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How Should We Approach Young People’s Role in Building Connections in Today’s Societies?

Youth electoral participation, or rather its lack of, garners considerable focus, particularly around election times. Globally, voter-turnout among 18- to 25-year-olds has been consistently lower than other age groups. This is widely seen as detrimental to the health of democracy because electoral participation is fundamental to all democratic societies. A common narrative is that young people are disillusioned by the political system and believe voting “won’t make a difference.” However, they are rarely ever asked what they believe can make a difference. Nor do people consider how the democratic process can itself exclude and reject youth participation.

Establishing connections with others is vital to encouraging collective action and social change. An important question to consider is how do we make connections? Values, emotions and identities are all essential components to securing as well as maintaining social networks. These elements are not fixed or static concepts. The challenge today is to understand how youth define “the political” in everyday life instead of limiting the definition of political and civic participation by focusing solely on traditional or “old-fashioned” ways of engagement; nor by increasingly drawing lines between an imagined “us” and “them.”

Diversity doesn’t have to divide us

Robert Putnam (2000), in his seminal work Bowling Alone, highlighted social capital as a crucial element to encouraging greater political and civic engagement within society. He defines social capital as the norms of reciprocity, honesty and trust, which arise from the interactions between individuals and/or actors. It is conceived as social cohesion rather than merely an individual function or investment. A later study by Putnam (2007) highlighted that increased diversity in a society negatively affects to the amount of social capital but this is an indictment of societies’ narrow classification of who belongs (and who should be excluded) than as a reason to reject diversity, multiculturalism and immigration.

Greater diversity within nations across the globe has been met with a simultaneous rise in far-right nationalism. New “tougher” immigration laws brought forward attempt to uphold and foster exploitive and discriminatory relations between citizens and immigrants, both illegal and legal, to support the political interests of an increasingly exclusionary state. However, youth cohorts are increasingly more diverse and accepting of diversity than their older counterparts. This is a trend that has the potential to grow over time. Connections today do not have to be limited to demarcating lines based on racial, gender or cultural backgrounds but rather community cohesion in diverse, stratified societies can be created by forming an overarching set of shared values and goals that the community creates together. To some this may seem like an unrealistic goal but human history has shown how fluid the definition of community, society, and country, etcetera can be in the world. Society is not a natural occurrence. We build the connections. We create the rules.

Young people have agency

The social capital debate also lacks nuance when it comes to discussing identity, which is multifaceted and “context-sensitive” (Weller, 2010). Our values and identities can interact differently in various social contexts, which in turn can affect to the nature of both identities and networks. Traditional social capital theory also undervalues the agency of young persons in the creation of social capital. Young people are typically seen as passive with parental figures having the most influence over the youth’s social capital. However, this completely ignores the active role young people play in creating their own connections both in and outside their families.

The interplay between social capital, identity, and political and civic engagement is complex, multilayered and dynamic. More focus is needed on how young people actively create and sustain connections in their modern, diversifying societies.


Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Putnam, R. D. (2007). E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century the 2006 Johan Skytte prize lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(2), 137-174.

Weller, S. (2010). Young people’s social capital: complex identities, dynamic works. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(5), 872-888.

Photo Credit: Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Writer: Jade Rosenkranz. A second-year master’s student in the Global Politics and Communication programme at the University of Helsinki. She is currently interning and gaining valuable practical training at the ALL-YOUTH project.

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