August 12th has been declared “International Youth Day” by the United Nations. This year, the focus is on youth engagement in today’s time. But what do young people fight for, and how do they do it? To answer these questions, we take a look at the data of the European Social Survey.
Die Vereinten Nationen haben den 12. August als Internationalen Tag der Jugend festgelegt. In diesem Jahr liegt der Fokus auf dem Engagement junger Menschen in der heutigen Zeit. Aber wofür kämpfen junge Leute eigentlich und wie gehen sie die Sache an? Um diese Fragen zu beantworten, werfen wir einen Blick in die Daten des European Social Survey.
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”Franklin D. Roosevelt
Useless Youth or Game-Changer?
We generally view youth as a time when people are irresponsible, make wrong decisions, and learn their lessons. But many young people all around the world also use their time and energy to create social movements that bring millions of young people together. An excellent example of this is the international movement of school students Fridays for Future, which led to climate strikes in about 185 countries . This powerful movement is possibly one of the idea-givers for this year’s International Youth Day theme, as proclaimed by the United Nations: youth engagement for global action.
What are the most famous movements launched by young people? If we think back in time, students have always been in the frontline protesting for what they believed was right: the Civil Rights Movement starting in the 1940s, the Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and 1970s, and the May of 1968 in France. In all these cases, a large number of students and young people organized social movements and carried them out . In more recent years, the consensus has emerged that the Arab Spring in 2010 was primarily initiated by young protesters in Tunisia and, then, spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and other countries in the area . Some of the most recent social movements are Fridays for Future initiated by Greta Thunberg and the March for Our Lives from the students affected by the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland .
Be that as it may, are youngsters really that politically interested? What kind of outlets do they use to get their messages across? We hope to find some clues in the European Social Survey (ESS), Round 9, from 2018.
Collective action is a broad research field particularly interesting for social psychologists and sociologists: Why do some people protest for social change for their group, and others do not? What predicts collective action?
Tajfel & Turner  define collective action as any action that is concerned with improving the status or influence of an entire group rather than that of a few individuals. Throughout many years, scholars have contemplated about the factors that might predict collective action. In 2008, Van Zomeren, Postmes, and Spears  came up with an integrative model that consists of three factors predicting collective action: perceived injustice, perceived efficacy, and a sense of social identity.
As one can see from the definition given above, collective action research builds on the division of people in in-group and out-group, and it involves one group trying to improve its status. Nevertheless, we have experienced in recent movements that protests and other forms of collective action can also stem from people belonging to very distinct groups and that these groups, despite their differences, can fight together for a common cause. Based on such observations, researchers developed a new model that considers opinion-based groups . These groups do not define themselves through social groups such as race or gender but instead shared ideals and opinions. The people engaging in the Fridays for Future movement, for example, would be defined as such an opinion-based group.
The rise of social media has created a new form of activism . People can get information much faster and share their views on topics within seconds with a worldwide audience. Previous research has established that different kinds of social media use (i.e., informative vs. interactive) affect young people’s political participation differently . Especially social affirmation use of social media, meaning “[the] participation in online discussions, information-producing and -sharing (…) with the purpose of expressing one’s group identity and building social capital,” is a predictor for collective action . In addition, Verba and Nie  established four dimensions of political participation: voting, campaign activity, contacting officials, and collective activities. Whereas these measures tend to be undertaken by older people, younger people seem to prefer autonomy- and expression-centered activism . So we wonder: Can we see these patterns in the ESS data?
How Interested Are You…?
In line with the United Nations’ definition of youth, we took a closer look at the ESS respondents between 15 and 24 years. To get a general idea of what is going on in different parts of Europe, we first singled out a few countries as examples (i.e., Germany, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom). In 2018, the distribution of how interested young people were in politics varied considerably across these countries (see Figure 1). In Germany, the share of young people interested in politics was highest, with 43.9 % having chosen the answer options quite interested and very interested, followed by Switzerland (35.9 %) and the United Kingdom (35.7 %). In contrast, less than 15 % of the Hungarian youth said so. Likewise, a relatively small share of young people in Serbia (15.3 %) and Italy (21 %) seemed interested in politics. Similarly, in Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, fewer young people than in the other three countries stated that they were not at all politically interested (7.9 %, 13.6 %, and 22.1 %, respectively).
While interest in politics could indicate engagement in social action, it is somewhat limited as a measure for social engagement. That is because some young people might have strong social interests (e.g., in climate change or inequality) and are, thus, also engaged in social movements, but are not necessarily interested in politics as a whole.
The One Side of Activism
Next, we looked at three behaviors that can be attributed to autonomy-centered activism and, therefore, should be more typical for youngsters: boycotting certain products, signing petitions, and posting online (see Figure 2). Especially when it comes to online participation, young people showed more engagement than older people in the entire ESS sample. Every fifth person under the age of 24 stated that they had posted something about politics online in the last 12 months. The difference regarding signing petitions is much smaller—only about 1 %—, and when it comes to boycotting products, people older than 24 years are more active than younger people.
Note, these patterns are very much due to the chosen cut-off point for youth, as defined by the United Nations. The differences between the age groups might have been greater if we had chosen another cut-off point (e.g., 35 years), possibly pointing to cohort and not solely age effects.
The Other Side of Activism
What about people above the age of 24? Do they draw on more classic ways of collective action? Working in political parties or action groups, contacting politicians or government officials, and participating in public demonstrations are measures that were generally less often used than the other three measures mentioned before (compare Figures 2 and 3). We find the most apparent age difference for the classic collective action measure of contacting politicians or government officials, with being more common among people over 24 (see Figure 3). Almost 20 % had done this in the last 12 months. This age group was also more likely to have worked in a party or action group, though the difference between the two age groups was minimal. Attending demonstrations, however, appeared to be something young people were more engaged in than older people. Recent social movements initiated by students (e.g., Fridays for Future) that rely on big public demonstrations mirror this trend.
Present, Past, and Future
Overall, youth engagement is relevant to global action. In the last years, several famous protests were led by young people and students all over the world. Not only the present but also the past has had many young people fighting for a better society, though the way they fought for their causes may have changed during the last decades. For instance, social media has become a tool for the youth that helps them reach thousands of people in an instant and engage in political dialogue. ESS data from 2018 supports this observation. Even though the way young people try to change the world today might be different from the way just a few decades ago, the future they have fought for in the past and the causes for which they continue to fight have always been on the pulse of time.
Happy International Youth Day!
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