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7 September 2022

We look to the young for a better future – but they are turning away from democracy

Hostility to democracy runs deep because the establishment has failed to uphold its side of the bargain.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Political polarisation, economic catastrophe, the climate crisis, war in Europe – we live in a time of marked instability, and for a little consolation we may look to the ruthless logic of demographics. Older people, those bastions of reactionary thought, will soon die and be replaced by a younger generation that favours the values of liberal democracy. The young shall inherit the Earth, and restore us to a freer and safer world. Yet this is a comforting myth.

Historically, the young have not always favoured liberal democracy, of course. Let’s recall that large groups of German university students fervently backed the Nazis in the early 1930s, and during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, young people, in the form of the Red Guards, attacked and humiliated their teachers and parents for allegedly bourgeois leanings.

Hostility to democracy runs deep today. According to a recent report by the think tank Onward, pithily titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright”, 18- to 34-year-olds in Britain are more likely than older age groups to favour experts over elected representatives, support placing the army in charge of the government, and vote for a strongman who ignores the rules of parliament.

In France 49 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds and 39 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Marine Le Pen in this year’s presidential election. According to a survey by European Moments in 2020, 53 per cent of Europeans aged 18 to 29 agree with the statement that authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis. And across the Atlantic, Donald Trump increased his vote share among US voters aged 18 to 29 from 28 to 35 per cent at the 2020 presidential election. After four years of stoking xenophobia, embracing conspiracy theories and undermining the norms of democracy, Trump improved his electoral performance among younger people. (His vote share also marginally increased among Hispanic and black voters, belying the liberal assumption that he would antagonise more ethnic minority voters after his first term in office.)

The Onward report cites four reasons for this disenchantment: narrow social networks, overprotective parenting, work-related stress, and social media overuse. “Young people today,” it says, “are unhappier, less socially trusting, and more detached from society than young people historically or older people today. They have fewer friends and lower-quality friendships. They are less likely to volunteer or contribute to their neighbourhood.” This has political ramifications. A quarter of 18- to 34-year-olds would not be friends with someone from a political party they dislike; the same is true of only 11 per cent of people over 55.

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One way to overcome these fissures, the authors of the report recommend, is to “establish a national civic service scheme to strengthen democratic norms and encourage social mixing”, along similar lines to the AmeriCorps Vista in the US. Through incorporation into institutions that cultivate friendships and loyalty across political dividing lines, younger people would become more sympathetic to democratic norms.

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The image of an estranged youngster pushing against the constraints of his parents creates a false impression: young people hunger for community. Being young is characterised more by conformity than by rebellion; we follow what’s fashionable. The key question is not whether conforming to movements or social trends is good or bad; this is irrelevant, since conforming of one sort or another is inevitable. The question ought to be: is what we are conforming to conducive to a society that guarantees respect and dignity for everyone?

The authors of the Onward report blame the effects of social media for narrowing the social connections of young people: we form our own bubbles and tribes online. This makes it difficult to reach out across social and ideological lines, and is thus a hindrance to the kind of culture we need for a successful democracy. One extreme recent example is the case of Andrew Tate, a British-American kickboxer and former Big Brother contestant who was searched for on Google in July 2022 more times than Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian. Tate has been removed from all mainstream social media, including TikTok. But his content – a mixture of conspiratorial self-help and misogyny – continues to be shared by other users on the platform (which is overwhelmingly used by young people) and has been watched billions of times.

A national civic service could better enable my generation to develop a wholesome sense of belonging than imbibing the rhetoric of noxious grifters. But there are also deep structural factors at play. Some of the mechanisms through which we can feel more rooted to a particular community – such as owning a home and job security – are increasingly elusive in today’s economic landscape and this has itself generated a mood of disillusionment.

The revolt against democracy can be seen, in part, as a desperate howl against an establishment that has failed to uphold its side of the bargain: that if you work hard enough, life will be a smooth progression towards happiness and security; that things will only get better. For many of my generation, for reasons economic and social, this is simply not the case. For them, the future is bleak. The kids are not alright – but why should they be?

[See also: Black British values don’t align with the Tories – or Labour]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained