Youth and Political Participation

What does “Youth” or “Young” mean in political participation studies?

Most studies of political participation that feature multivariate regression use age as a linear variable.

The few that do present “age groups” (i.e. age ranges) as a series of dichotomous variables can differ quite a bit on how to conceptualize “youth” and “young” For example, Melo and Stockemer (2014) argue that “most studies place young adults within the 18–25 age range.” They offer no evidence for this claim. 

TLDR: For surveys, 18 – 29 is the safest age range for youth/young, but there are good theoretical reasons to use more complex measures.

Let’s look at how major studies on youth participation have measured “young” or “youth.”

What Age Is Youth/Young/Young People/Young Adult? Some Cross-national Political Participation Studies

Young/YouthMiddle AgeOld AgeReason why youth is coded this wayData used by the studyCite
18 – 3637 – 5354 +NoneISSP 2004Marien et al 2010
18 – 3334 – 4950 – 65 (next is 66+)SeveralESS 2008Melo and Stockemer 2014
12 – 4041 – 6061 – 102NoneESS 2004Quintelier 2007
Differs by country and gender; the upper range could be 20s or 30s.SeveralESS 2002Garcia-Albacete 2014

Some studies outside of political science place young adults as 18 – 29 (e.g. Global Generation Gap 2004 and PEW internet study 2010), or 18 – 25 (“Broad reach…) (see below).

What are age groups?

Scholars created age groups based on

(a) life cycle event that signals a transition to adulthood

Life cycle is based on the idea that the adulthood transition event is tied to an interest in politics and political participation. In theory, people “achieve” something in life (like getting married) and then they are interested in politics.

(b) generation

Generations are based on the idea that there was some historical context that influences the form, probability, and magnitude of participation.

(c) what political parties usually call as “young”

Political parties are important instruments of political interests and mobilizers of participation, and what they consider as young may have some influence on young people’s political engagement.

(d) arbitrary assignment.

Whatevs. No reason or logic given.

Problems of “age groups” like “young” or “youth” in comparative research

In comparative research, the concepts of age have methodological constraints.

Each concept (life cycle, generation, etc.) suggests an age range, but available survey data constrain the possibilities, especially the low end of the range. In cross-national and over-time research, life cycle event, generation, or party signal should be a functionally equivalent concept, e.g. we would have to know the life cycle events appropriate for each country and at each time point. Thus, if one wants to analyze trends in youth participation in a worldwide and long range perspective, the methodological constraints are daunting.

What are alternatives to age groups?

(a) Life cycle event

Garcia-Albacete (2014) found that “age of first marriage” is widely available and, in analyses of Western Europe, other life cycle events (e.g. age of first child, age of leaving parental home) structure the age range and relate to political participation in substantially the same way as age of first marriage. Data on age of first marriage is available in Wikipedia.

(b) Generation

I don’t see a good way to do this outside of Europe. We would have to decide, with little theory to guide us, what the generations of each world region would be and the events that would trigger their probability of participation (e.g. “why would generation [INSERT YEAR RANGE HERE] of Latin America be more/less likely to protest?”).

(c) PEW surveys approach

They use “18 – 29” a lot for their global surveys. They do not justify this.

(d) “Multiple Age Range” and data mining

Scholars can try both “Life Cycle Event by Gender and World Region” and the “PEW 18 – 29” approaches and see if there are differences. Atheoretical “throw it in the model and see what happens.” Not a good approach.

Cited References and Suggested Reading

Broad Reach and Targeted Recruitment Using Facebook for an Online Survey of Young Adult Substance Use” Journal of Medical Internet Research (2012)

Enhancing Youth Political Participation throughout the Electoral Cycle, A Good Practice Guide, UNDP, December 2015.

Erkulwater, Jennifer L. “Political Participation over the Life Cycle.” In The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy, edited by Kay L. Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, 199-231. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Garcia-Albacete, Gema M. 2014. Young People’s Political Participation in Western Europe: Continuity or Generational Change? Palgrave MacMillan

Marien, Sofie, Marc Hooghe, and Ellen Quintelier. “Inequalities in non-institutionalised forms of political participation: A multi-level analysis of 25 countries.” Political studies 58, no. 1 (2010): 187-213.

Melo, Daniela F., and Daniel Stockemer. “Age and political participation in Germany, France and the UK: A comparative analysis.” Comparative european politics 12, no. 1 (2014): 33-53.

PEW 2004 “A Global Generation Gap”

PEW Internet study:” Social Media & Mobile Internet Use among Teens and Young Adults. Millennials.” 2010. Lenhart, Amanda; Purcell, Kristen; Smith, Aaron; Zickuhr, Kathryn

Quintelier, Ellen. “Differences in political participation between young and old people.” Contemporary politics 13, no. 2 (2007): 165-180.

World Youth Report 2007, Young People’s Transition to Adulthood: Progress and Challenges, UN DESA, 2007

Youth and Political Participation (2013) UN