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Young citizens

How soon does a young person become a “citizen” in the country of his or her birth? The answer must be, immediately. Voting rights, however, generally come later – countries differ about voting age as they do, for example, about eligibility for a driving licence – and citizens living overseas may not retain their voting rights. There are procedures whereby foreign immigrants acquire citizenship and voting rights.

Every so often we hear that in some country or other half the population is under 20 or even 18, and concern is expressed that so many young people will not be able to find jobs, and in any case will lack the experience to play a part in politics. But in these days young people (girls included) are for the most part likely to be better educated than their forbears, more in touch with the world and aware of developments and initiatives being taken elsewhere. They have grown up with modern communications, seen movies and met tourists and may have followed international sport – and noted teams of very mixed ethnicity. They have energy, and are looking for opportunities.  Some lucky ones have travelled on organised educational tours, and won overseas scholarships. This is indeed, a new world!

Participation: It is certainly desirable therefore that at an early age they should take it for granted that they should become involved in discussions and debates about social, political and economic issues, should be encouraged to ask questions and to express views. Participation in formal debates can be a valuable experience.

This is an introduction to the democratic political process, an opportunity to compare the different procedures adopted in other countries – news reports of, say, American or British elections can be timely – and how they change over time. There is no one ideal model. Arguments for and against, say, proportional representation, will never cease.

At all times, however, we need to insist on the importance of high moral standards, of honesty and accountability, and the meaning of the term “good governance”.

Participation in electioneering is a useful experience too, especially as with the availability of the internet methods are changing dramatically: again the recent American and British elections have opened up a new era of communication in which the views of individual electors can have much more weight than just a vote registered at polling booth. Young people take these technologies for granted, but it is important that they learn to use them responsibly.

Experienced citizens: There are these days quite frequent opportunities for young people to become involved with the various NGOs that explore many important issues, that seek to make their views known and to influence opinions in most countries of the world, and ultimately to lobby governments. This, again, is a new sort of democracy, in which it may be possible to talk of “world opinion” being accepted by many democratic governments.

As they grow up young people should become familiar with all these issues and complications, whilst accepting that new issues will appear, unforseen problems will arise, and that responsible citizens will have difficult decisions to make. At an early age they will themselves be experienced citizens.

Our politicians are getting younger year by year.

by Roger Peren, Board member, Centre for Citizenship Education

Updated May 2010