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

Introducing PaReSoGo, Dataset on Party Representation of Social Groups

PaReSoGo at a Glance

Why PaReSoGo – Party Representation of Social Groups?

Parties and parliamentarians are charged with the responsibility to express and translate the voice of the masses in the legislature. A classic concern is the extent to which political parties who attained seats in parliament represent the masses; a smaller current in the literature is about the party representation of particular social groups.

Social scientists have devised various ways to measure representation gaps across nations and time (see the MARPOR Party-Voter Dataset), but rarely do they account for particular social groups.

To address research questions about how well social groups are represented in parliament across nations and time, we created and are in the process of archiving the dataset, “Party Representation of Social Groups” (PaReSoGo) – that contains a simple and replicable measure of the party representation of social groups per country and year from high quality publicly available survey and administrative data. 

How did we measure the Party Representation of Social Groups?

Our country-year measure is based on the idea of issue congruence measures that match distributions. For survey data, we use the European Social Survey (ESS), 2002 – 2016, that contains items on sociodemographics, social attitudes, and retrospective vote choice, i.e. the party that the respondents said they voted for in the last general election.

POLINQ and Aggregation of Survey and Administrative Data

Following the research conducted by the grant on aggregation of survey data to the country-year level, discussed in the grant’s international conference, “Politics and Inequality across Nations and Time: Theoretical and Empirical Approaches,” held at IFiS PAN, December 12 – 14, 2018 in Warsaw, Poland, we aggregated the ESS items to the country and year level. We match the distribution of social groups’ party choices to a distribution of the percentage of parliamentarians in each party that were elected to parliament, as provided by ParlGov.

The Dissimilarity Index

In our data, this match of distributions is made via the Dissimilarity Index (DI). To calculate the party representation with a DI we took a sum of absolute values of the share of seats a given party received in the elections and subtracted the share of ESS respondents who claim that they voted for this party, and divided by two. Here, the DI is a measure of distance in party representation between gender, age, education, intersectional, and attitudinal groups’ retrospective party vote choices and the distribution of parliamentarians in parties. In the PaReSoGo DI, the higher the value, the greater the distance between what social groups want and what parties there are in parliament.

Table 1 illustrates the logic of calculations using Poland 2015 example for young adults.

PaReSoGo contains 150 country years, which cover eight ESS rounds (2002-2016) and 95 national elections (1999-2016) across 25 countries.

Table 2 illustrates the data basics. The minimum country-years that cover the same election is one; the maximum is three. For each country-year we calculated the DI for all ESS respondents and twelve social groups of gender, age, and education; intersectional groups based on gender and age; and attitudinal groups for and against immigration. Due to data availability, not all countries are available in all years, and not all groups are available in all country-years.

We presented the data idea in the conference, Building Multi-Source Databases for Comparative Analyses, in December 2019 in Warsaw, Poland and in our 2021 research note in Party Politics.