9.1 General context
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In Poland, young people’s public participation is considered mainly in the context of local governments as the activities of youth councils in municipalities (gminy), which are seen as important institutions for activating young people in municipal self-governments. However, at statutory level, this is regulated in very general terms, and is based on the statutory norms adopted by particular municipal councils. Many authors emphasise that schools are the first place where the mechanisms of participation in government should be implemented, and that schools are charged with great responsibility in this respect. Nonetheless, according to the report entitled Student self-governance in the education system, student councils are "among the weakest and most neglected democratic institutions’ in Poland". In this context, it is worth mentioning Polish initiatives that support self-governance in schools, for instance the Student councils (Samorząd Uczniowski) programme run by the Centre for Citizenship Education and Children and Youth Parliament (Sejm dzieci i młodzieży) currently run by the Chancellery of the Sejm in cooperation with the Ministry of National Education, Center for Education Development and the Institute of National Remembrance.
For many years Polish youth demonstrated the lack of widespread involvement in public affairs. According to the Youth 2011 (Młodzi 2011) report, "general public issues, and especially politics, do not fit contemporary youth life. Involvement in public campaigns and taking part in elections were not a generational event. They were, in the young people’s minds, a necessary response in defence of key values: freedom and keeping Poland within the civilisation circle that guarantees the effectiveness of the social system. Of key significance is the question concerning the quality of social capital and its foundation, namely the beliefs regarding the value of engaging in other people’s affairs and the point of collective action". The report also accentuates the lack of a suitable formula that would attract young people and stimulate their readiness to engage in activism for the benefit of others. New research conducted in 2018 indicates that there is an increase of pride in Poland among the young people. The narrative of the need to catch up to the West is being replaced by thinking about what (and the need for) Poland to give to the world. It seems that the younger generation has a growing need for a national community, but also resists attempts at using it for political goals and appropriating it. The need for a community is matched by the desire for common ground based on respect. The young people’s attitude towards public matters is rapidly changing: in the municipal elections in 2018, the turnout in the 18-29 age group was 37%, in European Parliament elections in 2019 just 27%, in the parliamentary elections in 2019 was around 46%, while in the first round of the presidential elections in 2020 it reached 64.5% (and for the first time reached the average across all age groups, having been markedly lower previously), then 67.2% in the run-off election, slightly below the national average. This shift has been noted in other analyses, for example in in Youth 2020 - in search of identity (Młodzi 2020 - w poszukiwaniu tożsamości): “over a time, it has become apparent that the traditional indifference of youth towards politics is changing (...) general dislike for participating in political parties remains on a steady level (with between 57% and 67% of young people stressing their distance for parties and politics). (...) more visible is the generational concern with environmental matters, or the climate catastrophe, than an interest in democracy or civil rights. However, new impulses do happen. Aside from the Youth Climate Strike, they include women’s rights, LGBT+ issues or organizations fighting for an independent judiciary and democracy (like “Akcja Demokracja)”. They have brought young people to engage with problems and challenges of the contemporary world”. It is not yet certain, however, that this engagement will be lasting. The 2020’s Youth in Central Europe 2020: NDI’s Research report (Młodzi w Europie Środkowej 2020. Projekt badawczy NDI) indicates that “since 2018, the general levels of involvement in practically all forms of political engagement have decreased. The most common form of engagement is voting, followed by less demanding forms of online activism, especially signing petitions and giving out donations.”
The change is increasingly visible. CBOS data shows that the “current level of interest in politics among Poles aged 18-24 is (...) highest in history of our research”, though still lower than in general society (18% vs. 21%). Other statistics are also on the rise: the majority of young Poles (77%) declares participation in parliamentary elections (which is also the highest this statistic has ever been – in the past, it had never crossed above 70%). The increase in interest in politics is represented not just in declarations. Authors of the report titled “Democratic paradox in practice: experiences of young activists” (Demokratyczny paradoks w praktyce: doświadczenia młodych aktywistów i aktywistek) show that events like “climate strike, women’s strike, protests against polexit, but also independence marches draw in and interest young people. 2021 polls among young Poles (age 15-29) show that 58% of them have, in their life, participated in demonstrations”. Other (Youth Attitudes on Politics and Democracy in Poland), year earlier (2020) research suggest that only 11% had that experience then. Therefore, the idea put forward by the authors of the “Democratic paradox…” report seems sound: that “the pandemic represented the time when young people started being interested in politics – probably because it was when the state became immediately ‘present’ in their daily lives, more visible and real”. An important factor was also the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal further restricting reproductive rights – which is key as participation in demonstrations is reported more and more often among young women.
None of the projects specified above assume the participation of young people in the processes of creating, implementing and monitoring policies at global level. Neither has the concept of ‘global problems’ been given any binding definition that would be formally recognised by the Polish authorities. Based on literature of the subject, these problems can be generally regarded as referring to humanity as whole, occurring on a supra-state and supra-regional level, distinguished by great significance, and thus connected to the issue of humanity’s survival. Methods of solving global problems must be based on joint actions of the entire international community. The most frequently mentioned issues relate to international conflicts (especially armed conflicts), as well as problems concerning demographics, ecology (threats to the natural environment), food, raw materials and energy (limited natural resources). To an equal extent, economic issues are also pointed out, such as disproportions in development (the rich and poor gap), international debt and the labour market, in addition to social problems, including diseases and addictions, international crime, terrorism and religious fundamentalism. These are accompanied by problems that are seen as relatively new, namely the negative consequences of the science and technology revolution, the information revolution and the migration problem.
There is no clear information which would make it possible to diagnose the interests of young people in global problems. A key problem in this respect is the lack of a unified, consistent system of education on issues such as sustainable development, human rights, the UN Millennium Goals, green production and consumption (e.g. recycling, energy saving or hybrid drives) or entrepreneurship, employment, education and volunteering opportunities outside Europe. This does not change the fact that all the specified issues, being crucial to the future of humanity, can be seen as strongly related to the interests young people, whereas among the eight Millennium Development Goals, the ones that specifically refer to the young generation in Poland are those concerning the promotion of a balance between women’s and men’s rights and the empowerment of women, combating AIDS, and ensuring the ecological balance of the environment. Sustainable growth goals outlined in Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda 2030 na rzecz zrównoważonego rozwoju), are similarly far beyond the scope of aforementioned millenial goals. An interesting position on the issue of young people’s involvement in the protection of human rights was presented by the participants of the discussion entitled Human rights as seen from the perspective of different generations. According to Augusta Featherston, the participation of young people is crucial to human rights. However, contemporary democracy does not take any notice of young people or their priorities, does not address them, and treats them as the passive recipients of decisions rather than new active leaders. It is, therefore, not surprising that young people are not interested in public life or in joining the democratic structures, despite having so many new inspiring tools to do so. Furthermore, "young people take human rights for granted. Only losing these rights can mobilise them. But we must seek a new code to reach young people with the message and explain what can be done", said Danuta Przywara. Another interesting conclusion was presented by Cristi Mihalache, who said that "young people were capable of responding. The key was a community-based message, the stories connecting the generations that were still valid today". Mihalache added that "watchdog organizations would always be needed, and that young people knew how to run them".
An awareness of the occurrence and significance of global problems is best revealed not in declarations, but in everyday behaviours. In this context, it should be noted that there is also a trend in Poland, which promotes life balance and harmony with nature. In other words, this is about a lifestyle focused on mental and physical wellbeing, the environment and personal development that does not disturb the ecosystem balance and social justice. The trend makes a direct impact on conscious consumption, with a particular focus on local products and services, including organic food, renewable energies, efficient transport, water and energy saving, green and passive construction, etc.
Climate issues seem to be what drives young people to public activity the most. In defense of climate and against the passivity of politicians, young people organize efforts such as the Youth Climate Strike or Extinction Rebellion, as described in point 9.3. Political views of young Poles are not dissimilar from the society at large. According to 2022 State of Science Index research conducted by IPSOS for 3M, “fewer than one in ten Pole denies climate change (8%), 68% worry for their life and their family’s lives, and 67% believe that climate change is affecting them directly.”
Young Poles aged 18-35 are, in many aspects, similar to their European peers. According to international research “Sustainable or Nothing” („Zrównoważony rozwój albo nic. Wymarzona przyszłość Europejczyków z pokoleń Y i Z”), „young people aged 18-35, both in Poland, as well as in other countries, agree that Europe is a source of cooperation between various states”. However, young Poles are more likely to understand the future in relation to technology (40% compared to 27%) and are less interested in sustainability as the key concept for the future (12% compared to 23%). „Scientific and medical research is important to them, as well as physical and mental health. More than half of young people in Poland see finding a cure for cancer as a global priority. Most millenials and Gen Z people would invest in scientific research and new drug therapies, if only allowed to. Young Poles are also attentive to respecting the environment and see environmental challenges as the second most important priority to tackle globally.”