László Milutinovits | Why Nothing Happens: Young People and the Barriers to Political Participation in Europe and Hungary

Why nothing happens?

Young people in cultural life and the barriers of political participation in Europe and in Hungary

Due to my work as a freelance trainer in the international youth field and my engagement in youth policy research, I have been lucky enough for more than a decade to regularly meet young people and policy experts from all over Europe and discuss, among others, political issues with them. Such conversations are always worthwhile as one can see his or her homeland and its politics from other perspectives, realizing striking similarities or outstanding differences. Challenges become relative, as well as success and national pride. The only question that I have always found difficult to answer since 2010 — when the current, recently re-elected conservative government took power — is “Ok, but why people don’t do something? Why nothing happens?” To be clearer — the government between 2010 and 2014, and again since the spring of 2014 introduced an immense number of highly questionable measures, and received wide and serious criticism from abroad and from its opposition in the country as well. European politicians both from left and right wing, leaders of the European Union, and institutions of the Council of Europe repeatedly denounced its activities in various policy areas, including the (mis)management democratic institutional structures, religion, media, economy, etc. After all, it seems that in the general population of the country there is no widespread criticism, not to mention open opposition. Still, the purpose of the present article is not to evaluate the work of this government. It rather aims to have a look at the role and situation of young people in this continuously changing political and social environment in Hungary and in the European Union is general, and wishes to find out whether young people are really disinterested in politics nowadays, to analyse the context and to search for underlying reasons of their (in)activity.

Youth and the digital era

It is probably needless to say that the development of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and the internet have immense influence on young people’s life and on cultural engagement, production and participation in particular. In order to give an impression of the scale of this progress it is worth referring to the finding of surveys implemented on the European level. Around 80% of youngsters aged between 16 and 24 use computer and internet as their daily routine nowadays in the EU. According to the EU youth report in 2012 there was a significant change in these routines between 2006 and 2011, especially in the central and eastern European countries — the growth was from 17% up to 33% points for the daily use of computer and internet. The increase was the most dramatic in the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It is also remarkable that during this five year period the proportion of young population using the internet daily increased much more than the share of new users — twice as many of them started to use internet daily than ones who started to use computers (EU Youth Report 2012: 260). Also, youngsters are the leading age group when it comes to daily use of internet — e.g. among the population aged 45–54, an average of 48 % used a computer every day or almost every day in 2008, while in the same year this proportion was 70-80% among youngsters, as mentioned earlier above (Youth in Europe 2009: 139).

Majority of teenagers use the internet for entertainment-related activities, while a minority for learning and school-related purposes (EACEA/Eurydice 2011: 25). However, nowadays, when individual self-directed learning is becoming crucial element in life, complementing one’s formal education, it is a question if it is possible to clearly separate the two.1 Young people learn ICT by doing, and by their mere presence in the digital world they acquire highly important skills that might prove to be crucial in their careers. Not speaking about the dangers of online space, we can tell that among other benefits of ICT are the almost infinite opportunities for sharing ideas and knowledge — e.g. when it comes to politics, too. The new techniques have spread over all kinds of cultural and artistic activities, and have also considerably influenced the culture of the expression of political opinion and the processes behind social movements.

Youth and culture

Before having a look at the matter of political participation, it is worthwhile examining young people’s attitudes towards culture and leisure time, as in a way these activities are connected to the general curiosity towards social engagement on diverse levels of the society. Young people’s interest and participation in cultural and artistic activities give enjoyment and valuable opportunities to spend leisure time, but also develop personal, social, professional skills, and help to find the way from childhood, education to life as an adult, to labour market. As it gives space and chances for interpersonal contact it is a crucial element in the socialisation of youngsters into their environment and into the society. Even though ‘culture’ is a complex term, for the general public it is still first of all associated with arts (performance and visual arts — architecture, painting, art galleries, etc.), secondly with literature (poetry, playwriting, authors) and only thirdly with underlying traditions, language, customs and social or cultural communities (Youth in Europe 2009: 173, see more: Special Eurobarometer 278). Therefore the present article also rather refers to culture as an overall term for arts and literature.

Young people are the most active in the population of Europe as regards participation in cultural activities — those aged 15 to 29 took part in such activities more often than other age groups basically in all kind of cultural activities. The most popular kinds of activities include reading books, doing sports and going to the cinema. Concerts, visiting historical monuments and using public libraries are less but still important, while art galleries and theatre are of less popularity (Special Eurobarometer 278). It is also important that this does not solely mean passive participation — around one third of young Europeans say they are actively engaged in cultural activities in their free time, e.g. in playing music, writing poetry, singing, dancing or in other types of performing or visual arts, film-making, photography. In some countries this level of active engagement goes up to half of the youth population (Germany, Austria), while in others only up to the quarter of it (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta and Portugal). This implies a stronger personal commitment than mere presence at cultural programs or locations ( EU Youth Report 2012). One could say that the relatively higher level of engagement is only due to the more free time that youngsters have — as people get older, their share of free time quickly decreases.2 Nevertheless, while older generations of course have to spend more time with work, youth must focus on studies, which takes an equally noteworthy part of their time. Social life, cultural activities simply mean a more important element in the private life of young people. They are also more sensitive and open to the ‘new’ and can get deeply engaged in actions and initiatives they feel important for themselves — let it be culture, art, sports or ideologies and politics. That’s why supposedly they should also play key role in social movements — however, their presence as active contributors in the society has been a matter of widespread debates among politicians, decision makers and experts since long.

Youth and participation

Political participation of young people has concerned the societies of Europe for long, the main issues being the loss of community ties, little interest in and knowledge of political structures and processes, growing apathy and cynicism towards democratic institutions and low level of trust in decision makers. Does this necessarily mean a weakened sense of citizenship and political engagement of the younger generations? Not by all means. Recent studies also revealed that they are more concerned about political issues, and that “young people articulate preferences and interests, and some of them are even more active than a majority of adults. Moreover, a clear majority of young people ask for more — not less –opportunity to have a say in the way their political systems are governed” (EACEA 2013a: 6).

They have been growing up in a significantly different world than their parents, in a world that keep on rapidly changing. Therefore it is inevitable that they also define their identity, citizenship and ways they decide to take part in democratic life differently. A recent study based on Eurobarometer surveys points out three main influential changes: 1. the development of supranational structures; 2. consumption and competition as dominant ideologies; 3. non-linear transition to adulthood. Going more into details, the political and economic integration in Europe and on the global level created a situation where social and economic processes and the life of individuals span across borders more and more. Therefore, the traditional ways of political participation and representation are changing as well, which contributes to a general crisis of political parties and elections within the boundaries of national states. National politicians heavily rely on experts, and due to ‘mediatisation’ political institutions, stakeholders and discourse are increasingly dependent on and shaped by mass media. Their traditional role has weakened considerably; therefore political parties lost from their credibility in the eyes of all age groups of voters. Secondly, most of young people nowadays in the western world live in a society for relative wealth, where consumption and competition are key values, where ‚choice’ as a concept became very prevalent. These considerably influence attitudes towards the need for political participation, while also created a parallel shift in generations. After and beside the ‚materialist’ generation there is a ‚post-materialist’ approach appearing, which considers values like human rights, sustainability and environmental protection more — issues which can also affect political choices. Thirdly, the non-linear and prolonged transition to adulthood is also a clearly visible phenomenon. Unlike previous generations “young people experience fragmented routes to financial and social independence” which needs flexibility, and consequently, loose connections to certain important aspects of life (jobs, financial security, home, family) — which unavoidably creates different perception of citizenship, belonging and political participation — meaning that political participation is “transforming to become more ad hoc, personalised and self-expressive” (Horvath, Paolini 2013: 4).

All the above outlined reasons lead to a complex tendency in young people’s feelings towards the traditional forms of democratic participation. From their perspective, the ways representative democracies function are not sufficient enough to influence policy making — their interest is poorly represented, and their voice is not heard and listened to effectively enough. When it comes to active political engagement, it also seems that traditional party politics rather create barriers to youth participation, as membership is getting older, and mostly consist of generations with a completely different world-view and life experience (see: Generation shift phenomena above). A logical answer for this situation — as many researchers and experts also note — is that therefore young people become a group of the society which is opting for new forms of participation — ones that are more meaningful for them and offer more informal and non-institutionalized channels to express their opinions.

It is a widely known fact that the level of young people’s attendance to elections is lower that of the older generations. According to the European Social Survey, in 2010 an average of 61% of young respondents aged 22-29 stated that they voted in the last national elections, as opposed to the 78.1% of over 30-year-olds. However, does this necessarily mean that they are not interested in public issues at all? (Horvath, Paolini 2013: 6). Or can we rather say that their political participation is in transition?

It is not yet clear if there are really new and more effective methods of political participation followed and applied by young people. However, it is obvious that compared to the traditional ways of expressing political opinion (taking part in public debates, political party events, communication with elected representatives) they use several new fora, like the internet, social media, or stand up for their opinions by signing (online or offline) petitions.


Considering all the above aspects of being active members of a society, the impression is that young people are not at all that passive as their general image in public thinking may suggest. They are more active in the digital space and more flexible to constantly develop their skills in ICT, which makes it easier for them to initiate to public debates, to have access to knowledge and to also to have a chance for a more effective self-organisation than ever. At the same time, they are also more active in cultural life than older generations, which can make them more responsive and sensitive to the challenges and phenomena of today’s societies. Additionally, researchers suggest that it is a mistake to think that they are not interested in public affairs — their culture of participation is not in a decline, but in a transition.

Actually, if we one looks around, we cannot deny that social movements of young people and students in particular, have managed to raise awareness of governments and of the publicity about their challenges in several cases throughout Europe. Going back to the example of Hungary, we can say that since 2010 the only case when a social movement made the present leadership of the country to stand off and make significant changes in their planned measures was connected to the opposition of young people. In 2011 there was a large-scale debate about the new higher education law that was to be passed at the end of the year, and was to slash the number of state-funded courses. Also, students in state-funded education were planned to sign an obligatory contract saying that they would work in Hungary after graduating (to control brain drain, but same time limiting the mobility of young graduates). Because of the protest and opposition of the National Conference of Student Unions (HÖOK) the government was forced into a dialogue, and the widespread discontent also lead to the establishment of a new student and pedagogues’ movement called Student Network (Hallgatói Hálózat) which used social media to organise the occupation of parts of ELTE University of Budapest, gaining huge publicity. As a result, other local groups and the Teacher Network (Oktatói Hálózat) were started in a similar way. Nevertheless, the government introduced significant cuts in the budget of the higher education, and has continued to run a highly questionable policymaking in the whole field of education since then. Still, it can be said that this counter-movement reached almost unprecedented results since the present government got into power: it forced decision makers into a transparent and public dialogue, and managed to create a strong social movement, mostly thanks to the dedicated participation of young people.

On the other hand, another three years has passed since these events, and despite several other problematic steps of the government (e.g. the clear rapprochement towards President Putin’s Russia and other illiberal democracies and while constantly criticizing the EU) at the 2014 elections the party won the two-thirds majority of the Parliament seats again. It seems that with such a low level of attendance and with the present attitude of the society no significant change can be made in politics, in spite of the above outlined strengths of young people. Of course, the ‘why’ still remains a question. In order to find the real reasons another essay could be written, which should consider the society as a whole — however, among other reasons we could mention the migration of young people and liberal-left wing intellectuals abroad and the role of the media. No matters how social media is becoming important among youngsters as far as the main channels of media reaching out masses of the population are controlled by and biased towards a government. The misuse of media is a well-known worldwide phenomenon — in a democratic state it can be used for propaganda in a smart way without crossing certain limits: the ‘democracy’s invisible line’, as Chomsky refers to it.3 Not till the majority of the society can be kept in an illusion and set at ease by the mass media can serious changes made. It is a question if above outlined transitions in (youth)participation can reach such a critical level in the future that new initiatives could bring change.


Abbreviation in footnotes: Full description and availability

“Democracy’s invisible line: Democracy’s invisible line. Interview with Noam Chomsky”. Le Monde diplomatique. By Noam Chomsky and Daniel Mermet. 2007 August. Available at: http://mondediplo.com/2007/08/02democracy.

EACEA/Eurydice 2011: EACEA/Eurydice 2011b. Key Data on Learning and innovation through ICT at School in Europe. Brussels: Eurydice. Available at: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/education/eurydice/documents/key_data_series/129en.pdf

EACEA 2013a : Youth Participation in Democratic Life. EACEA 2010/03. [forthcoming] Brussels: EACEA.

Eurostat 2011 — ISS-HH: Eurostat 2011 — ISS-HH. Way of obtaining e-Skills. Online data cod: isoc_sk_how_i Available at: http://appsso.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/nui/show.do?dataset=isoc_sk_how_i&lang=en.

EU Youth 2012: EU Youth Report2012. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2012.

A. Horvath, G. Paolini, Political Participation and EU Citizenship: Perceptions and Behaviours of Young People. Evidence from Eurobarometer surveys. Report produced by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) 2013. Available at: http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/youth/tools/documents/perception-behaviours.pdf.

G. Márton, “Radical changes in higher education”. In: EIROnline. European Industrial Relations Observatory On-line. Available at: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/2012/02/articles/hu1202021i.htm [cit. 20.07.2012].

Special Eurobarometer 278: European Cultural Values. Directorate General Education and Culture and coordinated by Directorate General Communication. 2007. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_278_en.pdf.

Youth in Europe 2009: Youth in Europe. A statistical portrait. 2009 edition. Statistical books. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2009. Available at: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_OFFPUB/KS-78-09-920/EN/KS-78-09-920-EN.PDF.

1 The main way of acquiring ICT skills among young people (aged 16-24) is ’learning by doing’, what is closely followed by ’with the assistance of friends and relatives’ and ’formal education’. Source: Eurostat 2011 — ISS-HH.


2 Youth in Europe 2009. p. 161-162. In nearly two thirds of countries for which Time Use Survey data are available, free time (excluding time devoted to TV and video) accounted for more than 20% of a normal day among young people aged between 15 and 19, but this share dropped to less than 20% in all countries when considering the population aged between 30 and 49.

3 “Democracy’s invisible line. Inteview with Noam Chomsky”. Le Monde diplomatique. By Noam Chomsky and Daniel Mermet. 2007 August. Quote: “countries had made such progress in democratic rights… that state violence was no longer sufficient to contain the desire for liberty. So those in power sought other ways of manufacturing consent. The PR industry produces, in the true sense of the term, concept, acceptance and submission. It controls people’s minds and ideas. It is a major advance on totalitarian rule, as it is much more agreeable to be subjected to advertising than to torture.”