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Swiss and US elections Decoding millennial voters, on two continents

About a third of Swiss youth between 18 and 25 voted in the last election. What will 2015 look like?

(Metin Senler, SRF/politbox)

Heated election campaigns are underway in two countries where I can cast my ballot: Switzerland and the United States. And in both countries, my fellow “millennials” and I are being analysed, targeted and courted for our votes. But what issues will get our generation to the polls?

In the US, those between the ages of 15 and 35 make up 28% of the total population, while in Switzerland, it’s 27%. Yet when it comes to voting, that age demographic is significantly underrepresented in both places.

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Only about a third of 18-to-25-year-olds voted in the last Swiss election four years ago, while the US Presidential Election in 2012 saw 38% participation among 18-to-24-year-olds and the 2014 midterms just 23%. 

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So the question has become, what will get my generation to the polls? For the past two months, I have been criss-crossing Switzerland as part of the politbox project, meant to reach out to young voters like me ahead of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Along the way, I’ve found people eager to share their thoughts and be heard on a range of topics, but wary of the broad term “politics”.

Instead, it’s more about sounding off on specific issues: how to hold onto a linguistic identity in multi-lingual and globalising Switzerland, or whether there’s anything in today’s society worth protesting for.

Protest movements fail to convince

“I think there are fewer and fewer youth movements taking to the streets today and I’m not sure that I would demonstrate for anything,” one respondent said. “I didn’t really grow up with that culture.” 

A poll of 1193 users of the politbox app showed that 54.6% had never taken part in a demonstration or protest. Here’s how others felt about it.

Youth weigh in Protesting in Switzerland

What's worth taking to the streets for in Switzerland? The politbox project asked young music festival-goers. (Veronica DeVore,

A recent survey of 17-year-olds across Switzerland by the Commission for Child and Youth Affairs and the University of Bern also showed that political and societal engagement isn’t high up on the list of priorities for the country’s youth, with work and education playing much larger roles.

Youth in the United States have reacted similarly. During a recent period of unrest linked to police shootings and racial disparity, just 39% of all 18-to-29-year-olds said protests in response to those events would be effective in making meaningful change, according to the latest Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service from Harvard University. That survey also showed that just 21% of young Americans consider themselves “politically engaged”. 

Career optimism

As a young college graduate in the United States during and after the economic recession of 2008, I saw and felt its effects all around me: my first “real” job offer was retracted because the position was cut, friends – and I, for a time – moved back in with parents, and if you managed to find steady work, you thought twice before quitting to try something new or follow a passion. And while standing among the millions on the National Mall watching President Barack Obama being inaugurated in January 2009, I felt a lot of excitement among the young people around me – with an underlying desperate hope that this would be the answer to their troubles. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s youth remained relatively untouched by the global downturn compared to the rest of Europe and the United States. And in the Commission for Child and Youth Affairs poll of 17-year-olds, 91% said they expected to have access to the education they desired. However, a recent long-term study from the federal technology institute ETH Zurich showed that the Swiss youth unemployment rate has been steadily creeping upwards since the early 1990s, from 4.7% to over 7%. Youth without a higher diploma of some kind are the most likely to be unemployed. 

Having a marketable skill and an education is similarly crucial for young workers in the US. Yet American youth have seen higher education costs more than double since the 1970s, to an average of $20,234 for a four-year degree according to a 2015 reportexternal link from the Pell Institute. And their chances at an education are far from equal, with the 2015 Indicators of Higher Education Equity finding that “higher education outcomes are highly inequitable across family income groups” in the United States. 

But like their Swiss counterparts – and despite the economic troubles that have plagued their generation – American millennials are generally optimistic about their long-term futures. Forty-one per cent told the Harvard poll that they thought they would be better off than their parents, with another 33% expecting to do about as well. 

The immigration question

Following the vote on February 9, 2014 to re-introduce quotas on those entering Switzerland from the European Union, the issue of immigration is bound to loom over the Swiss October elections. 

But where do Swiss youth stand on the immigration issue? The Commission for Child and Youth Affairs poll showed that six out of 10 17-year-olds believe that immigrants are generally good for society and that they add value to communities. However, they are more divided on the question of whether Swiss citizens should get more advantages than immigrants, such as in the job market. One third believe everyone should get the same chances, but one-sixth want better opportunities for citizens. And in canton Ticino, which has the largest number of cross-border workers in the country, 37% want citizens to have more advantages than immigrants. 

In the United States, immigration has long been a hot-button political issue, especially among the country’s large Hispanic and Latin American communities. 

“Young adults (age 18-29) are about twice as likely as older Americans (age 30+) to support a path to citizenship [for immigrants],” found a recent studyexternal link from the Brookings Institution on immigration reform. 

And young Americans have similar views to Swiss 17-year-olds with regards to immigrants’ roles in the economy. More than 6-in-10 of those surveyed by the Brookings Institution say illegal immigrants help the economy by providing low-cost labour, compared to about one-third who say illegal immigrants hurt the economy. 

Reaching out

In the 2012 election, turnout among millennial voters was key to securing Barack Obama’s second term – he took in more than two thirds of the total youth vote. In the run-up to 2016, that has political parties and candidates pulling out all the stops to try to reach millennials where they are: online, on their smartphones, on the go.

As of 2013, about 55% of Swiss residents had smartphones, similar to in the United States with 56%

(Severin Nowacki, SRF/politbox)

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, considered the early 2016 presidential frontrunners, both took to the picture messaging service Snapchat to announce their campaigns. And Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz, who became the first person to read tweets on the floor of the US Senate, recently hired a 27-year-old campaign strategist who has Cruz using live streaming apps like periscope to make announcements and reach out to supporters. 

The Harvard poll of millennial voters shows that 33% of US 18-to-29-year-olds have Snapchat accounts, while 39% have Twitter and 83% have Facebook. 

Social media saturation looks similar in Switzerland, with about 72% of the overall population on Facebook, although just 5% uses Twitter. Some 90% of Swiss 14-to-35-year-olds use some form of social media. Yet young people I spoke to for the politbox project were very aware of privacy considerations and often wary of sharing too much. And, Swiss politicians and political parties have been much slower to embrace social media as a means for reaching out to voters.

“Looking back to the last elections in 2011, I get the impression that there has been little real progress – in French-speaking Switzerland anyway,” Magali Philip, who hosts a programmeexternal link about social networks on Swiss public radio, RTS, told “There are few candidates who stand out, and no party seems to have a social media strategy worthy of the name.” 

As someone on the older end of my generation, political parties and candidates are most likely to get my attention on Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. And the first election-related tweets and messages are already starting to fill my inbox and my feeds – especially from the US. 

Like many of my fellow millennial voters in the US and Switzerland, I haven’t yet made any decisions yet about who I’ll be voting for. But I do know I’ll take advantage of being able to exercise the right, in both places.

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