Q+A  

Youth without representation

Aksel Sundström explores how the absence of young adults in our governing institutions is weakening our democracy.

With an octogenarian currently ensconced in the White House and a likely challenger in his 70s hoping to supplant him, the generational divide between political leaders and the electorate couldn’t be starker. In “Youth without Representation: The Absence of Young Adults in Parliaments, Cabinets, and Candidacies” (University of Michigan Press, 2022), Aksel Sundström and his co-author Daniel Stockemer explore the hurdles to youth involvement in politics and political institutions. We sat down with Sundström, a former Ash Center Visiting Democracy Fellow, to discuss his new book and some of the ideas that he and his co-author had for righting this generational imbalance.

Ash: While there’s been no shortage of scholarship examining the deficit of youth political participation, it seems that far less attention has been paid to the issue of youth actually holding elected office.

Sundström: My general reflection is that there has been a ‘silence’ in the scholarly literature on the topic. While the absence of other politically marginalized groups has been investigated for decades, the standing of youth among decision-makers is a nascent research topic. There is much more to be done here. We just authored a piece on the standing of youth in Congress, a case where there has been very little done.

Though people under 35 consist of over half the world’s population, they are vastly underrepresented in the halls of political power. What are some of the institutional roadblocks you have identified which have led to fewer young people holding office?

The deck is stacked against young adults’ presence in politics. There are both formal and informal hurdles. One factor we have found that is often overseen is the legal rules that hinder youth of a certain age in many countries. To me, it is arbitrary and unjust that adults below the ages of 25 or even 30 years are hindered from running for office.

Are many of these roadblocks dependent on geography, political traditions or systems, or did you find that these levels of underrepresentation were universal?

Only a few countries have legislatures where the share of young people is similar to that of the population. In the US, for instance, representatives tend to be 20 years older than the average American. So, in different ways, it seems that most countries tend to benefit older people.

Proportional representation electoral systems tend to be better for youth representation, because they are not based on the logic of ‘winner takes it all’. Research suggests that these systems tend to have more political parties as well as benefit candidates from politically marginalized groups. Because parties in such systems can appeal to more groups in the electorate and present a more diversified list, this tends to help youth as well.

Are there also differences among mature democracies?

A puzzle that interested my co-author and myself was that there is considerable variation in youth representation, also between post-industrial western European countries. Therefore, one of the chapters compares Sweden and Switzerland. They come out as somewhat contrasting in comparative survey data with candidates — Sweden having a large portion of youth running for election that are successful and Switzerland having a very low share of youth candidates that win their seats in the end. The two seems to differ on one fundamental aspect, in that Sweden overall has a political culture that welcomes youth. Not the least, the youth wings of parties are very strong, and the large Social Democratic party issued a goal some years back of having 30% youth on their lists. In Switzerland, youth wings are not as influential and youth candidates seem to be relegated to marginal positions. Many of the Swiss candidates we surveyed mentioned how they are met with condescending and belittling attitudes from more senior colleagues.

In the book, you call this gap between the age of most elected officials and the population as a whole a “democratic deficit.” What are the impacts that you identified in your book about the lack of young people holding office?

In many settings there seems to be plenty of young candidates, but they are less successful than older ones when they run. They seem to be placed in races they cannot win (because of incumbency advantages of opponents) or low on lists in such systems.

I think the old age of leaders sends a strong signal that formal politics is something for older people, which feeds into cycles of apathy. With declining party membership and lower rates of voter turnout among youth. I think encouraging young people to run rather than not should be in the interests of leaders. Witnessing how an older political class fails to address issues of the future, such as the late and meager attempt at coping with the climate crisis, could affirm that they are not working for the interest of younger and future generations. We fear, therefore, that youth might see decisions made by older leaders as less legitimate. In fact, this is something we will continue to work on through experimental research we are now designing.

Just looking at youth political participation, voting rates of older voters often dwarf those of younger voters. What are some of the reasons you identified for this drop-off in youth voting, and how should countries look to close this gap?

We propose that having more young leaders could mean that cycles of youth apathy is countered. To ensure an increased youth participation in elections, we likely need to make them feel that formal politics is the forum for involvement. This will likely not happen with increasingly old leaders. The ages of representatives in Congress have been increasing for the past 40 years and we have presidential candidates that are so much older than the average voter. This furthers alienation of a new generation of potential voters.

In addition to strengthening turnout among younger voters, what are some suggestions you identified for furthering participation levels of younger people in political institutions?

First and foremost, we suggest that age barriers for adults must be abandoned. Moreover, we propose that term limits on seats in legislatures would increase the turnover of seats and open opportunities for newcomers.

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