As the world lurches from one crisis to another, harnessing the optimism, energy and innovation of young people is key to restructuring the political landscape. Here, Marie Claire explores how a new campaign championed by The Body Shop aims to amplify youth voices
As we grapple with the climate crisis, global conflicts, racial and gender inequality, and rising poverty, it’s easy to become pessimistic about the future. Thankfully, one generation has the confidence to feel optimistic in the face of these challenges – yet it’s the least politically represented group in the world. Young people today are politically engaged, but sidelined from the halls of power. Despite the fact that 50 per cent of the world’s population is thought to be under 30, just 2.6 per cent of global parliamentarians are of the same age. In fact, the average age of a world leader currently stands at 62
To successfully tackle the issues we face, political bodies and business leaders* across the world urgently need to start taking young voices seriously – which is why The Body Shop is now working with the UN to make that happen.
Progress can’t come soon enough: a recent landmark report by the organisations reveals that 82 per cent of people agree political systems need drastic reform to be fit for the future. Of the 27,000 people surveyed, 84 per cent described politicians as ‘self-interested’, while 75 per cent considered them ‘corrupt’.
‘82 per cent of people agree political systems need drastic reform to be fit for the future’
The research also found that people aged between 15 and 23 years old are four times more likely to have actively taken part in protest movements than those aged over 30. However, as a result of political corruption and complex bureaucracy, this group is often dissuaded from entering politics. This is true for women in particular, with just 27 per cent of female respondents declaring that they’d consider running for office, compared to 36 per cent of men. And given the misogyny female politicians have to deal with on social media and in the press, who can blame them?
Part of the ‘Be Seen. Be Heard’ campaign – a global effort by The Body Shop and United Nations to create stronger representation of young people in politics – the report represents views held in 75 different countries, and the campaign aims to make one legislation or policy change in each.
In the UK, ‘Be Seen. Be Heard’ is taking aim at the youth vote. As it stands, voting as a young person in the UK is a postcode lottery. Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney of the Channel Islands have extended the voting age to 16. In Scotland and Wales, 16- and 17-year-olds can vote in local and devolved elections, but not in Westminster elections, while in England and Northern Ireland, this age group can’t vote at all.
In a bid to level the playing field, The Body Shop is also partnering with the British Youth Council to support its ‘Votes at 16’ campaign – a coordinated drive to lower the voting age to 16 across the UK by the next general election in 2024.
Along with ensuring 16- and 17-year-olds gain full voting rights for all national elections and referendums across the UK, the three-year initiative is working to break down barriers to voter registration and political education, too.
To find out more about how ‘Votes at 16’ is setting out to spark systemic change, Marie Claire meets three of the campaign’s UK activists fighting to get young people heard.
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‘I ran for election when I was barely 19 and was the youngest candidate to stand in a European Parliamentary election ever. I was told all the time that I should go back to school; that I was too young. And I think that made me want to do it even more. I wanted to make people see the gap that there is for young people. Young people have never been represented in politics in a meaningful way – we are given advisory roles, but never the power to actually make decisions.
‘I’m now 22 and I’ve lived through multiple recessions, a pandemic, austerity and environmental breakdown. Young people like me feel that this shouldn’t be normal. We are done with it. And we have hope for what the future could be like – we are so much more politically active than our parents’ generation.
‘When I heard about The Body Shop’s campaign, getting involved was a no-brainer. I know what it feels like to watch decisions being made without you, ones that will fundamentally change your life.
‘What happens in the next eight years will dictate what life on earth looks like. If young people were included in politics, the decisions would be extremely different. Young people have an amazing energy and vision for what the world could look like. We recognise that the future is ours.
‘We recognise that the future is ours’
‘People forget that we grew up in the age of information and we have actively taken steps to educate ourselves. The internet is also an amazing space for organising and coming together. When I first helped found Extinction Rebellion Youth, we asked ourselves, “How do we create spaces for ourselves and reclaim the cultural identity of being young?”
‘So, ‘Votes at 16’ isn’t about giving young people agency – it’s about acknowledging the agency we already have. We’re seeing many young people demand to be heard through youth strikes and youth groups taking up space in democracy. The next logical step is to enable them to vote, to allow them to actively participate, and encourage them to run in elections, too. It’s not about waiting until we’re older to be the decision makers. It’s about us taking power now.’
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‘I’ve been out as a lesbian for 10 years now. And from the word go, I started receiving death threats online. My teachers didn’t know how to help me. In fact, I realised the education system has completely erased LGBTQI+ topics from the curriculum, so campaigning for LGBTQI+ rights wasn’t really a choice – it was the only way to survive.
‘I’ve won awards for my work campaigning for inclusion and equity across the globe, and this has led me to appear in the media alongside other youth activists. But I have a lot of mixed feelings about the way youth activism is positioned in society. The media has been guilty of exploiting young people’s trauma, with no duty of care.
‘The fetishization of youth activists only works if they are also empowered to drive change. You can’t elevate young people on the one hand, claiming that they are going to “save the world”, and then not give them the tools to do that. That’s a contradiction for me – it’s all for show.
‘Young people see through politicians who just pay lip service to issues’
‘We let 16-year-olds ride motorbikes. We let them make decisions over their bodies, medically. We let them have sex. We let them pay National Insurance and take full-time jobs – but we don’t allow them to have a say on where that money goes.
‘Have you met 16-year-olds? They’re among the most social-justice-minded people you’ll ever meet. This is because they don’t have anything to protect besides their community and themselves. They don’t have assets. Some of them have children, but most don’t. They tend to be really empathetic and community-oriented. And they can see the things that adults – whose judgement becomes clouded very quickly by these external factors – can’t see. There’s a purity and almost a simplicity in the way that teenagers view the world.
‘Young people see through politicians who just pay lip service to certain issues. And that is a scary thing for people in power. What I hope is that ‘Votes at 16’ will be a step on the path to a society that puts its money where its mouth is. It would result in different conversations, because young people would have to be a priority for parties with politicians and initiatives speaking specifically to them.
‘‘Votes at 16’ isn’t just about giving young people a voice – it would mark a fundamental shift in the way that politics operates.’
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‘When I was nine, we were given some homework to watch the news. It was 2014, so a year before both the general election and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. I thought, “This sounds bad, why aren’t we doing anything about it?” I told my parents that we needed better politicians. I said I wanted to go door knocking for the election, but they wouldn’t let me because I was nine. Eventually, when I was 10, they said yes, but my dad followed behind me.
‘I wanted to talk to people about the politician’s climate policies. I often had people saying things like, “You’re 11, what do you know?” So I decided to do an A level in Government and Politics. When I asked my head of exams, she just laughed at me. So, I emailed the exam board, then I taught myself the A level with a textbook I bought from WHSmith. At 13, I was the youngest person in the world to have completed it. Soon after that, I helped to organise school strikes in the UK and started writing for The Independent as a political commentator.
‘I’ve written laws, but I can’t vote’
‘I’ve probably met about 200 MPs in the past three years and I’ve contributed to seven party manifestos; I’ve also written a climate education bill. Finally, in November 2021, the UK Government announced that climate education will be introduced into primary schools. But despite educating myself to beyond an 18-year-olds’ level and writing actual laws, I can’t vote. And I don’t think that’s fair.
‘The UN estimates that one in six people are young people. If we were given the vote, we’d not only have a more representative government, but it would also pay homage to all of the work that young people have been doing in the past few years across climate action, LGBTQI+ rights and Black Lives Matter. It would acknowledge our contribution to society. Age doesn’t equal experience – I think I’ve shown that.’
Join the conversation
What do you think? Should the voting age be lowered to 16? What other barriers exist that prevent young people from being represented in politics? You can find out more about these issues on The Body Shop’s website and in stores, or follow @TheBodyShopUK across Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.
The Body Shop wants to create an informed, open and respectful debate about the underrepresentation of young people in public life via its network of global activists. So, whether you agree with the campaign or not – and whatever your political-party preferences or age – join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #VotesAt16 #BeSeenBeHeard
*The Body Shop is inviting young people to have a seat at the boardroom table by forming an advisory board to assist its CEO and executive team