Re-discovering the local: youth engagement

Re-discovering the local: exploring the role of local authorities in the promotion of youth civic and political engagement

Abstract: This paper looks at how local authorities can successfully promote youth engagement and what practices they can institute to ensure youth engagement is best activated. 

The unsolved issue of youth political disaffection

 In the early 1980s, politicians, academic researchers and media in Europe began to talk about a new “apolitical” youth, expressing strong concerns for a generation of young individuals who showed lower levels of interest and trust in politics in comparison with their “older siblings” of the 1960s and 1970s  (Ziebertz, Kay & Riegel 2009).

After two decades, a large part of the political and academic debate on contemporary youth participation is still focused on what has often been described as a youth escape from politics (Lister 2007).

This commonly diffused worry largely stems from the continuous decline of youth participation in elections, and although the various EU Member States have been concerned by this trend with different degrees of intensity (Bouza 2014), there are indeed various reasons to argue that the youth disengagement from voting constitutes a widespread problem for the whole European area. For example, the data on the 2009 European elections testify that the vast majority (64%) of the European young people aged between 15 and 34 years old decided to not express their electoral preference   (71% of those aged 15 to 25 and 58% of those aged 25 to 34).

Particularly over the last ten years, these quite ‘traditional’ concerns of  youth electoral disengagement have been often accompanied by a growing worry for the various movements of protest involving the younger groups of the population that have exploded in France, Germany, Denmark, Greece, Spain, the UK, and Sweden as well as in other European countries. Sometimes degenerating in violent actions, these riots and tumults undoubtedly reflect an open conflict towards society that affect a conspicuous number of young Europeans (Pleyers & Laine 2014; Lapavitsas & Politaki 2014).

Beyond its different expressions, young people’s distrust of and criticism of politics reflects a weakening of national and European institutions’ legitimacy among youth; this phenomenon is also clearly related to these young people’s diminished life expectations.

Since 2007, the number of unemployed young individuals has been increasing in almost all EU Member States (EACEA 2014) because of direct (e.g. jobs’ and salaries’ reduction) and indirect (e.g. welfare cuts) effects of the Euro crisis. These consequences have not equally affected the various cohorts of the European population (Loncle et. al 2012; Martelli 2013), usually leaving the youngest ones in very disadvantaged social positions, that fosters their sense of alienation from politics as a symbol of a social system by which they perceive has abandoned and betrayed them.

In the face of this scenario, a new awareness within the EU and its Member States about the need to revitalise the democratic system (Kiilakoski & Gretschel 2013) has emerged, as demonstrated by the many political documents and interventions on youth participation produced and implemented by EU institutions, national governments and other political authorities over the last two decades (Council of Europe 2003).

Looking at the role of local authorities: some notes from an exploratory analysis

Recently a certain emphasis has been placed on the role of local level authorities in the reconstruction of a dialogue between young people and politics.

Different studies (Vromen 2003; Harris & Wyn 2009; Farthing 2012) have highlighted the importance of the local context for the development of political and civic attitudes among the young people whose political thinking and acting is still “bounded by the micro-territories of the local” and takes primarily “place within the spaces of home, friendship groups, school and neighbourhood” (Harris & Wyn 2009:1), where they learn and experiment with how to engage in society, thus shaping their personal ideas of citizenship.  For these reasons, youth participatory behaviours are particularly affected by the local environment and by the opportunities of participation that are offered (or not offered) to them in these contexts (Alderson 2010).

Within this perspective, local authorities play the crucial role of the first institutional actor in the process of youth socialisation to civic and political engagement and it is thus particularly important to understand how they interpret the concept of “youth participation” in their policies concerning the field of youth engagement (Vromen & Collin 2010).

With this goal in mind, some results of an exploratory study conducted in 2014 and aimed at investigating the ways used by local institutions to engage young people in the civic and political life of their communities are going to be presented in the following paragraphs.

This research, primarily based on an analysis of documentary materials, has considered some examples of youth involvement at the local level, promoted or implemented by local and regional authorities in the different member countries of the European Union, succeeding to analyse 45 initiatives of youth involvement.

These were chosen on the basis of the information provided by some stakeholders (associations, political representatives, academic experts) who have been selected in different national contexts and who have been asked to suggest (positive and negative) examples of youth involvement at the local level.

The presented study is thus not a research on youth itself, it does not aim at describing young people’s ways of engagement in society and it does not directly involve young people in the empirical process, but it seeks to provide a strictly top-down analysis of youth participation at local level, starting from a critical exploration of the institutional offers of engagement and trying to highlight the meanings laying beneath different strategies of youth involvement adopted by local authorities.

Given its methodological approach, the described research has an eminently exploratory intent and do not aim at a generalisation of its results. The analysis wants instead to provide a background for a (partial) understanding of the role of local actors in the promotion of youth involvement in the European context through the identification of good and bad practices.

How to not engage the youth

On the basis of the stakeholders’ opinion, a group of 22 activities promoted by local authorities to foster youth engagement in their communities were listed as “bad practices” and an empirical exploration aimed at understanding their main errors and deficiencies has been carried out through a qualitative analysis of the projects’ documentary materials (project’s proposal, website, evaluation cards, activities report).

In line with other empirical studies on this same topic (Ekman and Amnå 2009; James 2011), the research on this group of projects has showed that local authorities sometimes propose a very limited definition of “youth participation” in comparison with what youth engagement really is (which involves, inter alia, listening to youth insights for policy and active citizen engagement),, and that the adoption of this narrow idea of youth involvement makes the dialogue between these local authorities and their policies’ target quite complex and challenging.

In particular, the “vocabularies of citizenship” adopted by the institutional authorities within this sample of projects appear to show their limitedness in relation to three main points:

  1. the young individuals targeted;
  2. the tools though which these engagement policies try to involve the younger generation in political participation;
  3. and the issues on which the young people are called/allowed to express their ideas.

Looking at who are the targeted and involved individuals, a little specified focus appeared to be frequently diffused in the analysed policies and to represent the most common limit of many institutional interventions.

The lack of specification of the public interventions’ focus on youth engagement concerned both the age and the social conditions of the targeted youth population. The explored policies were frequently addressed to the rather indistinct group of ‘young people’, which was itself broadly defined by large age boundaries, placing teenagers and thirty year olds in the same group. Moreover, many of the analysed local policies concerning young people’s civic and political involvement also seemed to not properly take into consideration the differences concerning the socio-economic backgrounds and other forms of social disadvantage experienced by young people (e.g. disabilities, being members of a minority etc.)

In other words, with respect to this first sample of projects, local authorities seemed to have forgotten that political participation changes along with age, and that it can not be separated from the issues of social exclusion and inequalities (Nussbaum 2001; Lister 2007). For these reasons, an overestimation of the homogeneity of youth condition (Cavalli & Galland 1993; Furlong 2009) could be easily noticed in many of the explored local policies aimed at fostering youth active engagement.

The limitedness of the institutional vocabulary of citizenship appears even more evident if we take into consideration the proposed tools of involvement.

As underlined by several studies (Ekman & Amna 2009), institutional interventions of youth engagement are traditionally loyal to the very narrow range of instruments of involvement, conceiving voting and standing for the election as the only “real” ways to exercise the rights of political citizenship (Checkoway et al. 2005; Kiilakoski & Gretschel 2013). Because of the age limits for involvement, poor and ineffective advertisement, complex and unattractive language, the frequently limited consideration of the views expressed by the consulted individuals, participatory democracy’s tools of involvement (Raisio 2014) have demonstrated their limits in grasping youth attention and they are proving to be more and more unable to reach the older members of the population too (Norris 2003; Martuccelli 2007).

Despite these well-known deficiencies, the vast majority of the analysed local institutions’ policies belonging to the first group of problems seemed to consider representative democracy as a sufficient instrument of political expression. These interventions were indeed usually based on mere activities of sensitisation to vote and they seemed to forget the dynamic relationships and overlapping boundaries between electoral participation and unconventional forms of engagement (e.g. participation in voluntary associations).

Lastly, beyond the institutional policies’ specific targets and proposed tools, the reduced attractiveness and effectiveness of many local authorities’ interventions in the field of youth engagement appeared to be mostly compromised by the same issues on which young people were invited and allowed to express their ideas.

From the analysis of the first sample’s projects of youth engagement at local levels, it was possible to underline how young individuals were usually mobilised around very tightly defined topics, such as the re-appropriation of public spaces or sport.

Even if the issues that were put at the centre of the projects of youth involvement are questions that undoubtedly have a relevance into the daily lives of the young individuals, they constitute an externally-defined understanding of what matters to young people i.e. young people have not contributed to the definition themselves. What’s more, this external definition separates youth active involvement into narrow, compartmentalised designations which are of only little relevance to young people; this is what James (2011) and Torney-Purta & Amadeo (2011) call a division of issues into “precincts”. Examples of such “precincts” include “school” and “holidays”.

Besides being often very narrow, these precincts help to keep young people out of the “big issues”: claiming to engage young people on those questions that concern them “directly”, local authorities seemed to forget that economy, environment and education are matters that directly interest young people too[1], ultimately involving young individuals only in “peripheral issues” that don’t really produce real changes in their life conditions (Sherrod et al. 2010; Soler et al. 2014).

And how to engage the youth

A second group of 23 projects, composed by those initiatives which the involved stakeholders have indicated as “good examples”, have been taken into analysis in the exploratory study and by their comparative analysis it has been possible to distinguish the main characteristics and features that have made them successful experiences of youth involvement at local level.

In general, it can be argued that these projects have succeeded in creating a good communication between the young people and the institutions through the promotion of an effective and balanced sharing of the power among them. In other words, in these initiatives of youth engagement, the patronising institutions have demonstrated a willingness to effectively collaborate with the involved youth, who are not conceived as “beneficiaries”, “users” or “consumers” of the policies, but as collaborators in their definition, implementation and evaluation.

The analysed good examples shared a common “openness” to youth’s vocabulary of citizenship that concerns different sides of the intervention:

  1. the targets of the activities;
  2. the language and the tools;
  3. the issues on which the participants were engaged;
  4. the space and the time.

Openness firstly concerned the targets of the activities. The analysed good practices have indeed demonstrated to be interested in promoting the political and civic inclusion of all the young people, nevertheless keeping in mind the shades that can be distinguished within the abstract idea of “youth”. Youth involvement activities were conceived as inclusive projects open to the participation of the whole youth community, but specific paths for those who had more difficult profiles on different levels (e.g. socio-economic weakness, disabilities, etc.) were created within the general project, thus avoiding both the risk of reaching just the already active ones (Hart 1992), and the risk of stigmatising and alienating a specific group of the youth population from their peers.

The openness of the vocabulary of citizenship of these good examples of youth engagement was secondly a matter of language and tools. All the analysed projects of this second sample have managed to go beyond the traditional ideas of participation as limited to participatory democracy, by    adopting a larger and combined range of tools of involvement (Raisio 2014), as well as by using a “youth language” to attract the interest of young individuals. In these activities the increase of youth electoral participation was often conceived as one of the possible (indirect) results of the promotion of  broader ideas of active citizenship, in which unconventional practices of involvement (e.g. associations, voluntary activities), new languages (e.g. music, art) and tools (e.g. on-line platforms) benefit from the same recognition of voting.

On a third level, the openness of these good practices of youth engagement could be observed by looking at the issues on which the youth were asked to participate. In these initiatives, the involved young people were often called to express their ideas on broad and relevant topics, such as the local budget distribution, the future urban planning of the city or the local welfare services management, thus ascribing to the young individuals the same full powers that are recognised in all adult citizens.

Lastly, the openness of these activities was expressed also on the level of time and space. With respect to time, the analysed good practices were, in many cases, long-term projects that had become part of the common life of the community, fostering immediate practical improvements and cultural effects nurturing in the long-run. Moreover, these projects shared also a broad definition of “political space”. Schools, neighbourhoods, streets, parks, libraries and other everyday environments of the involved young people were turned into political space were the youth could exercise their rights as citizens. This open understanding of the time and the space of citizenship allowed the young participants to enact citizenship in “less distant” worlds than the polling booth.


In accordance with the various studies that have dealt with the relationships between youth political disaffection and local institutions, there are undoubtedly reasons to argue that local authorities are able to shape youth engagement even at national and European levels on the basis of the opportunity of expression, consultation and action they give or they don’t give to the younger members of their population.

For this reason, local and regional institutions represent an essential actor in the process of recovering and promoting youth interests into civic and political participation.

However, as underlined throughout the article, the definitions of participation proposed by these institutions’ policies can be particularly variable: sometimes they have counter-productive effects on the involvement of the young individuals, limiting the real opportunity of expression of the youth; sometimes they demonstrate a particular openness to the young individuals’ ways of conceiving and practicing, almost giving carte blanche to them.

The results of this exploratory top-down analysis of youth participation at local levels seems to suggest that there is an urgency for the local authorities to abandon the narrowest vocabularies of citizenship and to embrace the idea that young people are not just “citizens in the making” – who have to be guided, managed and controlled into participation (Lee 2001; James 2011; Martelli & Pitti 2014) -, but “full citizens” whose ways, times, spaces and tools of participation should be accorded the same recognition and possibilities of expression as their adult co-citizens.

[1]  This seem to be especially true in a period of economic recession like the current one.


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Ilaria Pitti has recently obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology with a thesis on youth participation and intergenerational relationships. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology and Business Law of the University of Bologna and an expert on youth participation for the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities at the Council of Europe.