Did We Let the World Down?
It is fascinating to see how quickly we have moved from a phase of ultra-optimism about our future to, as Henry Kissinger described in his latest book, a state of disorder not seen since World War II.
In the 1990’s, it was the end of all negative ‘isms’. Like the climax of a typical Bollywood movie, Good was slowly prevailing over Evil. The days of Communism and Colonialism were gone. Former authoritarian regimes had been gripped by democratic fever. Walls that divided us were being struck down. Half the world was developed, and the countries in the other half were accepting the ideals of globalisation, opening their economies to a more prosperous future. It finally looked that the world will be rich together. Francis Fukuyama called it the ‘End of History’.
Who was going to lead the world into this much-awaited future: a new, progressive-thinking generation, the millennials, for whom war was confined to history textbooks. They were already calling the world a Global Village and themselves International Citizens. Instead of declaring war on each other, humans started declaring war against terrorism and poverty. The chorus of the song, “One Love” by Blue, seemed to sum up the mood of the times.
Ironically, the same song starts with the lines, “It is kind of funny, how life can change. Can flip 180, in a matter of days!”. And so it did. Try time-travelling to the beginning of the 21st century and telling one of the many optimists of the era that come 2019, protectionism will be trumping globalisation, a major migrant crisis, ethnic conflict, and civil war will still be the call of the day, that a ‘rules-based international order’ will be a hope rather than a reality, that countries will choose conflict over co-operation, that international trade will slow as tariffs rise, and anti-establishment leaders will be coming to power across nations.
One question: how did everyone fck up everything?* A synopsis of the Arab Spring might be a good parallel to draw. There was a social movement for political change, optimism was sky-high, some progress was made, and just when all pieces of the puzzle seemed to be coming together, due to someone’s self-interest, everything went back to square one. That is where the world stands today: back to square one. It was much ado about nothing.
Should we now rename the millennials as the “Lost Generation”? The ones who had the golden opportunity to firmly establish human civility but could not. Should the rest of this article be an apology letter on behalf of all millennials, for screwing it all up?
Blaming the driver for losing control of the car makes sense. Except, the millennial was never in the driver’s seat! Instead of making a scapegoat out of a whole generation (who also suffer from the same problems as the rest), it is time we ask some uncomfortable questions and come up with solutions which might disgruntle a few.
While the millennials may not have united the world, one area where the world seems united against the millennials is denying them political participation. The global average age of an MP (Member of Parliament) is 53, and the global median age is 29. This means, there is a gap of 24 years (almost one whole generation) between the policymakers and the people affected by the policy. In other words, we live in a young world run by old ideas.
Only 2.2% of MPs around the world are under 30. A staggering 76% of upper chambers of parliament have no MPs under the age of 30. The most absurd status quo in global democracy is the ‘waiting time’ between the eligible voting age and eligible participation age. On average, an eligible voter needs to wait for 5 years to become eligible for running for office. For example, in India, a person aged 18 can vote but cannot run for the lower house until he is 25.
A more in-depth study reveals that, barring some honourable exceptions like Ecuador and Bhutan, every country, irrespective of region, has inadequate youth political representation. Remember, this is a generation whose idealistic bubble burst along with the housing bubble of 2008. Millennials caught themselves day-dreaming amid the worst economic crisis in 75 years. Coming at a time when most millennials were seeking jobs, the financial crisis ensured that they became the first generation to be earning less than their parents, despite having more qualifications.
While millennials around the world were kept busy by unemployment and underemployment, their representatives kept getting older. For instance, the average age of the US Congress has jumped from 49 in 1981 to 61 in 2014 (thankfully, the latest Congress is an exception to the trend, with the average age dropping by 10 years). Nigeria, with a median age of just 18, has never seen a leader less than 50 years old. No wonder, the potential African economic powerhouse witnessed a popular #NotTooYoungToRun campaign before the 2019 elections.
To be fair to our old politicians, millennials cannot expect to be politically represented if they do not turn up for voting in the first place! Globally, the average turnout amongst the youth is 30%, much lesser than the overall turnout. The theory on electoral participation suggests, with some credible research, that voting is habitual. If you vote once, you will likely vote again. As a corollary, if you do not vote, it is unlikely you will participate the next time. If millennials miss out early on, many of them will likely not participate ever. As per some estimates, the average youth turnout in mid-terms in the USA over the last 2 decades is a meagre 21.66%. Millennials in ageing societies are further dissuaded from voting, as they feel their vote ‘hardly matters’ when they form a small part of the electorate. In European elections, less than one-third of young voters participated in 2014 (in Finland, turnout was 10.4%). Japan, another ageing society, has been facing similar problems and had to lower its voting age to 16 to fight this problem.
To break these structural barriers, a few conventional and innovative ideas exist. The most common solution is reservation. Having youth quotas sounds reasonable enough (of course, subject to other socio-political considerations), given that empirical data suggests that they are politically marginalised. These quotas can also reduce inter-generational conflict in policymaking, as recent examples of ideological clashes on climate change and immigration suggest. Simply, if we are making policies for the future, the part of the population having the highest stake in it should be involved.
A small but growing number of countries like Kenya, Egypt and Kyrgyzstan have youth quotas in their parliaments. Some of these countries also require a certain percentage of the youth getting elected through these quotas to be women. Having gender parity in youth quotas helps solve another problem in representational politics: women make up only 24% of parliamentarians worldwide. This imbalance is less pronounced amongst the young MPs, with a 60:40 ratio. Let’s not let another opportunity pass us by.
Other ideas around reservation include reserving seats in local elections (like Sri Lanka, Uganda and Peru) and political parties (like Vietnam, Sweden and Turkey). All forms have their benefits but progress can only be made when youth is defined as someone under the age of 30. Many countries introducing the youth quota have set the bar ‘too high’ at 35 or 40. Empirical research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union tells us that such policies do help in greater representation for people below 40, but the millennials are left out again.
Apart from reducing the eligible age to run in elections (as discussed above), another electoral reform can be the promotion of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. A PR system induces political parties to put up candidates from various backgrounds unlike a First-Past-the-Post system, where candidates are usually majoritarian, populist, and in most cases, NOT in their 20s. The share of young MPs is significantly higher in PR systems or a mix of the two systems. This is particularly useful in ageing societies where the young, aspiring politicians fail to get enough votes as their core support base is insignificant.
The next and a major step forward will be to check political funding in elections. In countries where political campaigning is influenced by private donations and limitless spending, the youth find themselves unable to raise such resources with little political and business contacts and self-worth (unless they are themselves heir to a political dynasty). Money cannot buy you happiness but as long as it can buy you power, do not expect youth political participation to go up. At the least, countries can set up recognized Youth Parliaments and integrate it with the national parliament (most “Youth Parliaments” that function today are currently through NGOs and private initiatives). This gives the youth a legitimate forum to express their opinions. Politics is not a science, it takes practice. Hence, promotion and mainstreaming of Youth Parliaments will prepare a larger number of youngsters with varied backgrounds for politics than any other means.
To be sure, age is not the only factor which makes people not want to participate politically. Education, unemployment, immigration background, marital status, and income are some other important influencing factors. However, it is the Millennial which is facing the brunt of a combination of these factors. In South Africa, where democracy is as old as a millennial, #IWantToVoteBut trended hours before the polls opened, and was accompanied by reasons like limited job prospects.
As a millennial, I can guarantee that we are much more than a bunch of people who do not care about the larger good, as we are often made out to be. And there are positive signs around. The number of millennials in the recent US House of Representatives is up by 420%. Green parties in the EU are becoming a political force to reckon with, in large part because of rising millennial support. In Indonesia, the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) has been formed to represent the millennial voice. Not bad for a country where 15 years ago, youth would shy away from public political participation as they were slowly transitioning to a democracy. Recent elections around the world have seen more MPs below 45 being elected. This article started by laughing off the 21st-century optimists, but a little hope of change from the most educated generation ever does not hurt, does it?
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