Students and other young adults are in a critical period of their lives, either preparing to enter the world of work, or already trying to establish themselves within it. It is a time when people truly begin to learn about the society which they live in, and the role that they play in it. As such, it can also be a major period of discovering issues within society and having an impact on those problems.
Thus, many students choose to become involved in politics on some level when they enter university, whether they take more of an active interest in political candidates, participate in protests or vigils, or even join political youth groups. Many students feel they need to take an active role to protect their future and to be ensured that the government is operating a society in which they can thrive. However, the most important question that must be asked is, is the government listening? Are students prioritized to those in power? If not, why not?
Nowadays, important decisions are made within governments which have the biggest impact upon those who are soon to be entering the workplace and beginning productive adult lives. For this reason, the government should be doing more to truly hear what students think, and understand what issues they care about.
The UK students are listening to other students discussing the youth political involvement.
/Photograph by Madison Genna Hills
How does the involvement in politics of the youth manifest in the UK?
In 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held a referendum, asking British citizens whether they wanted to leave the European Union (EU) or not. The result was 51.89 percent in favour of leaving the EU. The scales were tipped by less than 4 percent of the voters. What was interesting about the voting results was the divide between old and young; an average of 70 percent of voters aged between 18 and 24 voted to remain, while over 60 percent of voters aged 50 and above voted to leave. This is the clearest recent example of just how differently the old and young generations view what is best for their society.
This is an issue that hit British students and young adults the hardest. Their future was being decided by the citizens who had already fulfilled most of their work lives, meaning the young generation now has to move forward and begin their productive adult lives in a system the young did neither choose nor want.
With a history of low youth turnout at elections, students have been overlooked as a target group for politicians and consequently, many students continue to choose not to vote because politicians so often do not address issues that matter to the youth. However, the referendum acted as a wakeup call to many young adults. The general election that was held as a result of the referendum saw the highest youth turnout in 25 years, showing how young people realised the need to fight to gain some control over governmental affairs. This youth turnout was so monumental that it even prompted the Oxford English Dictionary to give the title of “Word of the Year, 2017” to the term “Youthquake,” referring to when young people bring about substantial change in society or politics. This clearly demonstrates the impact young people can have. Yet, there is still a lack of engagement with electoral politics.
Research has shown that students and other young adults in the UK are far more likely to engage with political issues through protests, petitions, or boycotts. These methods take political issues away from politicians themselves and allow people to present their concerns via an independent body that aims to display those issues in full view of mainstream society.
Low youth turnout in the UK does not mean young adults are not interested in politics but instead suggests they do not trust the government to follow through on the issues they care about. Currently, in the UK, a group called “Extinction Rebellion” is holding protests and demonstrations in an attempt to force the government to enact change to prevent a catastrophic climate change disaster. A major part of this group is the “Extinction Rebellion Youth,” who have been heavily involved in protests, with some members even chaining themselves to the Houses of Parliament as a last resort to force the Member of Parliament (MP)’s to take notice of their message.
Furthermore, children in the UK are also holding strikes, walking out of their schools as a protest for climate change action. Clearly, the British youth is passionate about societal issues, but feel they have been ignored for so long that they have to shout to be heard.
How do younger generation in South Korea differ regarding political engagement?
Students in Korea in recent years have been the backbone of countless democracy movements and peace protests, demanding their voices be heard for the future they want. From the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye to the legal negligence leading to the Sewol Ferry disaster, students in Korea are on the front line when it comes to exposing governmental incompetence and know how to bring about change for the good. This impressive phenomenon in Korea is admirable. However, the fact that students have to shout to be heard surely indicates the government was not paying attention to them in the first place. The situation in Korea is entirely different from that in the UK, and yet both cases demonstrate how students are overlooked in general politics.
The frustrations of students in South Korea come from the struggle to find employment and the apparent inability to climb the social ladder regardless of how hard they work, or even what university they attend. In recent years, youth unemployment has been over double the average, a stark representation of just how significant the age inequality is in South Korea. In regards to the approval ratings of the ruling governments, much research has found a significant generational gap in opinions: the younger the generation, the less satisfaction with ruling parties and increased frustration with social and economic systems.
The voter turnout of South Korean youths increased after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2016 when the UK also had results of the referendum. After the monumental event, which students in South Korea were heavily involved in, there was an clear surge in hope among them for political change, and sustained interest in political affairs.
Both in the UK and South Korea, lower youth turnout in past elections has led to politicians overlooking the younger generation when creating their policies and confronting social issues. That is, students in South Korea are more likely to find their own means of political engagement, rather than waiting for politicians to take notice of them.
» Below is the discussion among Donggukians from Korea and the UK
Students from the UK and Korea are talking about the youth political involvement.
/Photograph by Madison Genna Hills
What do the students really think?
There are countless studies online about the trend of youth political involvement, citing statistics about voter turnout and age differentiation. But what is most important is how average students actually feel. What issues do they care about and what do they think the government should be doing about them? Furthermore, how much difference is there between the UK and South Korea, in terms of young adults’ views of government. It seems obvious there is little trust on both sides towards the government, but are the reasons the same?
In order to gather first hand opinions on these topics, I interviewed a group of Donggukians, some from Korea and some from the UK. The discussion started with their general involvement in politics. All of the students I interviewed take part in political elections in their home countries. Half had participated in political organisations for youths, and all of them had taken part in a protest or demonstration of some kind in the past, for a range of different issues. From the beginning of my interview it was clear that they all had an interest in politics, and seemingly all thought of protesting as an effective tool for change.
After establishing these initial grounds, it soon became obvious that, among both the Korean and UK students, there was a clear consensus that the government does not have a solid relationship with this age group. Makeda Carayol from the UK, explained that any attempt by British politicians to engage with the younger generation was merely a “tokenistic endeavour,” done as a media stunt rather than through genuine consideration of student opinions. This view was shared among everyone, demonstrating a distinct lack of trust between them and their governments.
Ibrahim Kargbo, also from the UK, demonstrated this point by explaining that students have, for years, been petitioning the government to lower university tuition fees in England. Yet, the government continues to ignore their concerns and instead, increases the fees year after year.
These frustrations were matched by Korean students. Han Su-ji (Junior, Department of Advertising & Public Relations) described this issue in Korea as a result of their hierarchical culture. “Older generations hold more of a dominant position in society. Therefore, young people struggle to make their voices heard.” Sin Min-gyu (Junior, Department of Philosophy) agreed that politicians merely pretend to listen to students’ concerns and there currently is no communication path between students and the government. He said, very simply, “We know they do not care.” Sadly, that very short sentence seemed to sum up the attitude of students nowadays towards politicians.
Although it is apparent students from both countries do not feel valued by their governments, and attempts to engage are seen to be fake and yield no results, there was, surprisingly, a mixed response regarding whether this should change. Jung Byeong-kwon (Sophomore, Division of Electronics and Electrical Engineering) argued that many young people do not possess enough knowledge to participate in politics, and, as such, the government has no reason to engage with them. Conversely, Iskra Mijalceva from the UK raised this as an issue within our societies, urging that there needs to be more opportunities for young people to learn about politics. She explained that “political” discussion needs to be started at an early age. This way, the students would have the tools necessary to productively contribute to political debate and make informed decisions, regarding their society and future.
As the final topic, what issues the students cared about the most was discussed. Unsurprisingly, the issues concerned them the most regarded the education system and entering employment. The UK students focused mainly on issues in education, specifically high tuition fees, but also raised concerns over the way the government enforces changes within schools. Iskra presented the example of the cancellation of the English Baccalaureate, a new league table measure, which began to be introduced in 2013 and meant that students across England had to choose their classes based upon the Baccalaureate system. However, after almost a year of working towards this qualification, the system was scrapped. There was significant anger among students that they had put in a considerable amount of effort, in subjects they felt they were forced to choose, only to be told there would be nothing to gain from it at the end of their studies. This is just one example of education changes in the UK where students were not consulted and felt as though they had no control over their education.
In Korea, youth employment rate is a serious concern, but while discussing it, the issue was raised as to whether the government actually could improve it. Byeong-kwon believes that, even if government wanted to help, they do not have the means to do so. Once again, we were back to the issue of trust in our governments, and beyond whether they actually care, are they even capable of bringing about significant change? From the students’ perspective, it appears not. Though the students from the UK did express the opinion that some progressive politicians are beginning to take note of young adults, it appears not to be enough. These situations provide a convincing reason as to why young adults so often choose to participate in independent demonstrations over direct political involvement.
Despite being in two different countries, on two different continents, the students from both South Korea and the UK shared many concerns and frustrations with their governments. Both of which are apparently failing to operate in a way which serves the needs of students. The students of today are responsible for the future of tomorrow, and they should not be ignored any longer.
Madison Genna Hills firstname.lastname@example.org
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