“Young people are the future.” An increasingly-used and well-meaning phrase that those in the political bubble will have heard more than once. Yet as well-meaning as it is, to an actual young person like me it’s one of the most irritating clichés of modern politics.
Condemning young people as merely the ‘future’ completely ignores the fact that we’re human beings in our own rights. We aren’t just the ‘future’; young people are the present, the here and now, just like any person older than us. And not just that: despite having perfectly valid opinions, despite caring deeply about our generation and our communities, we’re continually silenced by an older generation that simply fails to take us seriously.
I’ve always found it peculiar how discrimination against children and young people isn’t viewed with exactly the same disdain and disgust as discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexuality or ability. Of course, there are countless examples of institutional discrimination against all these characteristics, but ageism against young people seems to be one of the final frontiers in the fight for equal opportunity.
Minimum wage legislation allows a 17 year old to be paid over £4 less per hour than someone aged 25, even if the 17 year old is more qualified or suited to that particular job. In Wales, users of child and adolescent mental health services have to put up with waiting time targets half as ambitious as those for equivalent adult services – and that’s before you factor in the actual time it takes to be treated. Young people, no matter how sensible they are, can be refused anything from car insurance to a tenancy agreement, for absolutely no reason other than their age.
For politics to reflect young people’s needs, young people need to be in politics. In the same way our decision-making suffers when there’s a lack of women, LGBT+, BAME or disabled people around the table, so too it suffers when young people aren’t present. Just think: How different would decisions about schools be if they were made by someone who’d experienced the post-devolution Welsh education system first-hand? How different would the student finance system be if it had been designed by someone who’d studied in tuition fees area?
Wales has a long way to go in terms of getting young people into elected office. At the age of 21, I was Wales’ youngest candidate in the 2015 General Election, joined by another two young Welsh Lib Dems. No other party managed to field a candidate in Wales under the age of 25. The situation did improve for this year’s Assembly elections, with four out of five main parties selecting candidates under 25 – the youngest being 20.
Modest progress, maybe. But we’re still nowhere near a young person of any political persuasion standing in a ‘winnable’ seat, let alone actually winning one. No one under the age of 25 has ever won a first-past-the-post parliamentary election in modern Wales (our only ever young parliamentarian, AM Bethan Jenkins, was elected aged 23 through her party’s regional list).
And the result? Decisions directly affecting young people and their lives are made without a single young person in the room. In a country where a woman’s decisions being made by her husband is (quite rightly) becoming less commonplace, we seem all too ready to let a young person’s decisions be made by their parents – even if that young person is old enough to get married, have a child or die for our country.
All parties (yes, even my own) need to do more to encourage young people into politics and into positions of influence. And despite having a better record than most, I’m proud that my party is continuing to tread where no other has gone before. My appointment as Welsh Lib Dem spokesperson for young people marks the first time someone in my position speaks as a young person, not just on their behalf. That puts me and my party in a unique position to fight for young people and the issues they care about – be that in their education, their healthcare, their employment or their day-to-day lives.
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