Why have young Canadians tuned out of the political process?
Review of Henry Milner, The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts. Lebanon, NH: Tufts University Press/University Press of New England, 2010. 304 pages; and Paul Howe, Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010. 360 pages.
by Jared J. Wesley
Observers could be forgiven for thinking that youth turnout would surge in the May 2011 federal election. News reports about “vote mobs,” the swelling ranks of get-out-the-vote Facebook groups, the development of youth-friendly campaign technologies – all of these measures pointed toward democratic renewal in Canada. Even after the campaign, this feeling was reinforced by a healthy measure of nostalgia, with many Canadians convinced that Jack Layton’s New Democrats had mobilized a new generation of voters as part of the party’s “orange crush.”
However genuine, these sentiments continue to lack empirical support. Turnout among eligible voters rose to just 61.1 per cent in 2011 – a 2.3 point improvement over 2008, but still 3.6 points lower than in the 2006 election. While we await survey data for confirmation, it seems highly unlikely that a surge in youth voting occurred in 2011 (unless, at the same time, older Canadians stayed home in record numbers). The question remains: Why do young Canadians continue to stay home on election day?
Two new books on youth engagement in Canada take us some distance toward solving this dilemma: Henry Milner’s The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts and Paul Howe’s Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Scholars in the area have long awaited the type of systematic analysis afforded by book-length treatments of the topic. To date, most of our knowledge about youth turnout in Canada has been derived from valuable, but abbreviated, journal articles or book chapters, or has been borrowed from more comprehensive studies conducted in Europe or the United States. Milner and Howe break new ground in this regard, and their works are welcome contributions.
As his title suggests, Milner writes of a generation that is both unprepared and unwilling to take part in the political process. Drawing and expanding on his previous research, Milner connects the lack of civic engagement among today’s youth to the generation’s lack of civic literacy. In Canada, as elsewhere, Milner finds young citizens are not only less likely to participate in political activities like voting; they are also less interested in, less attentive to and less knowledgeable about politics in general – characteristics, he suggests, that have earned them the title of “political dropouts.”