Millennials dwell in the shadow of a tired post-Thatcherite politics built around individual consumer interest. This is the politics that benefited baby boomers, who now enjoy home ownership, early retirement, fat pensions, and the pleasures of life with little debt. Meanwhile, their children – my generation – face double the inflation and house prices that they did. Is it a surprise that millennials are not becoming more conservative with age?
You’re more likely to find a red squirrel than a young Tory in London these days. Writing in the Financial Times, John Burn-Murdoch suggests that if millennials were following the voting patterns of their parents, someone aged 35 would be roughly five percentage points less conservative than the national average. Gradually they would become more conservative. This isn’t happening. Instead, Burn-Murdoch writes, “they’re more like 15 points less conservative, and in both Britain and the US are by far the least conservative 35-year-olds in recorded history”.
What happens next? Critics (in the Guardian) and supporters (in the Telegraph) both herald the “extinction” and “oblivion” of the Conservative Party, which they say will start at the next general election. But I wouldn’t be so sure.
A sentence beginning “If present trends continue” has never been the soundest guide to predicting the future. There are trends that newspaper columnists ignore. There are beliefs that go undetected by polling companies. What those perpetuating the narrative of a Tory extinction refuse to acknowledge is that first-time voters – the post-millennial generation – are not as liberal as millennials. Rather than disappearing, like paganism did as Christianity spread through what remained of the Roman empire, conservatism may find itself rejuvenated by Generation Z.
I am conservative. I care about families, and I think the state should support their formation and help them stay together, with as many babies as they can handle. I am also a millennial, which makes me weird.
My day job entails organising a number of Tory MPs to speak for a new coalition of Conservatives who represent the millions of people that voted for the party for the first time in 2019, as part of a political realignment that followed the Brexit referendum in 2016.
Gen Z could yet play a role in this future Tory voter base. There is a type of young, restless right-wing thinker that shares a common enemy with 2019 Tory voters: the liberal consensus. These voters are still waiting for the politics to materialise that was offered to them in the Conservative Party manifestos in 2017 and 2019: lower migration, revived industries, a renewed national culture. A reheated mixture of Thatcherism, Blairism and Cameronism is all that successive Tory prime ministers have given in return for their votes.
The supposedly “sensible”, “grown-up” politics is not something that Gen Z wants either. Research by the think tank Onward suggests that Gen Z are also challenging the status quo, falling out of love with classical liberal orthodoxy. But it would be a mistake to interpret this as a lurch to the left.
Gen Z are, in fact, more authoritarian than older generations and far from enamoured with free markets and their consequences: austerity, financialisation and cartel capitalism. The economics of the post-millennial generation is more likely to be Tory in the Disraelian sense: preferring domestic production to imports and respect for the dignity of labour.
Even more distinctive is the Gen Z attitude towards cultural questions. They are prone to abstain from porn, they avoid casual sex and, as a corrective to the excessive sexual consumption of the past 60 years, they swap the contraceptive pill for #naturalbirthcontrol (as seen on TikTok). Nothing could be more cringeworthy to them than the messy millennial approach to life and love, best exemplified by Lena Dunham’s sitcom Girls. Gen Z long for a political offer that satisfies their nostalgia for the things they’ve never known: marriage, parochial life and national pride.
In Westminster, young Tories no longer flock to libertarian think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs or immerse themselves in the theories of the Austrian school of economics. Instead, they restlessly experiment with old habits and forgotten ideas. They are especially keen on metaphysical over practical concerns; eager for their party to assert cultural conservatism, not just manage national decline. They go to church to get their fix of tradition.
They organise themselves; meeting up at the Conservative Party conference, writing and broadcasting on alternative media channels, and ferociously WhatsApping on groups with names such as “Generation RETVRN”. They coalesced at the National Conservatism Conference in London in May. The conference founder, Yoram Hazony, argues that conservatism is the forgotten tradition. Young conservatives are determined to bring it back. The new right matured in insecure times. My advice to the Tory party chairman: don’t chase after the millennials but woo Gen Z. How? Back the new conservative movement; it can appeal to the young and old. It’s an old-new kind of conservatism. It’s my conservatism, and it might just be the next generation’s too.
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation