon as they are 16 but not listen to them until they are a further two years older. The State’s non-interest in youth then becomes mirrored by the youth’s non-interest in the very same State.

This is not, of course, the only reason for this disengagement. Along with complex political structures and at times tokenistic involvement by decision-makers, young people seems to have more barriers to their participation in politics than advantages.

An important step this government could take to tackle these problems would be to lower the voting age to 16. For all intents and purposes, as soon as a young person turns 16 they are an adult. There are still some rights which they do not get to possess at 16, however this is the time when they are able to leave school, pay taxes and become productive members of society. In the two years between leaving school and becoming 18, society loses two years when that young person could have a valid and equal status in society. Those two years turn into a period which feeds non-interest in the young person, and this is not easily dispelled thereafter.

The government seems to have recognised that there is a problem and have instructed the Electoral Commission to run an inquiry into whether the current age of franchise should be lowered. These are just some of the issues that the Commission should look closely at. I’m sure John would be more interested in politics if the Commission recommended the voting age be lowered and gave him an equal footing in our society.