With the upcoming federal election looming, parties are looking to rally their voters and bring Canadians to the polls. Leaders and candidates are connecting with citizens in the hopes these contacts will translate into votes and, ultimately, seats. It is therefore in the interest of parties to mobilize as many eligible voters as possible. However, if current trends continue, there is one group the parties won’t be contacting: young Canadians.
In the last federal election, 59 per cent of Canadians aged 18-29 did not vote, compared to only 33 per cent of voters over 65. Why is this? Are young Canadians disenchanted by the realities of student debt and the cost of living? Has this translated into higher rates of disengagement? Regardless of the reason, on the surface it appears there is little return for parties seeking out the youth vote – a myth the Intergenerational Equity Forum looked to debunk.
In Toronto on September 29, 2015 Paul Kershaw, founder of Generation Squeeze, and Jane Hilderman, Executive Director of Samara Canada, spoke to Canadians, young and old, about the challenges facing younger demographics today. Mr. Kershaw spoke about his organization’s research on inequitable government spending, while Ms. Hilderman remarked upon the reality of young Canadian engagement. Though each focused on a particular issue, the forum’s aim was to generate discussion on the relationship between the topics and the need to develop an understanding of each. This, it was emphasized, was crucial when looking to fight back against the misconceptions and inequalities facing young Canadians.
The work of Generation Squeeze draws attention to the dramatic government spending gap, existing on both federal and provincial levels, that disproportionately favours older Canadians. Those over the age of 65 account for 15 per cent of the population, and yet command 31-38 per cent of social spending across the country. Canadian governments spend over $33,000 annually on each citizen over 65, but only $12,000 on Canadians 45 years or younger. This $12,000 is inclusive of spending on education, housing, health services and child care.
Furthermore, not only are younger Canadians being left behind by governments, but, as Mr. Kershaw stressed in his presentation, they are facing greater challenges than ever before. For Canadians aged 25-34, earnings (inflation-adjusted) are down by $4000, despite there being 37 per cent more post-secondary graduates, who face ever-increasing housing prices and levels of debt. Paul Kershaw argued this is an unsustainable situation and that there must be greater emphasis placed on equitable spending and services. His organization, Generation Squeeze, therefore calls for the mass mobilization of younger Canadian voters through the creation of a lobby.
As previously stated, 59 per cent of Canadians from the ages of 18-29 did not vote in the last federal election. How could Generation Squeeze mobilize a lobby for the fraction of society that does not appear to care?
Samara Canada, the other group presenting on Tuesday night, finds there is more to civic engagement than voter turnout. Ignoring other aspects means ignoring the facets of society where young Canadians are most engaged. In a survey of over 2400 people in 2014, Samara found that when it came to issues of activism and engagement, young Canadians performed at least as well as their older counterparts. For instance, 38 per cent had attended a political meeting, while only 31 per cent of people over 56 had (the next closest category). 22 per cent had volunteered for a candidate, the same figure found for those over 56. In fact, Canadians 18-29 outperformed the other demographics in nearly every category.
However, despite these levels of engagement, the fact remains: only 41 per cent of Canadians 18-29 voted in 2011. So, where does the discrepancy lie? Ms. Hilderman noted one of Samara Canada’s six criteria to establish a voter is contact. Elections Canada has found this too, determining that turnout for young voters is 15 per cent higher when they have been contacted to vote. In the same study of 2400 voters, Samara Canada found that younger Canadians were contacted less than older voting groups. This contact influences not only voter turnout, but civic engagement rates as well. Of those contacted, 61 per cent of young Canadians agreed they were “affected by the decisions of elected officials every day.” Of those who were not contacted, only 22 per cent agreed. Samara Canada and Ms. Hilderman therefore make it clear that contact by a political party is a driving factor in bringing young Canadians to the polls.
In the concluding discussion, Paul Kershaw re-emphasized the need for an organized lobby of young Canadians. He believed that if this lobby could follow the model of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, providing members with benefits and giving clout to their goals, an association of young Canadians could be successful. Having considered Jane Hilderman’s argument that young Canadians are more engaged in politics than given credit for, the forum left the impression that this was a viable option. Further to this, should young Canadians reinforce this consideration by turning out in greater numbers on October 19, perhaps parties will begin to give them the attention they deserve.
Fiona Downey is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in political studies from Queen’s University. Her interests lie in women’s health policy, civic engagement, urban policy, and human rights. When not reading or writing about policy, Fiona enjoys playing field hockey and exploring Toronto.