Today, the UK held a general election.
I, along with many other people across the country, went to my local polling station, and put a pencilled cross in the box next to the Party I felt was best placed to lead Britain, and serve her citizens fairly and compassionately, for the next five years.
I will be closer to forty than thirty by the time of the next election: no longer “young” by any stretch of the imagination.
I haven’t been idealistic for a long time, and, though some would sneer that it was idealism that led me to vote the way I did today, I’m not idealistic now. I know that, in all likelihood, more people with disagree with my thoughts on what’s best for Britain than will agree, or at the very least the complex voting mechanism we have in this country will render the result as more people disagreeing than agreeing, whether that was actually how it played out on the ground, and I will somehow have to live with a decision I deeply disagree with, and that I believe is actively harmful for the country as a whole.
I learned in primary school that an intelligent, compassionate minority will always be shouted down by the majority, even if that majority hasn’t got the first clue what they’re shouting for. I learned as a very young child that life is mostly about having to suffer because a large number of other people were listened to over you.
But I voted anyway. I always vote – because the small amount of effort required to cast a ballot in an election is what gives me my right to complain about the result of that election. It’s what gives me the right to criticise the winners of that election, and challenge those who voted for them.
But a lot of people, especially people in the 18-30 age bracket, simply don’t vote. And I understand why – because despite what cynical, older commentators claim, it’s not laziness. It’s not apathy – it certainly isn’t apathy, because I’ve seen so much passion and energy and engagement from young people, from Brexit onwards. It really, truly, isn’t apathy.
What it is, I think, is a sense of hopeless despair, an awareness that, whether it’s in an election, a workplace meeting, a classroom discussion, or a family conference, if you’re seen as “young”, and particularly if you’re young and poor, whether in relative or absolute terms, your voice doesn’t matter. Literally, no one hears you, because the refrain of our parents during our childhood years – “I’m the adult here, I’ve been around a lot longer than you have, you don’t know everything, whatever you think”, gets repeated, over and over and over again, by teachers, employers, media editors, and, yes, politicians.
Older people claim they want to engage the younger generation, but, when the younger generation tries to engage, they’re told to sit down, shut up, know their place and respect their “elders and betters.”
In Britain, we praise, pamper, and reward people – with high-profile jobs, with lucrative consultancies, with triple-locked pensions and a range of welfare provisions, from winter fuel payments to free TV licences – simply because they were born a significant length of time ago, and have managed to avoid dying in the intervening years between then and now.
And we treat people poorly just because they’re the same age as the adults we still think of as “our children” (don’t get me started on the concept of the possessive attitude around children – that’s a whole other post!) We dismiss people, refuse to hear their voices, just because we equate experience with length of existence.
And yet I know young people who have experienced things that many of their “elders and betters” can’t even begin to imagine:
- Mental health crisis, including long term committal to psychiatric institutions
- Physical disability, including regular hospitalisations
- The death of one or both of their parents, the death of a close friend, the death of a sibling, the death of a spouse or committed partner
- Having to seriously consider prostitution, because their financial situation was in collapse, and no one would help them
- Having to provide intimate personal care for a disabled parent
- Experiencing the death by suicide of someone close to them
- Experiencing their family being evicted
- Experiencing emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse
These experiences bring far more awareness of society’s flaws and failings, and what needs to be done to address them, and support the victims of them, than any number of birthdays celebrated. And young people who haven’t personally gone through these experiences will often know at least one person who has – that’s a perspective-granting experience, too.
But these people, with their scars and their stories, their knowledge and understanding forged in the chaotic fires of painful experience, often don’t vote – because those who claim they want them to “accept their adult responsibilities” still insist on treating them like naughty children.
Particularly if they don’t have a viable, steady income.
Particularly if they’re homeless, or involved in the sex industry.
Particularly if they had children in their teens.
Particularly if they can’t communicate eloquently, or can’t communicate verbally at all.
Particularly if they didn’t go to a “good” school.
Particularly if they didn’t go to university, or didn’t go to the “right” university, or don’t have a degree that older people approve of.
The person you gave birth to, or watched your partner give birth to, eighteen, twenty, twenty five, thirty years ago is no longer a child. And neither are those of a similar age. They are adults, with an adult’s understanding and awareness of the world around them. They are adults like you, and, like you, they are adults of intelligence, adults with considered opinions.
Adults who deserve to be listened to.
And, all too often, they become adults who don’t vote because they’ve become so used to hearing that they’re “not old enough to be worth paying attention to”, that they’re “not old enough to be of any account”, that they believe it.
I spent many years – well into my early twenties – being told to shut up, be respectful, know my place. Being told that “no one wants to hear you going on about things you don’t understand.”
Last year, aged thirty, I was told to “stop going on about Brexit – you only voted from emotional feelings, not from any actual understanding.”
This was, and remains, my mother’s way of interacting with me. She insists on seeing and treating me as a child.
Fortunately for democracy, I react to abusive behaviour by defying its demands – whomever happens to be making them.
But not everyone is as strong, or as heedless for their own sanity, as I am, and the ones that aren’t, are the ones who don’t vote.
Stop shutting down democracy by claiming its decisions and processes are the preserve of people of a given age, and that anyone younger simply can’t understand their complexities. Stop treating young adults like children.
Start showing some respect for those who are disproportionately affected by the decisions you so casually make.
Because respect isn’t a demand we can make of others with a click of our fingers – respect is a two way street, an ongoing, enduring conversation.