Enrolling young people in city political life

16 May 2022

Felix is a 24-year-old Swiss student at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland. He’s the international undergraduates’ representative at the university’s council.

His political engagement has also led him to become one of the participants in the Future Mentors Programme, a Eurocities initiative to boost European youth’s participation in local affairs.

The Future Mentors’ Programme

Ahead of the Eurocities Annual Conference and as part of the European Year of Youth, the Finnish city of Espoo will coordinate the Future Mentors Programme. For youth, this will be a unique chance to make their voice heard about cities’ sustainable future and to mentor their local representatives.

Establishing a direct link between young people and local leaders is crucial, says Felix, since quite often politicians talk instead of listening. Indeed, according to a  Flash Eurobarometer on Youth and Democracy poll conducted at the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe, 72% of young people expect the European Year of Youth to encourage decision-makers to listen more to their demands and act on them.

Infographic from the Flash Eurobarometer 502: Youth and Democracy in the European Year of Youth. ©European Commission

“The Future Mentors Programme goes in the right direction,” says Felix. “It already shows that youth can impact high-level decisions in the city.”

“The involvement of many big European cities gives the programme credibility,” he adds. A total of 26 cities participate in the initiative, among which are Berlin, Bologna, Eindhoven, Florence, Frankfurt, Ghent, Helsinki, Manchester, and Nantes.

“The  simplicity of the Future Mentors Programme allows cities with vastly different political systems to participate. I believe this combination will inspire many more cities to participate in the future,” the student remarks.

Future mentors programme in Arezzo. ©Mentors programme Arezzo

Youth representation

If local authorities want to pursue youth political participation, they must guarantee opportunities and space for discussion.

At what age can young people start being actively involved?  Felix agrees that children have different priorities and not enough knowledge.

However, political education could start early in life, the student suggests. “Those who will engage in politics when 16 or 18 years of age could start getting familiar with the process when they are younger,” he suggests. For example, “by showing the impact that they could have in the future, or learning that they don’t need to become a politician to be involved in their city’s life.”

A key ingredient to youth integration and inclusion is active participation, the student says, which would empower people to be part of the solution when they’re still young, Felix adds.

Nikita Sanaullah,Policy Advisor on Social Affairs at Eurocities

For Nikita Sanaullah, Policy Advisor on Social Affairs at Eurocities, there are many ways to achieve youth political participation. “There are lovely examples from different cities of allowing young people to vote at 16 to ensure that youth issues are represented politically,” she adds.

Young voters

Lowering the voting age and fostering youth participation may be key to ensuring integration in the political environment.

Some cities allow people to vote at 16 years-old. Austria pioneered the idea when it lowered the voting age in 2007. The legislative body of the Province of Vienna had already done so four years before. “Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds often have jobs, pay taxes and lead their own lives. So why shouldn’t they vote?,” said Sonja Wehsely, Vienna’s Executive City Councillor who was responsible for the elections at the time

Vienna’s decision stemmed from the idea that young people were increasingly interested in politics, in particular local politics that affect their immediate environment and them personally. “Today, in the information age, young people are just as well informed about political and social issues as older generations,” an official from the Department of Elections and Specific Legal Affairs of Vienna’s City Council told Eurocities. “It was considered a prejudice that young people would not be mature enough to make political decisions or would be more influenced by election campaigns than older voters.”

Currently, 16-year-olds can also vote in municipal elections in Greece, Estonia, and Wales. In Cardiff, citizens between 11 and 25 years of age are also invited to the Young Citizens Panel, where they offer their views on local issues throughout the year.

Felix calls lowering the voting age “a great first step”, but he worries about socioeconomic inequalities.

“Voting rates are not staggeringly high among young people,” he says. According to Vienna’s Department of Elections, voting behaviour as well as the turnout among young people is very much the same as that of older voters.

Felix maintains that youth participation is sometimes directly linked to their economic or the educational level. The student proposes analysing voting rates and monitoring the participation to ensure a more inclusive process.

Feeling part of the community

Voting, however, is only one side of politics. The other one is being elected.

“A second step is for young people to get involved in local politics as politicians themselves, for example, by reducing age restrictions,” Sanaullah adds. “In some countries, you must be at least 35 to run for political office.”

Indeed, decision-making positions seem inaccessible to inexperienced people, so those under 35 face an unfair misrepresentation. According to Frances Stewart, Professor Emeritus of Development Economics at Oxford University, the youth undergo a “generational inequality.”

“The future generations are not given the importance they deserve,” Stewart said at the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum hosted by Berlin last year.

To improve what she refers to as ‘futurability’ at a local level, the professor presented three possibilities: representation of future generations through appointed councillors or committees; procedural changes such as including future impacts in reports; improving the deliberative process by creating cross-party commissions and networks.

“Where national governments fail to take action, cities can still contribute and have an effect,” Stewart concluded.

While local, national and international governments may be working on youth representation, and the European Year of Youth and the Future Mentors programme are proof of it, there is a third way young people can contribute: by taking part in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of different policies and programmes.

In Sanaullah’s words, it’s about consulting with young people and helping make them part of the process. “That’s an essential step towards young people feeling part of the community and ownership over what’s happening in their city – a brilliant way to create active citizenship,” she concludes.

Three years ago, Vienna initiated the “Werkstadt Junges Wien” project, where those between 5 and 20 years of age were asked about their opinions, wishes and views. The answers of more than 22,000 people was included in the first ‘Vienna Children and Youth Strategy’, which includes nine topics and 193 measures covering all areas of the administration.

The Austrian capital boasts two other similar initiatives: a participative budget for children and young people, who are tasked to decide on the allocation of one million euros of the city’s budget; the first city-wide children and youth parliament, a space to discuss the implementation of the overall strategy.

These initiatives seem to be right on time. The Flash Eurobarometer on Youth and Democracy shows that in recent years younger generations have taken part in one or more youth organisations over the last 12 months and that youth engagement has grown significantly: 58% of young people are active in the societies they live in, a 17% increase from 2019.

Infographic from the Flash Eurobarometer 502: Youth and Democracy in the European Year of Youth. ©European Commission

A matter of fairness

So how can youth involvement be guaranteed? Felix talks of three main priorities: openness and clarity; inclusion and diversity; lowering the threshold for feedback.

Since politics may seem very abstract for citizens, “we should make the impact of politics visible and more transparent,” he maintains. Only those who hear about politics from their close network, Felix says, would be aware of its importance.  Therefore, “the rest are excluded because they feel the political system is something foreign rather than something that we are all part of,” he adds.

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers

This brings him to his second point: inclusion and diversity for an authentic representation. Young people familiar with the political system are more likely to participate in it and take positions of power, which neither guarantees inclusiveness nor diversity. The system welcomes people with high education, politics are taught at high educational levels, and, consequently, only educated people can get into politics, Felix adds.

“It’s an obvious difference between elite youth and diverse youth. I also feel that mechanisms specifically targeting more educated people are dangerous and non-representative,” he remarks. How to include those on the margins, then?

One solution could be encouraging active and regular feedback, the student suggests. “I did door-to-door sales for two summers as a student job – Felix explains -. “What that showed me is that there are many ways of gathering feedback.”

It’s essential to find a way to start a conversation with those who aren’t politically active. Felix agrees on using informal methods such as casual conversations or letterboxes. Other types of feedback may also include a tailored approach to find out when to reach out to these young people and how to meet their needs.

Only by securing youth inclusion can we find adequate solutions to present and future challenges.

Find out more Future Mentors Programme, part of the Eurocities Conference 2022.

Main photo: future mentors’ programme in Hannover


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer