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16 April 2001

Just do as you’re told

Generation Next - Beth Egan finds surprisingly authoritarian attitudes lurking behind teena

By Beth Egan

How many tree-hugging authoritarians does it take to swing an election? Party campaign managers who hope to attract first-time voters will have to learn how to appeal to hippies with control-freak tendencies, according to the latest findings in our survey of generationNEXT.

Our e-mail survey of 15- to 21-year-olds finds a predictably rich seam of interest in all aspects of the environment and associated beliefs and activities. Overwhelmingly, young people believe that they are more concerned about such issues than their parents are: one in five is already vegetarian, and another 13 per cent are considering laying down their burgers. Nearly a quarter say that policies on animal welfare are at least “very important” in deciding which party to support.

On animal welfare, our 2,200-plus respondents judged that the three main parties are much of a muchness. Asked which has the best policies, 12 per cent plumped for Labour, 9 per cent for the Tories, 8 per cent for the Lib Dems. The Green Party was the easy winner, with support from 50 per cent of respondents. But our respondents were divided (see chart) on what they thought was the most important green issue, though global warming was well out in front, with 33 per cent.

Although an interest in all things environmental is clear, it does not translate into a clear or consistent outlook on environmental politics. GenerationNEXT reveres Swampy, but it also endorses the practices of big supermarkets. A majority believe that supermarkets provide a good choice of affordable, convenient and high-quality food. While many respondents avoid GM food, check food labelling and feel strongly about intensive farming conditions, their relaxed attitude to the intervention of big business is clear in comments such as “Food wouldn’t be sold if they knew it was a risk” and “I don’t let media hype alter my eating habits”.

In total, a quarter (28 per cent) believe that scares about food safety are over-hyped, and a third (32 per cent) are unconcerned about foot-and-mouth because it doesn’t affect humans. Yet nearly all (90 per cent) named steps they had taken to change their eating habits, and 27 per cent had given up eating specific products as a result of publicity over issues such as mad cow disease and GM food.

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GenerationNEXT’s decision-making, it seems, is based on a combination of self-interest and altruism. Our respondents had changed their eating habits, partly to minimise risks to their own health, partly to promote specific ethical beliefs. Change was prompted by fear of salmonella and CJD, alongside a wish to purchase dolphin-friendly tuna and to boycott products such as Nestle confectionery and Pringles, made by Procter & Gamble. Such expressions of consumer power form an undifferentiated approach to “the environment” which is as much about individual rights and self-expression as it is about the greater good.

Unfortunately for politicians out courting the youth vote, our respondents rarely look to their political representatives for answers to their concerns. Only a handful (less than 5 per cent) could name the environment minister, and just 17 per cent felt that writing to their MP or engaging in political debate would be the best way of influencing the debate on animal experimentation. Most (76 per cent) would choose direct-action pro-tests against companies engaged in such activity, as long as it did not affect the firms’ employees and no one was hurt or intimidated.

Getting through legislation to ban fox-hunting would be popular with young voters: 56 per cent want it banned completely (see chart on previous page) and a further 27 per cent hope that the horns can be silenced through either self-regulation or a tide of public opinion that makes it socially unacceptable. Although Tony Blair is unable to comprehend the enthusiasm for this issue shown by many new Labour MPs, especially the 1997 intake, perhaps the lure of the youth vote will help to confirm his commitment to action.

GenerationNEXT has more faith in the capacity of celebrities to protect the environment than it does in politicians. When asked to name someone who had made an important contribution, they disregarded the injunction to name a politician, campaigner or business person and instead voted in large numbers for Swampy, pop stars such as Sting and Bono, and various members of the McCartney dynasty. However, Anita Roddick received more than 100 nominations and Prince Charles’s attempts to refashion himself for his future subjects seems to be working – he received 20 unprompted mentions. Multiple references to George Monbiot and Ralph Nader demonstrate a degree of political literacy that contradicts the popular image of disinterested, switched-off youth.

Perhaps most reassuring, if rather surprising, was the response to the invitation to play at being fantasy environment minister. Given the opportunity to make a policy suggestion, more than 1,500 respondents rose to the challenge: another knockout blow to accusations of apathy. Many of the suggestions are radical, creative and thought- provoking. But, for a generation apparently so keen on individual freedom, it is fascinating to see how many ideas involve the imposition of heavy-handed, centralised authority. Various members of generationNEXT called for a ban on smoking in public places, limits on car ownership, the abolition of fox-hunting and animal testing, and strict controls on GM food. They are against harmful emissions, nuclear power, coal-fired power stations, factory farming, live cargoes of animals, horse racing, leaded petrol, dropping litter and much, much more. Certainly, a rare few suggest the promotion of solar power, wind farms, cycling routes and organic farms, but most cannot wait to be given the opportunity simply to tell everyone what to do.

Beth Egan is the deputy director of Demos

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