It’s tempting to feel fatalistic at the moment.
Australia is burning: 500 million animals have died, an area bigger than the Netherlands is ash and cinders, lives and homes have been lost. The photos are apocalyptic.
The USA is finding wars to fight anywhere it can, the UK is tearing itself apart, atrocities deserving dozens of headlines are happening all around the world every day.
Our governments are failing. And we haven’t mentioned the more routine and systemic failures befalling our societies.
The problems are many and they resist any simple solutions. Here’s one to start. It won’t fix everything. But it would help fix some things.
Let kids vote.
Pick any age you like, so long as it’s low. David Runciman, a political historian at Cambridge, floated lowering the voting age to 6 years old.
Voting against a world on fire
Take two sizeable, seemingly intractable problems facing Western countries (if not a lot more): climate change and economic inequality.
I’ll draw from Australian examples but the themes will be familiar to readers elsewhere.
Recent governments in Australia have categorically failed on climate. They’ve taken us backwards on emissions (and changed emissions data to make things look better), pitched policies that have no credibility, and backed a new coal mine that has no real reason to exist.
Young people are leading the charge in climate advocacy in both around the world and in Australia and being dismissed and attacked as a result. Despite concern about climate change being high across demographics, older people tend to vote for the Coalition – the driver of Australia’s political failures here.
Jennifer Rayner sums up the situation well in her book Generation Less:
… Economics, demographic and technological trends mean the deck is actually heavily stacked agains us [young Australians]. Worse, the dud cards are mounting up all the time.
She provides some depressing numbers to quantify those “dud cards”:
Adjusted to constant dollars, household net worth for people aged 15 to 24 grew by just under $30,000 in the not-quite-decade between 2004 and 2012. People in their mid-50s and early 60s saw their net worth grow by almost $179,000 – a respectable bump in anyone’s book. But my cohort? We went backwards. Those aged 25 to 34 were worth $15,000 less in 2012 than people the same age in 2004.
If you want further evidence, consider this: between 2004 and 2012 people in every age bracket over 45 saw their net worth grow by more than the total wealth of those under 25.
Not a great time to be a young adult.
This isn’t just generational griping: inequality of wealth, opportunity, growth, and climate have disastrous social impacts both now and into the future.
A country that makes no room for the young is a country that will forfeit a fair future.
This inequality – this “Generation Less” – takes many forms and is, in many of them, a direct result of policies set by the Australian government.
Why would any government build a disadvantageous future for its young citizens? Sheer self-preservation, and a political culture built around getting power in the short-term, not building anything worthwhile long-term.
According to Rayner, older voters in Australia dramatically outnumber the young:
Of the 15 million plus voters enrolled in 2014, more than one in three were aged 55 or over. Fewer than one in four were under 35. There are currently 2.8 million more grey-haired electors in Australian than there are youthful voters.
The Australian Labor Party were razed for a policy that was believed to make life a bit harder for some older Australians (and a sizeable misinformation campaign built upon it).
People tend to vote for what they think advantageous (le gasp). Even without demographic disparities, the average older person is more likely to show up on election day than a young person, and so politicians will cater to them.
There’s no point in waiting for a swaths of people have a dramatic change in perspective (or die).
Lower the voting age.
As David Runciman spells out, keeping the voting age at 18 (or even lowering it to 16) will maintain major imbalances in voter demographics.
It wouldn’t be true if we started voting at year 0, because if the median age is 45 it would be sort of roughly 50/50, but if you start voting at 16 or 18, younger generations are going be outnumbered by older generations, even if everybody votes.
Lowering the voting age wouldn’t be a radical decision. Runciman argues that societies have “expanded the franchise” before when democracies have gotten stuck: who gets to vote has grown along class, gender, and racial lines.
That isn’t to say that young people being prevented from voting is an act of discrimination in the same way. Age isn’t equivalent to any of these categories and age has been politicised in very different ways. Today, citizens naturally age into the right to vote; everyone else has had to fight for it.
The comparison is a limited, but there’s one useful parallel: each time more people were given the vote, there were some who believed governments would crumble. It’s never come to pass.
(As an aside: Australia lowered the federal voting age from 21 to 18 in 1973. Some may argue that the country has gone downhill since then, but the voting age likely isn’t the problem.)
Here’s Runciman again:
All the history suggests that those fears are always overblown. The same kind of people still get elected. It’s not like if children could vote, they would elect children to parliament. We’d probably still get the same kinds of representatives, but they’d have to take account of the views of children.
Those views need to be heard and respected, now more than ever. Children have a vested interest in their planet not being ravaged as a result of climate change; they have an interest in living in societies were they have a fair and equal chance to succeed personally and economically.
People have called on the young to save the planet. So let them do it.