The importance of youth empowerment in the European Union

31. August 2018

by Simona Pronckute

“The failure to invest in youth reflects a lack of compassion and a colossal failure of common sense.” – Coretta Scott King

EU decision-makers recognise the fact that youth engagement in society serves as an important tool for democratic development. Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union for instance gives the EU powers to promote youth participation in democratic life. At the same time, there are many indications that the socio-economic divide has widened significantly in the past few decades[1], while social exclusion and poverty are affecting more and more people across Europe[2], especially young people[3]. It is thus very important to have a better understanding of the correlations between education, socio-economic status,[4] and the level of civic and social engagement of young people. As David E. Campbell highlights, social capital is closely connected to education[5], and other studies[6] also conclude that social exclusion has a disproportionate effect on youth of low socio-economic status, limiting their participation in civic life.

The importance of youth empowerment and civic engagement

The definition of youth empowerment, as understood in this article, is the “promoting the self-actualisation or influence.”[7] According to Cargo and Jennings, “youth empowerment involves a collective, democratic, and pro-social process of engagement.”[8] Nowadays, young people do get involved in the EU democratic process, albeit only on issues that affect them directly. Moreover, this form of youth participation, including involvement, engagement and activism at EU-level represents “self-expression and non-traditional forms“ of participation and “an opportunity to share with others and to gain respect”.[9] In other words, youth political activism and alternative participation imply “demonstrating, volunteering in associations and socialising and expressing political opinions through digital and social media.”[10] Other studies also include the following actions as a part of new forms of civic engagement: “contacting officials, the mass media and talk shows, signing e-petitions, boycotting, canvassing, participating in protests and trying to persuade others.”[11] Additionally, according to the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS), a cooperative agreement, youth empowerment can be regarded as “both a democratic value and as an instrumental driver of democratic change.”[12] This empowerment provides, for instance, an invaluable contribution to local communities and plays a key role in awareness-raising or increasing a social participation at local level.[13]

Essentially, youth engagement is related to active citizenship, empowerment and active involvement in society at local, regional, national and European levels. Empowerment, specifically, allows for the personal development and the gaining of new skills, while active engagement helps young people to address their concerns and make a change in society. Implementing a principle of inclusiveness would thus ensure that all young people are empowered and are able to participate.[14]

Putman also distinguishes another argument to explain how education is a key factor for social participation:

“Education is one of the most important predictors – usually, in fact, the most important predictor – of many forms of social participation – from voting to associational membership, to chairing a local committee to hosting a dinner party to giving blood.”[15]

Further research by Campbell proves the correlation between education and civic engagement on the one hand and social status on the other.[16] Young people with a higher social status are not only more engaged in civic life but very often have better access to education, information and youth programmes. Therefore, more inclusiveness in education as well as youth participation could provide better opportunities for unprivileged youth to eventually get them more engaged in civic and social activities.

What are the obstacles to and the opportunities of youth engagement?

According to the European Commission, every year 150,000 young people and youth workers participate in pan-European projects supported by EU funds.[17] As a result of this, there has been a proven positive correlation between youth mobility programmes, especially Erasmus, and increased democratic participation among young people at the EU level. Recent studies show that, while 60% of former EU youth exchange programme participants indicated they voted in the European elections, only 29% of all 18-24 year-old said they participated.[18] Only 25% of youths from disadvantaged backgrounds had the chance to take part in Erasmus+ projects. It seems that many European youth programmes have turned into a career push for more privileged young people. A majority of the so-called youth leadership programmes give priority to high profile candidates and thus there is a growing number of young professionals who have taken part in multiple prestigious initiatives. This approach has not only created closed-off communities of privileged youths but also changed the nature of youth empowerment.

The economic crisis of the early 2010s has had a big effect on youth and reduced the number of opportunities for them to meaningfully participate in society.  This lead to an increase in the number of young people that are at risk of long-term social exclusion in Europe. According to the latest Eurostat data, of the 88.6 million young people between 15 and 29 years old living in the EU, 28.8 % are facing problems such as poverty.[19] It goes without saying that a lack of education and professional experience further heightens the risk of social exclusion. That is why young people with a low socio-economic status should receive additional support and be actively encouraged to participate in such programmes. Statistics also reflect that young women are more vulnerable to economic and social risks such as an unemployment than young men. 24.3% of women are not involved in any kind of education, employment, or training (NEETs), compared to 15.3% of men in the same age group.[20]

Conclusions and recommendations for empowering young people

As discussed in this article, social exclusion is proven to be linked to disadvantaged backgrounds and low-social status that limits access to social networks. More precisely, youth engagement requires time, commitment and resources that usually represent an issue for disadvantaged youth. In order to fight social exclusion, local communities should take responsibility, and more smart investments should be made in long-term youth initiatives. Moreover, leadership is a very important part of the youth empowerment process, one that helps to communicate an inspiring vision for young people, a vision that’s worth fighting for. Having, long-term and sustainable youth programmes would help young, disadvantaged people to start believing in themselves, which will enable them to take action in society.

To further improve youth engagement and reduce social exclusion, the following recommendations should be taken into account by local and national authorities:

  • break the closed circuits of social exclusion by providing tailored and personalised youth programmes as well as expanding community-family partnerships;
  • provide personalised approaches in tailored youth leadership programmes and initiatives;
  • involve families in youth empowerment and civic engagement initiatives;
  • support long-lasting and sustainable youth programmes;
  • put youth at the core of national policies;
  • support youth organisations’ development at all levels;
  • develop more efficient support systems for youth engagement at local level;
  • ensure more inclusive education for youth empowerment in order to unleash potential of young people and get them more engaged in their own communities.

Finally, one of the most effective tools to enable youth engagement is belonging to certain social networks (youth groups, organisations, clubs, movements, platforms etc.) that not only allow young people to upgrade their profile but also to become more ‘privileged’ in terms of having better access to information and receiving official recognition. Particularly, it would help to make society more inclusive of vulnerable groups of young people (such as people with disabilities and ethnic minorities). This might be regarded as a first step towards preventing youth disengagement and promoting engagement towards more participation and inclusion.


[1] Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe, 26 January 2017, OECD, p. 5,

[2] Europe 2020 indicators – poverty and social exclusion, Eurostat,

[3] Tingyun Chen, Jean-Jacques Hallaert, Haonan Qu, Maximilien Queyranne, Alexander Pitt, Alaina Rhee, Anna Shabunina, Jérôme Vandenbussche, and Irene Yackovlev, Inequality  and Poverty Across Generations in the European Union, IMF, January 2018, p. 6.

[4] Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe, 26 January 2017, OECD, p. 17,

[5] David E. Campbell, What is education’s impact on civic and social engagement?, p. 25,

[6] Andres Sandoval-Hernandez, Civic participation and socioeconomic status: the mediating role of school civic learning opportunities. A cross-country comparison based on IEA’s ICCS,

[7] Webster (1998) cited in: Angela J. Huebner:  Examining “Empowerment”: A How-To Guide for the Youth Development Professional, Journal of Extension, December 1998, Vol. 36, No. 6,

[8] Matthew Morton and Paul Montgomery, Protocol for a systematic review: Youth empowerment programs for improving self-efficacy and self-esteem of adolescents, 2010, p.3.

[9] Analytical paper on Youth Participation, The Partnership between the Council of Europe and the European Commission in the field of youth,  p.3,

[10] Richard Freedman and Gianluca Sgueo, Young people engaged but not voting?, European Parliamentary Research Service Blog,

[11] Timo Lochocki, Trends, Causes and Patterns of Young People’s Civic Engagement in Western Democracies. A Review of Literature, Centre for Research on Civil Society and Voluntary sector, 2010, p.12.,

[12] The National Democratic Institute, International Youth Day 2016: Supporting meaningful global youth engagement,

[13] Timo Lochocki, Trends, Causes and Patterns of Young People’s Civic Engagement in Western Democracies. A Review of Literature, Centre for Research on Civil Society and Voluntary sector, 2010, p.12.,

[14] Youth participation and engagement explained, Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, 2013,

[15] Robert Putman, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000 in David E. Campbell, What is education’s impact on civic and social engagement?, OECD, p. 26,

[16] David E. Campbell, Civic Engagement and Education: An Empirical Test of the Sorting Model, American Journal of Political Science, Volume 53, Issue 4, October 2009,

[17] EPP Group, The ‘Europe effect’: increased youth engagement, 05.12.2013,‘Europe-effect’%3A-increased-youth-engagement.

[18] EPP Group, The ‘Europe effect’: increased youth engagement, 05.12.2013,‘Europe-effect’%3A-increased-youth-engagement.

[19] Etienne Bassot, Youth empowerment [Ten issues to watch in 2018],

[20] Young Women’s unemployment in EU, Policy Department Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, European Parliament, p.1.,