Youth engagement in Wales after the EU referendum: reflections on an engagement event

Following our event ‘Young People and Politics: the future direction of youth engagement in Wales’ on the 6th of this month, we are pleased to publish Jake Smith’s reflections on the day. Jake is a postgraduate student at the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University and was involved in recording and writing-up discussion and debate at the event.

On October 6th 2016 young people, researchers, policy actors and representatives from youth sector organisations across Wales gathered in the Pierhead Building, Cardiff Bay to discuss the future of youth engagement in Wales underpinned by research. Research presented to the conference by the Wales Institute for Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD) provided a sobering analysis of the state of youth engagement in Wales and more specifically, found that millennials are the least politically interested generation in the history of survey research. The dominant discourse in this field suggests young people are just as interested in political issues as previous generations but feel alienated due to their lack of faith in politicians and the political system, but WISERD’s research found that millennials (those born in the 1980’s and 1990’s) feel no more politically alienated than previous political generations, while their level of apathy towards politics is uniquely high. This, argued Dr Stuart Fox, required a reassessment of the often mooted solutions to low youth engagement with politics (Youth Parliaments, votes at 16, online voting) for their ability to increase the interest young people show towards politics.

There was a clear groundswell of opinion at the conference in favour of political education in schools, spurred in part by WISERD findings that showed young people would be more likely to engage with politics if they had more confidence in their political knowledge. Personally, I was surprised at the ages at which attendees felt political education could begin, with some suggesting as young as four, and the highest support for beginning at age eight. Education would then be tailored to the age and knowledge of the child to foster an awareness of democracy early on and enable children and young people to engage with the decisions that shape their lives. Calls for political education to be taught in schools have become louder across the UK over the last decade, though action at the UK level has been minimal. With devolution in Wales enabling us to pursue innovations in public policy and to build Welsh education around the needs of our young people, teaching politics in Welsh schools, as standard curriculum, would appear to me to perfectly demonstrate the potential of devolution. As our nation has undergone a democratic revival in the past two decades, with new national political institutions and a revived sense of Wales as a political entity, it should be incumbent on all decision makers who seek to carry forward devolution to see every young person in Wales equipped with the knowledge required to fulfil their potential as political citizens.

The revival of a Youth Parliament for Wales, supported by Presiding Officer Elin Jones AM at the conference (and confirmed as an aim of hers in the Assembly the following week) holds potential to increase knowledge of devolution among children and young people in Wales due to its status. I feel that the Youth Parliament for Wales has unique potential to make political information accessible and relevant to young people due to its status and as a space to communicate and prioritise issues for young people in a way not even the most well-intentioned politician would be able to.

The conference also voiced significant support for extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland, argued that this change would compel schools and colleges to educate their pupils about the act of voting and political issues. It would also bring politicians into schools and colleges to address young people directly, with new (perhaps largely electoral) impetus to talk about the issues that concern young people. I believe that these measures should be seen as perfectly in tune with, and perhaps even a requirement of, realising the participatory democratic revival of Wales that the architects of devolution believed in.

An issue of concern raised by WISERD’s findings was the divide between young people in deprived areas in Wales and those in more affluent areas when it comes to knowledge of and interest in devolution. The findings suggest that decisions taken closer to home through devolution appear to suffer from a higher level of disinterest among economically deprived communities than in affluent communities. In addition 16 and 17 year olds seeking employment were less likely to have heard of the Welsh Government than those still in school or college.

More encouraging were WISERD’s findings that young people became more engaged in politics as a whole and more certain to vote in the referendum as the campaign went on. This reflects my own experiences involved in the EU referendum at Cardiff University where I found widespread and increasing interest in the European Union and the issues of the referendum, with huge attendance at public debates and evidence of the much documented, near overwhelming support for remaining in the EU replicated on campuses across the UK. The level of interest on campus in the referendum unfortunately did not appear to be replicated in active participation in the referendum, such as volunteering for one of the campaigns, perhaps speaking to the disconnect between a younger generation who are only offered decades-old methods of campaigning through which to get involved in political campaigns.

Moving forward I worry that the disappointment, bordering on despondency, though with a healthy dose of gallows humour, that I see among my friends after the referendum result may put them off politics in the future. It has certainly severely shaken their faith in the political actors that dominate our public life and in the ability of the wider public to take momentous decisions without falling back onto certain instincts and emotions from which good decisions rarely flow. Though when I see the intricacies of Brexit negotiations continuing to animate my peers I have hope that the increased political awareness the referendum brought to my generation may not dissipate any time soon.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to

Jake Smith is a postgraduate student at Cardiff University. He can be contacted via email or on Twitter: @JakeSmith137