Brexit and 'Generation Z': Engaging the Next Generation

teenagers_cropped.jpgAli's work with the youth of her church has given her an insight into the rise of political engagement in teenagers during and since EU Referendum. She hopes this is a trend that will long continue - but how can we best maintain their interest after the Brexit fall-out dies down?

As a youth worker, I measure my time in school half terms. It's been the equivalent of such a half term since our historic decision to Brexit. Seven rollercoaster weeks of resignations, leadership challenges, contests, intrigue, and near political hysteria. Seven weeks of observing how "Generation Z" young people have engaged with the drama unfolding around them. I pulled an all-nighter to see history being made in the early hours of June 24th - something that my near-40-year-old body decided afterwards wasn't such a good idea. The 16-18 year olds who make up our older youth group were far more sensible in their engagement - discussing Dimbleby and Snow's bricks along Downing Street for the news that we had voted to leave brought direct to them via their phone news apps and Facebook.

We had decided to host a "Euro Party" that Friday evening, regardless of the outcome - the room festooned with flags and a classic Eurovision soundtrack. Along with European buffet food (French Brie, German salami, Polish potato snacks), it was fears for their future that the young people brought along with them. All were in shock at the decision, all were frustrated at the Grey Vote, all were annoyed that they hadn't been given the opportunity to make their opinion count. Many were nervous about the state of the Pound, some had listened to exaggerated claims that they now had to stockpile goods as the price of everything was about to sky-rocket, some voiced concerns that it was going to be harder for them to get a job after University. All of them were appalled by Farage's xenophobic poster, none of them thought the country was being crippled by a "swarm of migrants", all of them were shocked by the Britain First sentiment behind the murder of Jo Cox. Curiously, though, none could explain the workings of the EU (could any of us?). And curiouser still, none of them had considered that some voted Leave due to concern over democracy, transparency, and the (mis)handling of the refugee crisis. Such issues had not registered with them at all - although, as such Lexit arguments had failed to cut through the debate generally, maybe that's not so curious.youth_parliament_2.jpg

We spent a lot of time that evening discussing and reassuring, finishing the night in prayer to the One who is actually Sovereign - for our Government and nation, for Scotland, and for Europe. Over the momentous weeks that followed, you would've thought politics would now never be too far away from our chat - the media in a perpetual frenzy, relishing in the cloak and dagger dramas unraveling hourly within the Westminster bubble. The reality in response to this barrage of information suggested otherwise. A group of our lads just back from their NCS (National Citizens Service) - and ironically after a day of lectures about politics - did not know we had a new Prime Minister in Theresa May. Only when asked did the young people seem aware of Gove's stab in Boris's back. Those no longer in school due to GCSEs seemed less informed than those still talking with their form tutors first thing in the morning. Those whose parents were engaged with the issues knew far more than those who never looked up from their screens long enough to talk about the weather, let alone mass resignations within the Shadow Cabinet. Even more interestingly, those young people with a Left political leaning were far more concerned than those with a more Conservative mindset. The latter voiced the usual apathetic diatribe of "politics doesn't actually affect me, I can't actually make a difference", whilst the Corbynistas still wanted to believe in the power of the people.

One Friday sums up these past seven weeks more than any other: 15th July. The end of a week were Theresa was crowned PM, a political bloodbath of a Cabinet reshuffle had ensued, and 100,000s of Labour members were disenfranchised by the NEC from voting in the leadership election. July 15th, the Friday when more of our young people were excited that the church building was a designated PokeStop than who was now living in Number 10. In a through-the-looking-glass world, who can blame them? Weren't we all desperate for an opportunity to revel in the virtual, rather than continuing to engage with the demoralising grown-up battles of political maneuvering? I finished the term slightly frayed around the edges, encouraged by a growing sense of community amongst our youth but disheartened by their seeming lack of involvement with the wider workings of the country.

Welby_SS.jpgBut, a week ago I was sat on a rather uncomfortable floor listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury conduct a Q&A session with youth delegates from Soul Survivor in Stafford. Answering questions texted from the floor, it quickly became obvious that the young people present wanted to know his opinion on terrorism, Britain's place in the world, and the realities of Brexit. Applauding calls for love to defeat hate, I was encouraged by the reality that young people aren't solely stuck in a Pokemon-induced haze. They long to be consulted, listened to, engaged with. They want the world to be a better place. They want to get their hands mucky making it happen. Exam results are looming around the corner, decisions about their future will come upon them quicker than they can imagine. Now is the time to challenge the young people of this country to believe another way is possible - to pray Your Kingdom come, Your will be done. We've just lived through seven weeks the like of which British politics has never known. A half term like no other. For all the half terms to come, it's time for this generation to speak out and act. As a youth worker, I need to facilitate that opportunity. As politically-minded people, we need to change our opinion on youth engagement. As a nation, we need to listen. And Generation Z? This is your time. Go.

Ali Demet is a Youth Worker based in Lancaster. She is a life-long socialist, and is passionate about young people meeting Jesus and pursuing social justice to bring God's Kingdom to Earth.

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