There is no tomorrow without youth: why low youth engagement in elections and beyond matters



Picture of Alessandra Cardaci
Alessandra Cardaci

Head of Programming and Operations at Debating Europe

Picture of Pol Villaverde
Pol Villaverde

Founder and President of Palumba EU

An underwhelming election

This year’s EU elections were underwhelming in many respects, disappointing various groups for different reasons. Whether it’s the far-right politicians who aimed to topple the traditional centrist majority or the greens and liberals who hoped for an ambitious 2024-2029 term focused on their agenda, a sense of apathy was unavoidable. Additionally, those advocating for transnational lists and a truly European campaign will have to wait at least another five years.

Considering the stagnation of turnout at 51%, the EU staff who worked hard behind the #UseYourVote campaign is likely to feel the same way. Especially when one takes into consideration the seemingly optimistic hints from the Spring Eurobarometer where 71% of respondents said they were “very likely” to vote in a context of increasingly salient EU-level topics, such as COVID-19 and  Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

Among the disappointed groups are many within the youth engagement sector. With nearly 20 million potential first-time voters and a lower voting age of 16 or 17 in some countries, this segment made up 5-10% of the eligible voting population. Paraphrasing the institutional campaign slogan, and recalling the historically low young voter turnout in the 2022 French elections, one might say that young Europeans did not use their vote, letting others make decisions for them. So, what can be done to engage younger generations and sustain their enthusiasm for democracy and politics in the next electoral cycles and beyond?

Youth preferences in the 2024 EU elections

While efforts to aggregate and analyse all the information coming from different countries in the election aftermath are still ongoing, some elements are already clear from exit polls, results, and turnout data. As expected, younger Europeans were inclined to cast their ballots outside the traditional parties, often seeking populist options. Far-right parties were among the most benefited, with Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the National Rally (RN) in France, or Vox and The Party is Over (SALF) in Spain gaining traction among the 16 to 34 age group. However, Italian youngsters seemed to shift left, with increased support for the socialists’ Democratic Party (PD) and greens’ Greens and Left Alliance (AVS) watering down Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FDI). As shown in the Open Society Barometer from September 2023, these trends highlight the inaccurate ‘all green and progressive’ image of younger generations’ political preferences.

Young people are increasingly issue-focused, prioritising specific policies or protest voting over party loyalty

Influencing youth electoral behaviour

Social media, particularly TikTok and Instagram, are today’s main vehicles of political information for young Europeans. There is little room for denial about the central role that recommendation algorithms play in our democracies and how these can go hand in hand with echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Bearing this, it seems clear that any serious attempts to influence youth political engagement should also take the following into consideration:

  • Gender differences

According to a Financial Times article, Gen Z is not a single generation, but at least two. The political preferences of young men and women differ substantially, with those identifying as female remaining similarly progressive compared to their predecessors whilst males have taken a substantial conservative turn on a wide array of issues. Any strategy or campaign should be aware of this, even if its approach must be nuanced.

  • Party politics fatigue and issue-based and/or protest voting

Young people are increasingly issue-focused, prioritising specific policies or protest voting over party loyalty. Indeed, as highlighted by Debating Europe’s “2024 Voices – Citizens Speak Up” report published in February 2024, young people are disillusioned with party politics and identify climate action, social justice and digital transformation are among their top concerns influencing their political choices.

  • Last-minute voters

A significant portion of young voters make their decisions close to election day, influenced by the latest information and trends on social media. This leaves room for risks associated with disinformation campaigns as well as an opportunity for creative ways of activating that vote.

  • Economy and education

These cannot be undermined, as economic instability and educational opportunities heavily influence youth political engagement. Those in the vulnerable are more disengaged, which in turn negatively affects their capacity to influence policy and decision-making.

By leveraging technology and fostering inclusive debates, we can ensure that young Europeans remain active participants in shaping their future

Youth engagement in and beyond the ballot box: the case of Palumba EU and Debating Europe

Palumba is a young and innovative youth-focused voting advice app that has successfully contributed to mobilising more than 170,000 young Europeans to the latest EU polls, topping the charts in the App Store and Google Play and supported by a coalition of partners, including Debating Europe. The project was led by the homonymous Palumba EU Association, in close partnership with youth councils and more than 120 volunteers across the EU-27.

Debating Europe is the world’s only in-house citizen engagement unit within a think tank, Friends of Europe, that strongly emphasises youth involvement. The aim is to get young people excited about engaging in politics (in the broadest possible sense and beyond elections), allowing them to safely and constructively exchange and voice their concerns based on their lived experiences. This generates ‘real life’ data underpinning Friends of Europe’s activities around a Renewed Social Contract for Europe by 2030.

As we look to the future, building on these initiatives’ successes is essential. By leveraging technology and fostering inclusive debates, we can ensure that young Europeans remain active participants in shaping their future. The partnership between Palumba EU and Debating Europe serves as a model for how innovative tools and sustained engagement can transform the political landscape, making it more responsive and inclusive for the next generation of voters. Traditional youth engagement strategies must be re-examined and adapted to this new, highly digital context.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe. Find out more here. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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