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(Image: Juliana Bidadanure, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)
(Image: Juliana Bidadanure, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

Young people are disadvantaged economically yet politically marginalised and demonised. Are youth quotas in parliament part of the answer?

It is now widely acknowledged that young generations are faring particularly badly in Britain.[i] There is growing concern for a ‘jilted generation’ burdened with debts and structural unemployment. In 1992, the unemployment rate of the young was twice as high as for the rest of the population; two decades later, it is up to four times higher.[ii] Even when they do have jobs, young people are disproportionately likely to be in precarious positions such as zero-hour contracts, temporary contracts and unpaid internships.

Despite this context of job scarcity and the structural precariousness they have to face, the young are often regarded with little sympathy. Mainstream politicians tend to emphasize personal desert and render young people responsible for their own situation. Discourses on youth often revolve around their alleged laziness, bad attitude, and strong sense of entitlement.[iii] Young people are asked to “stop whinging, stop complaining, and just get on with it”.[iv] The Intergenerational Foundation recently published a report on the perception of young people in European countries: “when asked to rate overall how positively or negatively people felt towards those in their 20s, respondents from the UK gave its younger people the lowest score of any country.”[v]

This attitude to young people is not without consequences. When Conservative Esther McVey advises young people they “could be working at Costa”, she makes them seem like job snobs and minimizes the challenges young people have to face. When Ed Miliband proposed to cut youth benefits for 18-21 year olds, he made young people sound like benefits addicts who would not take on training if they were getting a cash safety net unconditionally. When Iain Duncan Smith warns unemployed youth they will be forced to pick up litter in exchange for their benefits, he stigmatises young people as irresponsible, selfish and lazy citizens who need to be forced into unwaged labour to learn the right values. The main driver for reforms on youth benefits thus becomes the electorate’s anger that some people may be ‘getting something for nothing’, rather than youth poverty, precariousness and exclusion itself.

In addition to being socially and economically excluded, young people are at the margins of formal politics. In 2005, Ipsos MORI calculated that the voting power of those over 55 in the UK was worth over 4 times that of 18-34 year-olds, due both to the ageing of the electorate and to young people’s very low voting turnouts.[vi] In the 2009 local elections, for instance, only 10 per cent of 18-24 year-olds said that they had voted compared to 85% of people of 65 years old and over.[vii]

While it seems clear that the young’s concerns need to be voiced and heard, there are few young people in positions of power, including in parliament. As shown in the table below, of a total of 650 MPs in the 2010 general elections, only 15 MPs below the age of 30 years old were elected.[viii] In addition, while 20% of MPs were below the age of 40 years old at age of election in 2010, only 15% of the elected MPs in 2015 were under 40 years old.[ix]

Age of MPs at General Elections 1979 to 2010 (McGuinness and Feargal 2010)
Age of MPs at General Elections 1979 to 2010 (McGuinness and Feargal 2010)

It is time for change. In this Great Charter Convention series, many have been discussing who the “people” is, and should be. Young adults, I believe, should be reaffirmed as members of the People. They must be included in political deliberations so that they may contribute to the making of the policies that affect their lives, instead of being subjected to both structural unemployment and precariousness, on the one hand, and policies driven by populism and age prejudices, on the other. There are a number of possible ways to improve youth involvement in formal politics.[x] The introduction of quotas in parliament for young people under the age of 30 years old – for instance, through reserving 50 seats or more for the age group 18-30 years old – could be an important part of the solution for at least 6 reasons.

1) Because young people are stakeholders of the present and the future

If we take the view that all those who have a stake in policy deliberations must be integrated in parliamentary discussions for parliaments to be legitimate, then the answer to the question “why youth quotas?” becomes obvious. Young people are stakeholders, like everyone else. One could push this argument even further and point out that young people have a higher stake in some policies than older people. Younger generations will have to experience a comparatively higher share of the long-term negative consequences of political short-termism than older generations. For instance, the younger people are today, the more risks of negative consequences associated with global warming they will be exposed to. Youth quotas thus increase the long-term legitimacy of parliaments by improving the inclusion of young and future stakeholders in deliberative institutions.

2) To prevent the exclusion of youth concerns from the party packaging of political ideas

In her influential work on what she calls “the politics of presence”, Anne Philips identifies the party packaging of the interests of the marginalized as a fundamental ground for quotas in general.[xi] In this way, regardless of their party membership, young MPs can be expected to contribute to expanding the available party policy packages through pushing for a better inclusion of youth concerns in political agendas. Older MPs have been young too and can thus relate to some such concerns. But poverty or unemployment as a result of the same financial crisis will be experienced very differently if lived at a young age or towards the end of one’s career, for instance. For young people, youth unemployment and poverty can lead to forced dependency on one’s parents, including for accommodation and income. Younger MPs may thus pick on specific problems relating to housing, education and unemployment in a different way than older MPs would.

This argument does not rely on a too substantive and essentialist conception of “youth interests”. Younger MPs will not all agree on what the answer to youth disadvantage is. They will interpret youth interests in different ways based on their goals, values, party lines or social class. However, quotas can help in making sure that political parties include those youth concerns. Whatever their responses may be, youth quotas can spur more deliberation in parliament on these issues. This seems particularly relevant when only 7% of 18 year-olds think that political parties are interested in the same issues that concern young people.[xii]

3) To increase the chances that misrepresentations of young people will be challenged

There is an important risk that policies and debates will be driven by misrepresentations, if conducted solely within some age groups and in exclusion of others. Because of these misrepresentations, as Furlong and Cartmel argue, “when issues emerge that have a core relevance for young people, they are often tackled from a paternalistic and condescending ‘we know what’s best for you’ perspective”.[xiii] An example they put forward is unemployment policy: politicians “tend to focus not so much on creating opportunities, but on (…) motivating young people who are presented as feckless and even as ‘inadequate citizens’”.[xiv] Bringing in more young persons in parliament will increase the likeliness that such misconceptions will be challenged. Of course, not all young MPs will challenge those negative representations. The more conservative ones will embrace these and adopt the same attitude to the young unemployed. But youth quotas can at least have the modest impact of increasing the chance of ‘more vigorous advocacy’[xv] on behalf of the young through speaking out against misrepresentations of the young as lazy and self-serving. This way, younger MPs can be expected to act as watchdogs for age-based discriminations.

4) Because intergenerational diversity promotes innovation and change

As Anne Philips argues, one of the key potentials of descriptive representation is precisely this opening of possibilities. It is about “what would emerge under more favorable conditions”[xvi] – that is, if parliaments were more diverse. Intergenerational practices and collaborations can play a very positive role in the transmission of knowledge and the development of original and innovating problem-solving mechanisms. As a number of researchers have now shown, intergenerational environments foster a better understanding and resolution of problems and spur more innovation and originality. If collaboration between young and old promotes innovation and efficiency, then the absence of young people in parliaments risks undermining the quality of parliamentary discussions (compared to what they could be). The burden of proof then lies on those opposing the introduction of quotas to show why we are not missing out, or why the costs of youth quotas would be higher than the benefits of intergenerational cooperation.

5) To publically acknowledge young people as political equals and political actors

Youth quotas would constitute a “public acknowledgment of equal value”, to borrow Charles Taylor’s expression.[xvii] It would signal to society and young people that their contribution is valued and that they are considered with equal respect. Their status as equal citizens would be attested, recognized and emphasized. The absence or underrepresentation of young people in parliament, on the contrary, may signal the opposite and create a social meaning of inability to rule. It may contribute to an apolitical self-image of young adults, generate a sense that the young are of lower social, or at least political, status, and reinforce the sense that older people are more fit to rule. If we care about the goal of a community of equals where people relate to each other as equals throughout their adult life, then the existence of such social meaning of political inferiority must be undermined. Youth quotas could thus participate in a redefinition of young adults as able to rule and reinforce their image as equal citizens.

The presence of some young people in parliament may act as a strong symbolic gesture to reengage young people in politics, potentially increasing their voting turnout. As Malik and Howker argue, it would be too simplistic to believe that young people simply do not want to engage to explain the fact that their voting turnout is so low:

‘When, before the 2005 general election, the Electoral Commission launched a campaign to persuade young people to vote with the shout-line: ‘If you don’t do politics… there’s not much you do do’, they missed the point entirely. It’s not that young people don’t do politics, it’s that modern politics doesn’t do young people.’[xviii]

6) To further entrench a conception of parliaments as “for the People” and shift the burden of proof over representation

One worry with youth quotas may be that the policy could undermine other legitimate struggles for descriptive representation – for instance, that of women and ethnic minorities. If we start making the case for quotas of all sorts, then this may undermine the relevance of quotas for those who are most marginalized in society. Young people are not marginalized in the same way women or ethnic minorities are. First, the underrepresentation of women and non-whites in parliaments is the result of a history of gender and racial domination and exclusion. Moreover, if women and ethnic minorities are not represented in parliaments, they will have been treated unequally in comparison with other citizens. On the contrary, if you adopt a temporal perspective, if young people are not represented, they will not have been treated unequally over their complete lives when compared with other age groups, who were young themselves at some point too. Don’t youth quotas risk undermining the case for quotas for these more marginalized groups?

A response to this concern is that, rather than undermining existing quota proposals, the introduction of youth quotas could in fact lend support to the very conception of parliaments that underpins quota proposals. Parliaments, proponents of quotas argue, should represent all kinds of experiences that are of important social relevance. The over-representation of some kinds of social experiences (that of being a 50 year old white male from a privileged social background) is a problem in an institution whose members are elected to represent the People as a whole.

In an interesting paper, Rainbow Murray[xix] argues that we should emphasize the ‘over-representation of men’ rather than the ‘underrepresentation of women’ and should consider maximum ‘quotas’ for men to reframe the debate. The burden of proof would then be on men to justify why they “deserve” to be overrepresented. More generally, I believe that we should shift focus to the overrepresentation of some groups in parliaments. This shift of focus from underrepresented to overrepresented, as well as this collective conception of parliamentary expertise as an adequate representation of the experiences that matter socially, jointly offer a good ground for a politics of descriptive representation. Rather than undermining the case for gender or ethnic quotas, the case for youth quotas can thus be made to reinforce it and take it further.

[i] The arguments highlighted in this blog post are developed in: Bidadanure, Juliana (2015) “Better Procedures for Fairer Outcomes: Can Youth Quotas Increase Our Chances of Meeting the Demands of Intergenerational Justice?” in Youth Quotas and other Efficient Forms of Youth Participation in Ageing Societies” edited by Joerg Tremmel at al, Springer: 37-57. I am very grateful to Martin O’Neill, Matt Matravers, Joerg Tremmel, and Stuart White and many others for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

[ii] MacInnes, Tom, Hannah Aldridge, Sabrina Bushe, Peter Kenway, and Adam Tinson. Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation/New Policy Institute, 2013.

[iii] Jones, Owen. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso, 2011; Buckingham, David. “Reading the Riots Acts,” 2012.

[iv] Howker, Ed, and Shiv Malik. Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. London: Icon Books, 2010: 2.

[v] Leach, Jeremy. The Poor Perception of Younger People in the UK. London: Intergenerational Foundation, 2011. http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/The_Poor_Perception_of_Younger_People_in_the_UK_17Aug3.pdf: 3.

[vi] Howker, Ed, and Shiv Malik. Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. London: Icon Books, 2010: 157.

[vii] The Electoral Commission. The European Parliamentary and Local Governement Elections June 2009. London: The Electoral Commission, 2009: 27.

[viii] There would also be at least 14 MPs below the age of 30 years old in the new 2015 parliament. This data comes from – vanHeerde-Hudson, J. and R. Campbell (2015). Parliamentary Candidates UK Dataset. www.parliamentarycandidates.org Note that the demographic data collection of the current British parliament is not yet 100% complete, so this number may very slightly vary.

[ix] Hunter, Paul and Holden, Dan 2015. Who governs Britain – a profile of MPs in the 2015 parliament.


[x] We may enfranchise the young more through lowering the voting age, implementing easier voting systems or making registration simpler. We may also increase funding for youth political initiatives and provide political training to more young people. For instance, for a list of the variety of policies to consider, see: UNDP. Enhancing Youth Political Participation Throughout the Electoral Cycle: A Good Practice Guide. New York: UNDP, 2013; Berry, Craig. The Rise of Gerontocracy? Addressing the Intergenerational Democratic Deficit. London: Intergenerational Foundation, 2012.

[xi] Philips, Anne. The Politics of Presence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995: 27-57

[xii] Hen and Foard in Berry, Craig. The Rise of Gerontocracy? Addressing the Intergenerational Democratic Deficit. London: Intergenerational Foundation, 2012: 40.

[xiii] Furlong and Cartmel in idem: 16.

[xiv] Idem.

[xv] Philips, Anne. The Politics of Presence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

[xvi] Idem: 52.

[xvii] Taylor in idem: 40.

[xviii] Howker, Ed, and Shiv Malik. Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. London: Icon Books, 2010: 154.

[xix] Murray, Rainbow. “Quotas for Men: Reframing Gender Quotas as a Means of Improving Representation for All.” American Political Science Review 108, no. 3 (2014): 1–13.



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