Here’s an interesting stat for you: over half of women in the UK are childless at the age of 30. You might remember that figure from earlier in 2022 when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) caused widespread alarm by reporting this was true for the first time ever. Why were so many women waiting so long before having babies? Was radical feminism to blame? Or perhaps nihilistic climate anxiety?
As I pointed out at the time, there’s a much more obvious answer to delayed parenthood than “wokeness”. Mere days before the ONS data came out, it was revealed that the average age of first-time house-buyers across the country was also over 30. In 1981, 62 per cent of people aged 25-34 owned their own home – by 2020 that had fallen to 41 per cent, and it’s estimated that a third of all millennials will be renting their entire lives. Postponing having children until you’re financially secure and have somewhere to live that you won’t be kicked out of seems less like misguided progressivism and more like basic common sense.
I was reminded of all this when reading Eric Kaufmann’s piece in the Telegraph last weekend, in which the politics professor wrings his hands about “school indoctrination… turning British youth woke”. Kaufmann points out – rightly – that age is now one of the biggest factors in voting intention: at the 2019 general election, just 21 per cent of under-25s voted Conservative, compared with 57 per cent of 60-69-year-olds and two thirds of over-70s.
This, Kaufmann believes, is a serious problem – and it’s all the fault of “cultural socialism”. He notes that, in research conducted by the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, the young are far more likely than their parents and grandparents to hold “woke” attitudes about culture war battlegrounds such as whether to support gender-critical women like JK Rowling and the academic Kathleen Stock, and what to do with statues of Winston Churchill. He also cites a survey of 18-year-olds that showed a “clear majority of British schoolchildren are being indoctrinated with cultural socialist ideas” such as “white privilege” and “patriarchy”. (The definition of “indoctrinated” appears to be “heard about at school”).
All of this, I’m sure, is entirely correct. Young people do not tend to hold the same views as their parents, especially when it comes to hot-button social issues. As I’ve written before, the callow absurdity of the youth of today has been a topic of consternation for millennia. Socrates was complaining about it. So was Cicero. Half a century ago Simon Raven was satirising “woke” university students who are so obsessed with socialism they scream the name “Marx” at the moment of sexual climax. Young people holding left-wing opinions that scandalise their elders is hardly news.
What is new, though – and where it seems much of the present anxiety stems from – is that this strident leftism seems to be lasting longer. Whereas in the past, idealistic progressives gradually moved to the right once they settled down with a family and a mortgage, now they are staying woker for longer. Why?
For Kaufmann, the answer is the woke takeover of institutions from schools and universities to the NHS and civil service. But there’s a far more obvious explanation, just as there is for declining fertility. As the markers of adulthood stretch ever further out of reach for the younger generations, so do the incentives for political opinions to shift. If the Tories are offering millennials (the oldest of whom are now 40) and Gen Z nothing but high taxes, sky-rocketing student debt and a lifetime of insecure renting in dodgy overcrowded housing, what possible reason do young people have to vote for them?
As for the young’s supposed disregard for free speech and Britain’s traditions, politics is an inherently tribal game. If one side seems to spend all its time demonising people like you by telling you your views are wrong and stupid and dangerous, you’re unlikely to be open to having your mind changed. (This holds true for the over-50s just as much as it does the under-25s.) More importantly, the longer this kind of entrenched division continues, the harder it is to persuade people later on, after they have spent a decade having their dreams crushed in workplaces full of colleagues as disillusioned and despondent as they are. It’s much easier to convince a 25-year-old graduate who is buying their first home and planning children in the next few years that maybe all this woke nonsense and anti-Tory bitterness is a bit silly than it is an exhausted mid-30s couple who have finally scraped together a deposit for a cramped one-bed flat but know they’ll never be able to afford childcare and a mortgage at once.
The link between material achievement and culture war positions might not seem immediately apparent, but if you don’t give people the opportunity to have a stake in the country, why would they be inclined to heed calls to respect its traditions or listen to a party screaming that something precious is facing an existential threat? Or to put it another way, assuming people will naturally put aside their childish ways and become more Conservative – both economically and culturally – without the Conservatives actually offering them any reason to do so is not a winning strategy.
There are a host of other reasons why a politically engaged twenty-something might balk at voting Tory, of course. The party that has been in power for 12 years is now trying to guide the nation through an NHS crisis, a social care crisis, an economic crisis, an energy crisis, a sewage crisis, a migration crisis, and just about any other crisis you care to name – to say nothing of Brexit and the demographic factors at play there. But as with the panic over what’s driving the rising age of first-time mothers, those who look at current trends and blame the woke revolution have got cause and effect the wrong way round. Just as holding traditional attitudes about the importance of family goes hand in hand with the financial security to actually have one, so holding traditional attitudes about the status quo is inherently linked with the belief that the status quo has something to offer you.
Right now, under this government, it doesn’t really seem to – at least not for the young. So when Kaufmann warns that “contrary to the fairy tales Conservative politicians tell themselves, these young people will not change their views as they pass through milestones like taking a job, owning a home, or having children”, all I can think is maybe the Tories should try it and see what happens.