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Youth are speaking, we're just not listening

Katie Miller and Caitlin Meyer |  28 June 2016


'I'm doing it for my kids' — this is how some supporters of the Brexit Leave campaign explained their position before the referendum.

Former YMCA Victoria Youth Parliament participantsIn their minds, supporters were voting not for the effects EU membership is having on them, but the effects it would have on their children in the future. In the end, 56 per cent of voters aged 50–65 voted to leave, along with 44 per cent of voters aged 25–49.

Yet the story was very different for young people: 75 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 voted in favour of Remain. It seems the message from 'the kids' to older voters was 'thanks, but no thanks'.

The same can be seen in domestic politics here in Australia. We often hear politicians and voters talk about the effects of a policy on future generations — whether it be the budget and the debt with which young people will be 'burdened' or the effects of climate change. Come election time, we hear commentators discussing the effect of the youth vote and attempts to divine 'what young people want'.

Yet the issues of concern to young people — such as mental wellbeing and equality — do not get much attention. In election coverage, young people are not asked what they think outside of the occasional vox pop or special interest article.

The response to the suggestion that young people and their issues are ignored is to suggest that, if young people want to change things, they need to get involved. Put another way, the problem is not us — it's the apathetic youth.

The common wisdom is that young people don't care about politics. On any traditional measure of participation, young people have abandoned the field. Political parties, unions, parliamentary committee hearings, local council meetings — you generally won't find many young people there and, if you do, they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by older people.

The key word here is 'traditional'.


"The problem isn't that youth are disengaged, but that we expect them to engage on our terms."


Look in 'untraditional' places and you will see young people who are very active in debates about how we should live as a society. Social media, online lobby organisations such as GetUp and Change.org, and protests have a large youth contingent. They may not talk much, or even be all that interested in, the policies announced by political candidates. Instead, they talk about their own agenda — mental health, education reform and youth empowerment.

Young people are also taking action. Startups such as Co-Ground, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the Human Trafficking Resource and Assistance Centre and Grata Fund evidence young people's desire to take action on the big issues affecting our society — and on their own terms.

Perhaps then the problem isn't that youth are disengaged and apathetic, but that we expect them to engage on our terms. When they don't turn up to our town hall meetings and fail to make submissions to inquiries or write letters to MPs, we conclude that they're just not interested.

In doing so, we lose the benefit of young people's contributions. We already know that social policy is improved by diversity. Different perspectives based on life experience, gender, age, cultural background, sexual preference and many others shape nuanced, sophisticated policy.

Young people are the hipsters of political trends. Young people are thinking about issues long before the rest of us catch up. Marriage equality is now a mainstream issue, and consideration of the deregulation of cannabis has led to laws for the medicinal use of cannabis in Victoria.

Democratic participation is also contagious and addictive. The more young people contribute to political debate and feel that their contributions are heard, the more they are likely to do it.

This week, it will be easy to find young people and the issues that are important to them. They'll be in the Victorian Parliament: 120 young people will take over the benches of parliament to debate and vote on bills they have developed over many months. Issues on the agenda of the 2016 YMCA Victorian Youth Parliament include medically safe injecting centres, state provision of sanitary items, universal mental healthcare access and prohibiting smoking, just to name a few.

So this week, don't just vote for your children. Listen to them and let them vote for themselves.


Katie MillerKatie Miller is a Melbourne lawyer and Immediate Past President of the Law Institute of Victoria. She participated in YMCA Victoria Youth Parliament in 1997 and 1998 and was Youth Premier in 1998.

Caitlin MeyerCaitlin Meyer is Youth Parliament's current Youth Governor and works in the youth empowerment space.

Main image: Former YMCA Victoria Youth Parliament participants.


Katie Miller and Caitlin Meyer


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Submitted comments

An excellent article about young people and politics by a couple of on-the-ball young people. I can understand youth being disenchanted by conventional party politics and old fashioned lobbying groups because everything from personnel to agenda seems so set. This goes for even so-called 'progressive' parties such as the Greens. Young people have an openness and an energy which needs to find its own space. Older people can help but they should not attempt to muzzle young people.

Edward Fido 29 June 2016

A consideration for actual or intending policymakers in a world where perfect foresight is unattainable: when might a good intention translate into an indifferent, poor or perverse outcome?

Roy Chen Yee 29 June 2016

Disappointed in low turn-out of young people for Brexit vote. Fair enough they're not engaged but when it affects them and their whole nation then its time to act and many didn't! I'd like to be more sympathetic but i'm not. Hoping that they find their voice quickly.

Carol 29 June 2016

I agree with Edward Fido that it is good to read an article by a couple of on-the-ball young people. But if Katie Miller was Youth Premier 18 years ago, she must be 34/35 years old and if Caitlin Meyer is current Youth Governor, she is possibly no longer a teenager. They are, judging from the biodata attached to this article, two very mature young women. And there's the rub. Young people, as every school teacher would know, mature at different rates. Maturation is a process by which we learn to cope with the challenges of life. It does not always happen serendipity-like in regular increments as we get older or as our bodies age. Maturation does not stop when physical growth ends. In my own case it has continued through my adult working life like a ride on the Big Dipper to my current phase of Grumpy Old Manhood. I hope I'm humble enough not to try to put my old head on the younger shoulders of my children and grandchildren. But since I still have my hearing I try to listen to them.Where politics is concerned I encourage them to think and to vote for themselves.

Uncle Pat 30 June 2016

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