Strikes, Protests, & the Ballot Box: how young people have ‘shaken up’ the world of politics

By Aaliyah Anjorin

Youth culture in the 50s and 60s was marked by protests, new social movements, and a widening generational gap. Young people took part in sit-ins, campus protests, and became an essential part of the opposition to the Vietnam War. Militant and rebellious, they did not waver in their fight for a just society. 

Similar parallels can be drawn to our own generation. Faced with issues ranging from climate change, to the rise of the far-right populism, today’s youth have utilised some of the same methods to ‘shake up’ the world of politics and force actual change. 

It has often been said that young people are the forgotten generation of politics. We reside in a small corner of the political world, where few pieces of legislation are drawn up with us in mind, our legislatures do not resemble us, and our leaders cannot understand the issues we face. It comes as no surprise then, that political disillusionment is an extremely high phenomenon among young people. 

Yet, the 2019 UK general election signalled a shift in the way young people engaged with traditional politics. Spurred on by anxiety over a crumbling social system, spiralling housing crisis and the impact of ten years of austerity on their future prospects, over 1.4 million under twenty-five-year-olds registered to vote in the weeks following the election announcement — a rise of 36% in comparison with 2017.

This newfound invigoration meant that age became the best indicator of voting intention. And although the aptly-named ‘youthquake’ was unable to prevent what became a night of horrors for Britain’s political left, what it was able to do was show that young people were willing to make a change within the system and not just outside it. 

Working outside of the system

Still, outside the system is precisely where young people come into their own. Direct action, throughout the years, has become almost synonymous with youth culture, as building frustration and a lack of representation within traditional politics has forced them elsewhere. 

Building on the work of generations gone past, young people today have been able to turn direct action into an important political weapon which allows them to control and influence political conversations – particularly in situations when their voices have been ignored or deliberately omitted. 

The ‘Fridays4Future’ climate strikes, inspired by teen activist, Greta Thunberg are a perfect example. With young people at its very core, the movement has helped place a spotlight on the rather lack-lustre government responses to the climate crisis which threatens to fundamentally change life as we know it. Holding up signs that demand for ‘system change not climate change’ while giving impassioned speeches about what they view as their futures being taken from them, means that large corporations must now vie with another group for influence over politicians. 

And while money talks, so do votes. The emergence of these strikes has made green issues a priority in the manifestoes of all major UK parties and also pushed the UK Parliament into declaring a climate emergency, in a bid to sweep up as much of the youth vote as possible.   

Leading from the front

While the fight for climate justice is a relatively new one, the fight for racial equality is one that has spanned centuries and the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of the police became the catalyst for a new wave of protests worldwide, primarily organised by teenagers and young adults.

Despite the risk stemming from coronavirus, many young people took to the streets to voice their opposition to a system that they deem not fit to protect the communities that it is supposed to serve. From vine inspired protest signs to the spamming the Dallas iWatch app with fancams, the influence of Gen Z in the current wave of protests cannot be missed. 

It is no surprise, either, that they are so passionate about the cause. For many of the young people taking part, especially those from the Black community, there is a constant fear that they could be the next hashtag trending on Twitter — the newest name to tack onto an ever-growing list of victims of police brutality. 

For others, who have been taught that racism in all forms is unacceptable their whole lives, the idea that those in positions of power are not held to the same standard is unacceptable. Growing up in increasingly diverse communities means that unlike the generations that came before them, the statement that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not a controversial one and instead, is one they are willing to defend. 

Where do we go from here?

As Gen Z become the newest generation to inherit the fight, we look to the streets that they have filled, passionate and determined despite the violence they face from the police, there is no doubt that this will be a defining moment for their generation as we stand on the precipice of change.

“The Decade of Youth Rising” was the subtitle of Teen Vogue’s final issue in 2019 which celebrated the groundwork laid down by youth activism throughout the 2010s. And as young people, we have done a lot, but it is now time to do so much more. We have started to create the conditions to allow for the change that we want but now it is time to create the change itself. At one time we were the overlooked group in politics, but now, we have found our voice. We cannot afford to lose it. 

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