Challenges of meaningful political participation of youth

Despite the growing awareness of the importance of the political representation and participation of young people, which is inherently linked to trust (see Geys, 2006; Smets and Van Ham, 2013; Macedo et al., 2005; Levine, 2006; Martin, 2012), research on the participation and primarily representation of youth is scarce. Even though the bulk of attention usually rests on substantive representation, Mansbridge (1999) stresses the importance of descriptive representation in cases of disaffected groups that distrust other, relatively more privileged citizens. In such cases, these groups feel that their political preferences have to be represented by someone who belongs to those groups in order to establish adequate communication in the context of mistrust, to allow for innovative thinking in the context of uncrystallised interests, to create a social meaning of the 'ability to rule' for members of this group and to increase the polity's de facto legitimacy. Having in mind the immense distrust of youth in institutional politics - political institutions of representative democracy and politicians - the growing alienation from electoral politics and institutions of representative democracy, and the uneven burden youth has to shoulder as a result of the economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures, it is clear that having representatives from the group of young people would make it easier for them to relate to and engage in the political process. Nevertheless, this discussions are inherently related to the various strands of the debate about young individuals’ relationship with the political process, four of which are particularly salient. The first points to the distancing of young individuals from institutional politics. This process is undisputed in the academic and professional literature although the reasons given for it vary greatly (see, for example, Putnam 2000; Dalton 2008; Norris 2002). The second aspect is the broadening definition of politics. Because the political imaginary of youth has changed and evolved, the agents, repertoires and targets of political action have also evolved. It is therefore necessary to resist the narrow definition of the political used in conventional survey methodology because this definition particularly neglects the engagement of younger generations. The third aspect is related to the changing political imaginary of youth. The relationship between youth and the political sphere calls into question the classical liberal distinction between the public and private spheres. Because young people’s understanding of politics does not entail the clear separation of traditional political institutions and everyday life, the expansion of the political sphere serves to break down the boundaries between politics and society such that political orientation and expressions are manifested through the daily lives of young individuals (Soler-i-Marti 2015, 400). The fourth important aspect is the growing complexity of youth transitions. Contemporary youth's transitions to adulthood are marked by longer and reversible transition periods (Serracant 2012; Soler-i-Marti 2015). As these diversified youth trajectories are infused by higher levels of uncertainty and vulnerability, these changing youth transitions have an important effect on young people’s political involvement, particularly in terms of their political socialisation and their repertoires of politicalengagement. The main patterns of the transmission of dominant political values have consequently been altered: lesser importance is placed on the key traditional factors thatshape political socialisation, and greater importance is placed on peers and social media outlets (Vraga et al. 2014; Gordon and Taft 2012). Young people’s political engagement is thus becoming increasingly diverse, non-exclusive and incompatible with traditional modes of engagement (Loader et al. 2014). This makes it clear that the acts of not being present in institutional politics of contemporary representative democracies does not simply equate to apathy. Snell (2010) analyses the category of politically disengaged ‘apolitical’ youth and draws enlightening conclusions. In addition to categorising political and semipolitical groups of youth who express some or much interest in politics and were either sporadically or frequently participating in political events, she identifies four distinct groups of politically uninvolved youth: apathetic, uninformed, distrustful and disempowered. Regardless of the definition of the political, the typology of political engagement outlined above is a stark reminder of how reckless it is to label politically inactive youth as apathetic. The disaggregation of this category of individuals, who are usually attributed with a lack of political interest, indicates that youth approach politics with more or less information, more or less trust in political institutions and politicians, more or less a sense of efficacy and more or less a sense of civic duty (Snell 2010,). Each group therefore reflects a different set of characteristics and should be addressed accordingly. This also brings forward the need to focus on the structural aspect of the non-participation of youth in traditional politics (see Marsh et al. 2007). The scepticism of the ones who have never voted but are passionate and interested about the political issues that influence their everyday lived experiences and their normative concerns (Loader et al. 2014, 143) therefore should not be equated with a lack of interest, but rather as a characteristic of an emerging group of networked young citizens who are sceptical of politicians and mainstream political institutions. This project will address the exposed dilemmas and gaps in knowledge and thus contribute to better understanding of the idiosyncratic nature of youth political imaginary and the way to adapt to it.