How to light up Switched Off young people disconnected from the EU

How to light up Switched Off young people disconnected from the EU

Young Europeans face many challenges in today’s world, from the Ukraine war to climate change and the growth of AI. They expect institutions, politicians, and policymakers to offer solutions that address the issues that impact their lives on a daily basis.

Some are turning to radical political solutions; others are disengaging completely. This is particularly worrying in the context of upcoming European elections to be held in June 2024, where it is hoped that massive numbers of young voters come to the polls and influence the future direction of the EU.

A survey published in May 2023, commissioned by ICF and conducted by WIDE, seeks to reframe the conversation around how European institutions can reconnect with younger people as those elections approach. The survey spoke to people aged 16–30 in France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Sweden.

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Finding those who feel abandoned by Europe

Instead of focusing on whether individuals are “for” or “against” the EU or the idea of Europe, the survey asked whether they feel “supported” or “abandoned” by these institutions.

The results showed that many are experiencing feelings of abandonment and disengagement from the European Union and its institutions—people we defined as the “Switched Off.”

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We need to urgently reengage the Switched Off

Every generation of young people has those who are angry at the established elites and rebel against them. But this new research points to a more worrying emotion: unprecedented levels of indifference. Indifference is a more dangerous phenomenon than rebelliousness because there is a lack of engagement. Indifference reflects a disconnection from those who govern.

In Europe, this poses a significant danger to stability and unity. Its young population was born into a unified Europe, with many not yet understanding its benefits. Previous generations of young people had a more positive image of European institutions, driven by initiatives like Erasmus and cultural exchanges.

In terms of the way that European decision-makers now communicate with young people, there has been an assumption on their part that this audience will automatically understand the institution’s goals. But without building trust and authenticity in a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship, communication is ineffective. Young people now don’t feel heard or that they can have influence, and communications fail to make an impact. Instead, this gap is filled by newer, more responsive online communities, from social media to gaming. Effective communication is vital for European institutions to reconnect with young people.

Who are the Switched Off?

To make it easier to understand how to communicate with this vital audience, WIDE translated the results into two personas, because emotional connection is key. One of these young people, Maeva, feels Switched Off. The other, Mateuz, feels Supported. The graphic below gives a brief overview of these personae:
Switched off Personae graph

Both Maeva and Mateuz see the European Parliament (EP) as run by financial elites who should put more effort into improving people’s lives. However, both trust the EP to address challenges such as ethical AI, climate issues, and inflation.

There are opportunities for European institutions

Another critical finding is that young people may feel more abandoned by their national governments than by European institutions.

However, young people still trust their national governments more to address daily problems like climate change, cost of living, and AI. There is an opportunity here for Europe to regain trust by taking a more proactive role in tackling global issues that impact daily lives.

Which channels and behaviors should we use to reach the Switched Off?

The EU’s perceived lack of emotional engagement contributes to the communication gap. Traditionally, European politicians have been strategic, overly technical, polite, and politically correct in their approach, relying heavily on data-driven communications.

But this approach often fails to resonate with the younger generation. Individuals like Maeva are looking for a more personal, meaningful, and emotionally resonant connection with political messages. Platforms like TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, and gaming are significant for them—and politicians’ absence from these channels exacerbates the disconnection.

The rise of populism—centered on national identity and often basic solutions—poses a challenge and an opportunity for Europe. A focus on emotions, personal connection, and inclusivity is key to successful political communication. Using trusted figures, such as sports personalities, is also effective.

European institutions should adapt communications to address the needs and concerns of the Switched Off, making politics more meaningful to them. This could include:

  1. Appeals to emotion

    Address anger and fears. Emotional appeals can be more powerful than simply rational arguments. Evoke emotions rather than just presenting ideas and data.

  2. Connecting with people and their entourage

    Present institutions as “one of us,” connecting personally with the audience.

  3. Creating conversations, not “data dumps”

    Foster a reciprocal relationship, actively listening to concerns and feedback.

  4. Ensuring messages are memorable

    Craft messages that stick. Use relatable and simplified images of European institutions to explain the complexities of governance and foster an emotional connection.

  5. Taking a dynamic and active approach

    Proactively engage with the audience through the communication channels they actually use.

  6. Giving people a sense of self-worth

    Make marginalized groups feel valued and heard. Put Europe on the global map.

It is time to light up the Switched Off

The Switched Off represent a substantial portion of the European population. Losing them to extreme and anti-European parties would be detrimental to unity. There is an urgent need to address these issues of indifference and disconnection by acting swiftly and decisively to communicate effectively with the Switched Off, in a way that reaffirms Europe’s relevance and value in their lives.

Discover more about the ICF/WIDE research in this area and dig deeper into the personas, channels, and behaviors that communicators need to focus on. ICF’s new guide offers practical insights into shaping future communications with the Switched Off.

Meet the authors
  1. Martine Clerckx, Founder and societal strategist - Wide - The Strategic Societal Institute
  2. Geert Stox, Head of Strategy, ICF Next

    Geert is a strategic communications and brand management expert with more than 25 years of experience in global brands, innovation, and consumer behavior. View bio