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28 November 2023

Is Gen Z the most conservative generation in history?

Why teens and twenty-somethings could fuel the next Tory revival.

By Pravina Rudra

The 1am queue outside Fabric, the iconic London nightclub, stretches 150m around the corner despite the drizzle. It is freshers’ week, and the students sway and cling to one another behind the barriers. Others mill near the entrance, kicked out for being too drunk, or crowd into a 24-hour sandwich shop, seeking bread to sober up.

It doesn’t look very different from when I started university just over a decade ago (I am now 29). But when I start speaking to the students, their lives seem quite different. They tell me they go out once a week, much less than my peers. When I repeat this later in the night, I’m assured by others that once a week is on the higher, more debauched end; often, they say, “it’s more a case of once a month”.

Are Gen Z uniquely socially conservative? There are two dominant and opposing theories about this generation, which is generally defined as those born between 1996 and 2012, or aged between 11 and 27. On the one hand, they appear more free-thinking and progressive than any generation before them: sex-positive, anti-racist and waving the flag for identity politics, with words such as “cis” and “non-binary” part of their daily lexicon. On the other (and as my non-scientific poll of the Fabric freshers suggests), they are in some ways more abstemious.

Modern-day social conservatism has evolved into a response to the extreme liberalisation of Western society through the sexual revolution, the breakdown of traditional family structures, immigration and the decline of religion. Its beliefs don’t necessarily map neatly on to those of the Conservative Party – it was David Cameron who legalised gay marriage as prime minister in 2013, and there exists a “Blue Labour” faction grounded in cultural conservatism. But the philosophy broadly echoes that of the man often thought of as the father of the modern Tory party, Edmund Burke: in his view, tried-and-tested outcomes are better, and people belong primarily to “little platoons” – families or social groups. That Jacob Rees-Mogg and Miriam Cates – a Catholic and an evangelical Christian – are two of social conservatism’s most strident advocates indicates that religion is treasured by the movement as a means of shaping society’s values.

Writing recently in the New Statesman, Imogen Sinclair, director of the New Social Covenant Unit (a group set up by Cates and her fellow Tory MP Danny Kruger to promote traditional family values), suggested that Gen Z might be conservative enough to save the Tory party. “[They] are prone to abstain from porn, they avoid casual sex and… swap the contraceptive pill for #naturalbirthcontrol,” Sinclair wrote. “Gen Z long for a political offer that satisfies their nostalgia for the things they’ve never known: marriage, parochial life and national pride.” Sinclair is not a disinterested commentator, though others have observed that a large number of attendees at the UK National Conservatism conference in May were Gen Z. Such gatherings often draw on university clubs and Conservative associations, however, and are not representative of the wider public.

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Look a little closer at this cohort and you start to notice subtler shifts. Gen Z are still hitting on each other on nights out, but the young men I speak to talk about having completed “consent trainings” as part of freshers’ week. They are still taking drugs, but rather than purely recreational substances such as MDMA these might be study drugs such as modafinil, or other performance-enhancing drugs; during the pandemic, the UK anti-doping agency ran a campaign targeting 16- to 24-year-olds’ steroid use. They are talking about polyamory and kinks, but they are having less sex: even before the pandemic, US data suggested that the proportion of 18- to 29-year-olds who hadn’t had sex in the past year had more than doubled between 2008 and 2018, to 23 per cent. Gen Z are also losing their virginity later: research by University College London carried out in 2019 found that fewer than one in 30 14-year-olds had had sex, compared with 30 per cent of under 16-year-olds in the 1980s and 1990s. Gen Z have gym memberships and pursue what my generation, millennials, would think of as “granny” hobbies, painting portraits of their pets and making paintbrushes out of their own hair.

There are challenges when it comes to generalising about an age group that spans 15 years, not least because there are few large data sets that capture Gen Z’s range of behaviours and views. Last year an Ipsos survey found that they were “more liberal in areas including prison sentencing, censorship and the importance of ‘traditional values’ ” than millennials were at the same age. The American psychologist Jean Twenge has used US survey data to conclude that twice as many Gen Z high school seniors identify as “very conservative” compared with Gen X in the late 1980s. In her recent book Generations, which draws on wide-ranging research involving 39 million people, Twenge concludes that “fewer Gen Z teens get drunk, get into physical fights or get into car accidents than teens in previous generations”. This focus on avoiding physical harm extends to “placing a premium on what they call ‘emotional safety’,” she writes. “Instead of being killed or injured in accidents or through violence, Gen Z is more likely to be killed, injured, or made unhealthy through suicide, depression, self-harm and physical inactivity.”

[See also: Jeremy Hunt has done enough to pacify the Tory right]

Certainly the 18- and 19-year-olds I speak to outside Fabric seem more cautious, often because of things they have seen online. Alex Bowes, a geography student in his second year at King’s College London, tells me he might have taken drugs when he was younger, but now sees “more people who are expressing their regrets. Those influences can have a chokehold on your beliefs and your actions: we’ve seen too much of the population wrecked by it.” Others tell me they are wary of the “spiking epidemic”, a phrase I haven’t heard in over two years – and I wonder whether this fear has also been learned online. Amelia Gruselle, a student at the London College of Fashion, tells me her father is shocked by how clean-living she is compared to him at the same age. “That LA culture of wellness and green juices has infiltrated through influencers and social media,” she says. The group she is with echo this, describing the sentiment as “health is wealth”.

Mary Harrington, a columnist for UnHerd who advocates for marriage and believes the contraceptive pill has not benefited women, underwent her own socially conservative transformation in her late twenties, having toyed with polyamory and identified for three years as “Sebastian”. She believes the difference between Gen Z and any other cohort lies largely in their experience of the internet. “If there’s any dividing line between the generations, it’s on the axis of, ‘What was the internet like when you were a kid?’,” she tells me. “When I was in my twenties there was an outside to the internet, but there isn’t any more. ‘Go outside’ and ‘touch grass’ are ironically loaded, because you can be as online as ever even in the act of touching grass.”

Harrington recently recorded a YouTube video arguing that Gen Z are rejecting the pill because of their heightened awareness around its side-effects on mood and body. She doesn’t, however, believe that social conservatism is systemic. She was a guest speaker at the National Conservative conference in May, and says: “It was very striking to see the under-30 crowd roll their eyes and start scrolling whenever some Tory grandee started trotting out stuff about economic freedom and preserving what makes Britain special.”

Harrington doesn’t think they are conservatives, and references the Colombian conservative philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila by way of explanation: “Dávila once said, ‘The reactionary does not become a conservative except in ages which maintain something worthy of being conserved.’ There may be exceptions, but my observation is that Zoomers tend to lean right as reactionaries, rather than conservatives.” Having grown up to see their prospects of decent housing, a life partner, a fulfilling job, or even a meaningful social fabric diminishing, Harrington says, Gen Z are less likely to vote for the status quo, and far more likely to contemplate radical alternatives.

The research tends to back her up, finding widespread distrust in institutions, almost to the point of authoritarianism. Last year the think tank Onward found that 60 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds agree that “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections” would be a good way to run this country. Meanwhile YouGov polling in September suggested only 2 per cent of 18-24-year-olds intended to back the Conservatives at the next election, compared with 59 per cent for Labour, although it’s true that statistics such as these give us only a partial picture; the more conservative members of Gen Z probably won’t vote at all.

Kara Kennedy is a former Spectator columnist who recently got married at the age of 25. She wonders if women like her are experiencing “a backlash to being told that liberalism will solve everything. Women have been told for years that we can freeze our eggs and have babies any time – and they’ve found out that’s just not true.” But, like Harrington, she adds that the young are rarely socially conservative on every score, including herself: while she believes marriage and children are good for both individuals and society, she is pro-choice and supports gay rights. She argues that others of her generation are similarly progressive. “It’s easy to talk the talk, but when it comes to actually not having sex, practising a religion, adopting certain gender roles, and generally ‘sinning’, people realise they actually can’t do it.”

Instead, today’s social conservatism is a “fad”, Kennedy argues, a desire to be different. “When young people grow up, they do whatever they can to rebel. It used to be that these kids would turn punk. Now, after years of ultra-liberalism, to be conservative is to rebel.”

Where does this thesis fit with Gen Z’s record on protest? Young people were the driving force behind the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, while the Just Stop Oil protesters who flung tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers were aged 20 and 21. Everyone’s Invited, an organisation set up to expose rape culture in schools in 2020, was set up by Soma Sara when she was 21.

It is possible, of course, that some of these liberal movements have arisen from a socially conservative moment. Jessica Ringrose, a professor of sociology of gender and education at University College London (UCL) who works with teenagers, tells me that young people gained an increased awareness of sexual violence during the pandemic, partly as a result of Everyone’s Invited and the rape and murder of Sarah Everard. Gen Z have a more “critical approach” towards sex, Ringrose says, and have “internalised some feminists’ messages about boundaries and being careful” – which she characterises as a greater understanding of sexism rather than social conservatism.

But I wonder whether the former can sometimes tip into the latter: in a set of viral tweets posted last year, young women condemned the behaviour of a man who tries “to befriend someone in an attempt to eventually sleep with them” as not only “manipulative & weird” but “predatory”. There was a sense that, in the online echo chambers, moral righteousness had hardened into something more extreme.

[See also: It only gets worse for Rishi Sunak]

Meanwhile, the average age at which children first see porn is now 13, according to the children’s commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza. This can mean two things. First, suggests Cate Campbell, a psychosexual therapist who co-hosts the podcast The Real Sex Education, young people are having less sex because they get gratification from their phone. And second, she argues, there is a strong aversion to what they see. “Younger people do talk about being less interested,” she says. “Porn in my day was erotica – it’s quite often violent now. A lot of people have frightened themselves with how involved they got.” In her 2021 book The Right to Sex, the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes of her surprise at her students’ conservative views on the subject, “like the anti-porn feminists of forty years ago”. 

That Gen Z are more open about sex while having less of it might not be the contradiction it first appears. As one recent Buzzfeed article put it, Gen Z doesn’t hate sex, they “crave intimacy”: the focus is on quality over quantity. In Campbell’s view, young people’s literacy around everything from pansexuality (being attracted to all genders) to polyamory is “wonderful stuff, but it’s kind of academic. So much is gleaned from online.” 

Mark Vahrmeyer, a psychotherapist who works with young people, tells me that Gen Z are typically hyper-vigilant about their mental health. Online, everything from dating to alcohol can be labelled “traumatic” or “red flagged”, something to avoid. “If an influencer talks about her bad experiences with men,” Vahrmeyer says, “it can bring with it a certain culture of fear [around dating and sex].” A 2019 study by a London creative agency found that 41 per cent of Gen Z associate alcohol with “vulnerability”, “anxiety” and “abuse” – hardly terms that would have come up for me and my friends when we were the same age.

The pandemic, Vahrmeyer points out, robbed much of Gen Z of their formative years – their first cigarette, their first kiss – and instilled a deep sense of caution. “There was this attitude of, ‘As long as I obey the rules, as long as I stay home, then I’ll be all right.’ They’ve been locked down for 10 per cent of their life. And then suddenly everything opens up, and they’re expected to go out skipping and jumping.”

Many of the people I spoke to suggested that, for Gen Z, there were often two extremes at play. For example, a recent study by King’s College London found that the proportion of 18- to 24-year-old men who agreed with the statement that equal opportunities for women have gone too far was 20 per cent (higher than any other age group), while the number of young women who agreed was 6 per cent (lower than any other age group). Polling earlier this year suggested that more 16- to 17-year-old boys had seen material posted by Andrew Tate, currently awaiting trial for rape and people trafficking, than had heard of Rishi Sunak

Michael Conroy, a former teacher, set up a training programme called Men at Work four years ago, after seeing how much boys were affected by what they read online. He tells me he frequently hears of 14- and 15-year-old boys muttering “make me a sandwich” when female classmates get a question right, and expressing disquiet at the thought of being out-earned by a female partner. “They’ll say it’s OK for her to work part-time, in a little shop with her friends or at a florist or a café,” he says. “The rules have proliferated and become re-entrenched towards a previous paradigm of masculinity.” Like Harrington, he believes many of the past decade’s changes map “against the ubiquity of a smartphone in everybody’s pocket”.

Young women are also exposed to older paradigms of femininity. On TikTok, the primary social media platform for Gen Z, you will see videos tagged with “#bodycount” (a reference to how many people someone has had sex with), in which young women in skinny rectangular sunglasses proudly declare that they are virgins, and men suggest they wouldn’t date them if they weren’t. Young “trad wives” in puffy-sleeved dresses video themselves baking while their husband is at work. Four years ago, Kennedy tells me, the trad wife movement “was very niche and only picked up on in corners of the internet”.  Now, she says, it is mainstream.

There is one clear outlier when it comes to Gen Z’s conservative tendencies, and that is their fluidity around sexuality and gender. Last month the ONS found that 10 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds identify as gay or bisexual (compared with 5 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds), while 16 to 24 year olds are twice as likely to identify as trans as the general population. In 2011-12 there were just 250 referrals to the Gender Identity Development Service, the sole provider of specialist services for young people with gender dysphoria; in 2021-22 there were 5,000. 

Does this fluidity drive a conservatism in other areas? “It’s not that these pillars shouldn’t be challenged,” says Vahrmeyer. “But if everything is challenged, all the way down to gender, what’s left? We’ve dethroned God, Western capitalism is crumbling around us, traditional families don’t really hold water any more.” In a world of so much upheaval, it follows that some young people will attempt to preserve traditions, and to take fewer risks.

My research and interviews suggested that unalloyed social conservatism, with its associated attitudes to women, LGBTQ+ rights, and political beliefs is a minority view among Gen Z. But it is there, and this generation’s more reactionary tendencies, for instance around birth control, drug use and pornography, may well be something the Conservative Party taps into at the next election and in opposition.

Meanwhile Gen Z will continue to prepare for the worst. “Everything is a crisis – there’s a cost-of-living crisis, a climate crisis, a rape crisis.” says Vahrmeyer. “But if we hear the word crisis, immediately our nervous system is primed for something that is really catastrophic.” With their outside world painted – at times accurately – as more mad, bad and unpredictable than at any other time in history, is it any wonder that Gen Z headed for the bunker?

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now

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