Politicians who underestimate youth vote do so at their own peril

One of the misleading and wide-ranging narratives that has been associated with voting trends around the world is the notion that young people do not bother to cast ballots. Every election is different, and while voter trends in past democratic processes are worth analyzing, they are in no way predictors of future behaviour for entire generations.

In 2015, the strength of the millennial vote in British Columbia – particularly in urban areas – enabled the federal Liberal Party to go from a distant third place and two seats in 2011 to an undisputed first place with 17 seats. Those who were naïve enough to put their faith behind voter turnout models that systematically underweighted the youth vote were in for a surprise.

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The Liberal campaign connected with young voters in our province. It generated an amount of enthusiasm that brought in people who would have otherwise supported other parties. Dismissing their strength and questioning their size led some prognosticators to assume the federal election would be closer, and the Conservatives would be practically tied with the Liberals. As we now know, it did not happen that way.

As we get closer to holding municipal elections across British Columbia, it is important to look at how the province’s youngest adults will behave – both as candidates for public office and as electors who could tip an election’s outcome.

For starters, we must acknowledge that millennials are not the entitled generation that some lethargic writers and editors have been attempting to label for years. On specific trends and issues, they are decisively active.

Across Canada, only 54 per cent of millennials in a Research Co. survey reported subscribing to cable television, compared with more than seven-in-10 residents aged 35 and over. Adults aged 18 to 34 are a coveted demographic for advertisers, and they are now more comfortable streaming content on tablets, laptops and smartphones than on a regular television set.

We are starting to see these generational shifts affecting the way networks advertise. We are now seeing ads on cable television promoting streaming content, something that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Some sporting events – such as European soccer – have moved to digital-only platforms and abandoned “broadcast television.”

Our province’s millennials were also more likely to react with dismay at the conversations generated by the #MeToo movement. Many baby boomers seemed condescending and incapable of empathy, using words like “locker room talk” to describe some regrettable interactions at work. Members of generation X admitted to witnessing terrible behaviour, but felt powerless and voiceless.

Millennials are inherently different. Young male adults are more likely to say they would report appalling behaviour in their workplace. Young female adults are more likely to abandon a job the moment an employer crosses the line.

The views of millennials can and should be represented in the polling stations and, ultimately, in councils across the province. In the City of Surrey, for instance, fresh voices can play a role in a discussion about what is currently happening in schools and how to act accordingly to prevent gang violence.

In the City of Vancouver, the housing debate has been framed as an issue of supply versus demand and owners versus renters. The true challenge is generational, with residents aged 18 to 34 expressing dismay at the current state of affairs, and wondering if they can really make a go of it in a place that has become too expensive.

The recently established forum for millennial leadership has identified almost 100 people under 40 who are running in Metro Vancouver’s municipal elections. There are other young adults seeking a spot in councils and boards all over the province. Their platforms and ideas are easily accessible, and they are a welcome presence in this year’s democratic processes.

A well-prepared millennial election-winner can have an immediate impact in your community. A person who is already changing how we are exposed to media content can save taxpayer money by stopping pointless ad buys. A person who knows what’s right and wrong in the workplace can help eradicate sexual harassment. And most importantly, ensuring that the needs and wants of a generation are present in policy development can enhance the sense of community that our councils are supposed to foster every day.

Mario Canseco is the president of Research Co.

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