HAVANA TIMES – On September 4, an estimated 759,000 young people aged 18 – 20 will be called upon to vote in the referendum on the new proposed Constitution. Of these voters, 246,000 will be 18-year-olds who are voting for the first time. This is the generation that spent the last 2 years with only online classes, a situation that impacted their socialization, their mental health and the conversation on civic topics.
Nonetheless, this group will be key in the upcoming referendum, because that’s where the pro-Approval vote is concentrated, according to specialists. Their concerns have little in common with the traditional voter. This is “their” Constitution, because it speaks of sexual, social, cultural, and environmental rights that they see as fundamental. They have real worries about the world they’re going to receive. And they know that whether the new Magna Carta is approved or rejected, the results will color their lives for the next decades.
Javiera is 18 and in her fourth year of high school. She’s still finding it hard to face her classes every day, since she’d gotten used to studying online in her room and in pajamas. The first month back at school has felt very difficult for her. The good thing, she affirms, is that she’s been reunited with her friends, who she hadn’t seen for a long time. Even though she stayed friends with almost everyone, she’d lost contact with some. “A few classmates left Santiago with their families and when in-person classes began again, they had to go to a different school. Some also changed their vibe and we’re not so close anymore,” she states.
Javiera tells us she doesn’t know a lot about what’s going on politically, that it doesn’t interest her. She doesn’t read or watch the news, and she’s never voted, not even for the student council in her school. “The truth is, I recently found out that voting in the referendum is obligatory,” she adds. She does know, however, that a new constitution is being written. “I’m going to have to look at what it’s about. I’ve heard and seen on Instagram that there’s protection for animals, that there’ll be rights and better conditions for women and people with different sexual orientations. That’s very important to me. I want to be sure that we won’t lose the natural areas. I wish we could end the climate crisis that the older generations have caused. And I hope that when I go out to work, I’ll get the same pay as the men. Things like that (…) The other part, about the politicians, Congress – I understand that it’s important, but it interests me less.”
Agustin, 19, is in his second year at the university. He did his first year online, but he’ll soon finish the first two months back in normal classes, and he’s getting to know his classmates. “I know that the Constitutional Convention is a group of people who were democratically elected and are drafting a new Constitution, but the truth is that I’ve heard more bad things than good about them. It seems there are always arguments among the representatives, or about the writing of certain laws,” he reflects.
Agustin voted for the first time in the first plebiscite, and later in the recent presidential elections. He’s not sure now how he’ll vote. “I need to read more, but I get lazy. Maybe I’ll ask a friend who studies Law to explain it to me. But for now, it seems it should be rejected. It all seems very disorganized,” he comments. However, he realizes he knows absolutely nothing about the content, “only what I come across in the news, and very superficially.”
Javiera and Agustin are part of the 758,811 Chileans between 18 and 20 (according to projections from the Chilean National Statistics Institute for June 2022) who will be called upon to vote in the Constitutional referendum on September 4. Of these, 50.82% are men and 49.18% women. 246,845 are 18 years old and will be voting for the first time.
These young people are part of what marketers, more than sociologists, have dubbed Gen Z or centennials. Born between 1995 and 2005, they have qualities that distinguish them from their predecessors, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 1994). “Gen Z creates contents and the millennials share it. The Z work for personal success, the millennials to be taken into account and stand out.”
According to Forbes magazine, those in Generation Z are realists who adapt to difficult conditions. They’re generally mature, self-sufficient and creative. Sixty percent desire a job that gives back something to the world; 26% do some kind of volunteer work; and 76% are concerned about the impact humans have on the planet. They’re focused, and despite their age, they’re used to solving their own problems. Access to the Cloud has given them tools to construct their own world. They’re a little arrogant: 80% think that as a generation they’re better adapted to any situation than all the previous ones. Since they were born in a digital world, they value privacy and know the risks implied in sharing all their information on the network.
The youth “are clear”
Ignacio Escobar is a researcher with Chile’s Youth and Human Rights Observatory. At 24, he’s one of the “elders” of this generation. He states that the people he works with are interested in the Constitutional Convention (CC) because the collaborative process of drafting the new Constitution was begun in response to demands that the youth have been making since before the massive demonstrations that began on October 18, 2019. In fact, the Observatory was one of the organizations that proposed lowering the voting age for the referendum to 16, on a voluntary basis, because the outcome affects minors as well.
The youngest are also those who are most concerned about the planet. “We know that within eight years the Earth is going to enter a crisis, and if the government doesn’t take up the environmental demands ( ..) it could be more serious. We’re grateful that there’s been some advance with the Escazu Accord [Latin America’s first environmental pact, not yet signed by Chile]. The Constitutional Convention has a perspective and clear proposals around the rights of nature, and how human beings can relate to the environment. That’s also true of their perspective on sexual and gender identities and our emotional attachments, since the Constitutional Convention is also taking a position on diversity. As young people, these topics have united us for the past 6 years, and now they’re reflected in the Constitutional draft,” Escobar noted.
He added: “as an Observatory, we’re very happy about the work that’s been done, and we hope that many young people will come out to vote, because the Constitution is going to provide answers for our generation. We’re going to be part of this process of change. What happens on September 4th is going to affect us directly, for a large part of our lives,” he underlined.
Ignacio Escobar affirmed that this consciousness is also shared by the youth that aren’t activists. “Our surveys are conducted in the schools, with regular everyday students. We’ve found a very clear consciousness of the changes and situations that are happening today. To believe, or generalize, that the youth aren’t interested, that they don’t want to participate, is part of the adult-centered debate. They’re the same ones who say that we’re very young, that we’re not clear about what’s happening. But the youth are clear.
In our last poll, we asked them to rank the topics they consider most relevant to them, and these turned out to be the same ones that have been on the table: the right to water; gender identity; pensions; protection for children and teens. We also asked them to evaluate the Constitutional Convention. While certainly the response was varied, the tendency was that the Convention was doing a good job, that they were responding to the social demands. This speaks clearly, in the face of other ‘more official’ polls, that tend to disparage the work of the CC. The truth is that we young people do trust this process,” he stressed.
Rodrigo Espinoza, political scientist and academic coordinator of the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University in Santiago, agreed with Escobar’s analysis.
“The greater part of the youth who were still minors at the time of the social uprising, and who voted for the first time in the 2020 plebiscite, are the segments of the population who probably see themselves most represented by the slogans of the CC. I’m not thinking only about the polarization that could appear between the vote to Approve [the new Constitution] or to Reject it. Instead, I’m thinking about the topics like environmental protection, defense of the rights to health and education, areas where the pandemic has increased the levels of inequality. I believe the conversation about our social, cultural and environmental rights is central to the world of our youngest citizens. Their concerns have nothing to do with those of the traditional voter; they have real concerns about the world they’re going to receive,” Espinoza pointed out.
Along with this, he added, there’s the feminist vote, which is more than key. “To begin with, feminism was what promoted the Constitutional process; they mobilized the initial Approve vote, and the vote in the final presidential run-off. And if 760,000 youth seem like a low number, they can also have an effect on their families and their peers,” Espinoza stated.
Unruly statistics and tendencies
Public opinion polls in Chile have delved very little into Generation Z. In general, you can find statistics separated out by age, but little in the way of deeper analysis. In discussing the upcoming referendum, the two demographic extremes – oldest versus youngest voters – are described as having opposing tendencies. The youngest, in contrast to previous elections, have a real interest in the referendum. “They’re enthusiastic, above all about the incorporation of new social rights, gender equality and the inclusion of the original peoples and of the sexual minorities.
In this sense, according to the latest polls, there’s an average margin of 3, 10 and up to 12 points in favor of the Approve vote, if we focus on the youngest voters,” explained Rodrigo Espinoza.
The surveys use as a baseline the fact that half the youth are moderately informed about the Constitutional process. The other half are simply uninformed. Because they are, they view this theme with deep distrust, and tend to reject the work of the CC. “That anti-politics vote – which isn’t for the Constitution or the Convention – is a general rejection of everything political that’s also present in the youngest. The large difference with the other sectors of the population has to do with the fact that the pro-Approval climate is also concentrated there. So, they’ll be a key factor in the eventual result of this Constitutional referendum,” the political science professor asserted.
At the same time, he recalled that, despite the anti-political bias, there’s more interest today than there was five years ago. “Since the social uprising, the main participation has been seen in the youth sectors (broadened to include those over 20). They were the ones who chose Boric over Jadue in the Apruebo Dignidad Party’s primary election. They were also fundamental in defining the outcome of the final run-off election between Boric and Kast. Really, they play a very key role,” Espinoza affirmed.
He believes that the youth who turned the tide in favor of Boric may well continue to be loyal to him, and use their power to back the Approve vote.
“In fact, if you look at the data from the public opinion polls, the youngest sector hasn’t lowered their support for Gabriel Boric, the way the older voters have. There’s been a slight drop, but it’s not so pronounced. That base of voters from the presidential election should remain strong and become the foundation for approving the draft of the new Constitution,” Espinoza indicated.
They remain engaged
The youth are neither disconnected nor paralyzed, according to the specialists. They note that it’s enough to look at Santiago, the Chilean capital, where there are protests at least twice a week.
“On the other hand, there’s increased interest in politics because of the expectations for change. There’ll always be sectors that are apathetic. In addition, we must consider that we’re in an across-the-board crisis of representation and of trust in institutions. No one has managed to capitalize, in a stable way, on the discontent that was manifested in the social explosion. So, just as none of the analysts anticipated the large-scale participation in the run-off election, it’s possible that same reserve army – which appears to be sleeping – will be mobilized for the referendum, especially if the vote is obligatory,” Espinoza maintained.
Nicolle Etchegaray, executive director of the Ciclos UDP survey that was undertaken in collaboration with Feedback Communications, agrees.
“The last studies were done in October of last year, and covered young people aged 18 – 29 in [three metropolitan areas]. “Since the 90s, the youngest had been disappearing en masse from politics, but there was a new uptick three years ago with the social uprising. That caused a new wave, and some kind of trust in the institutions. They began to think that political participation could solve some things. Today, there’s more interest among the youth, and it appears to coincide with the arrival of a new generation to power,” Etchegaray noted.
“When we asked the young population in 2019 how much confidence they had in the CC as a tool for solving the country’s most urgent problems, 53% said they had a lot of confidence, and 33% had some. Those who didn’t trust it represented a very low percentage. Last year, we repeated the question. Over half felt that the CC was fulfilling its role in an acceptable way, but a fourth considered its performance poor,” Nicolle Etchegaray continued.
If we speak only about the changes, “a majority of the youth (over 70%) considered that changes had to be made, but agreed that it should be gradual, so as not to risk the country’s stability,” she stated.
When asked about which institutions they trusted, the highest percentage (28%) expressed trust in the municipalities.
Who’s in charge of teaching?
Those in Gen Z are natives of the digital world; by the time they were born, the Internet was already there. They’re good at teaching themselves: a third of them learn using online tutorials, and over 20% read only on devices and tablets. Thirty-five percent do all their work online. Their way of consuming information is also different from previous generations.
They scroll for news very quickly (They take an average of 8 seconds to decide if something interests them, or to pass on to another screen) using their telephones, and never seek it in the traditional media (radio, TV, newspapers). They prefer Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and other applications. “They’re interested, but they’re more likely to consume fake news, due to the type of media and the speed with which they inform themselves,” explained Rodrigo Espinoza.
They put trust mainly in information that reaches them via social media from people they know, indicated Nicolle Etchegaray. “The higher socio-economic levels put their trust in platforms and social media. In terms of discussing political issues, a third say they never do it at all, and fewer than that with people who think differently. The times they talk most about it is immediately before an upcoming election,” she added.
If there’s anywhere where those under 20 should be talking and learning about the process the country is going through, it’s in school with their peers. In fact, Law 20.911, passed in 2016, created the Plan for Citizen Formation. This established that the educational institutions must include civic training via an obligatory class in Citizens’ Education for the third and fourth years of secondary school. Nonetheless, Education 2020 conducted a survey in March 2021, called: “Connecting to the Constitutional Convention: What do schools think and hope for in the new Constitution?” This survey, done in collaboration with Ipsos Chile, showed that teachers, as well as parents and guardians, rarely speak with children and teens about the Constitutional Convention.
Alejandra Ojeda, head of Public Research for Ipsos Chile, explained: “the adult world has conducted their conversations about the Constitutional process only with their peers, be they relatives, friends or colleagues. Only 34% of adults have spoken about this topic with their children, while only 27% of teachers say they’ve introduced the topic with students. Our results indicate that the students are interested in this unique process that’s so transcendental for the country, and that they’d like to have more information.”
The survey also revealed that although 85% of teachers and 80% of parents and guardians viewed teaching about the Constitutional process as good material for Citizen Formation classes, only 11% of the teachers had the materials to do so, and fewer that 20% of teachers and parents have created ways to introduce content on the CC into the schools.
The results also reveal that many people are critical of the current Constitution and have high expectations for the upcoming change. Fifty-eight percent considered that Chile’s current Magna Carta didn’t adequately guarantee the right to education (27% said it did); while 68% indicated that the new Constitution would have a positive effect on Chilean education.
Among the topics that people want the new Constitution to cover: integral development – 69%; respect for cultural, social, ethnic, gender and sexual diversity – 40%; and support and care of the environment – 34%. Thirty-three percent of the messages from students supported incorporating the opinion and rights of students, children and teens, older adults, the original peoples and those with sexual differences into the Constitutional discussions.
In preparing this article, it was difficult to find any projects aimed at publicizing the Constitutional process. Only in the municipality of Santiago, the capital, did they initiate short-medium-and long-term plans for strengthening citizen participation among students.
“In the context of the CC, a workshop will be held where students from one of our elementary schools will participate. In addition, in every elementary and high school we’re setting up a Committee for Citizen Formation … to review and bring up to date the existing plans, with a view towards increasing participation and the class’s impact on the school culture,” informed Tamara Contreras, assistant director of professional development for the Santiago education department.