Over the past few weeks, Horizons has been investigating millennial voting behaviour in the Western world. We have compiled a three-part series explaining our findings.
The first is an assessment of how Millennials across the West are voting in recent and ongoing elections and referenda. The second is a special report on Millennial preferences in the upcoming French presidential election, as indicated by polls. The final piece explores the upshot of millennial voting behaviour, and whether the under-30s’ opposition to older generations on most issues will prove significant or not in shaping our future.
We hope that you find this informative. As ever, do not hesitate to contact us on twitter, or by emailing us, with any questions or comments you might have.
Most people will be familiar with the truism that young people tend to sit on the left of the political spectrum, and gradually move right as they get older. So established is this idea that it has its own maxim – “Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head” – which has been attributed to Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, Georges Clemenceau, François Guizot and more.
Statistics from the British Election Study show that there is indeed some truth to this generalisation. This graph plots voting trends by age in five elections within the past 50 years.
Graph source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/03/do-we-become-more-conservative-with-age-young-old-politics
Indeed, the voting habits of Millennials in recent elections and referenda across the West have largely stayed true to form. 68% of 18-34 year olds voted Remain in the British referendum on leaving the EU, whilst the vast majority of the Dutch Green Party’s 7000 new members are under-30 years old. The ‘Schulz Effect’ in Germany seems to be seizing the support of a new surge of left-wing young voters ahead of the upcoming federal elections and, across the Atlantic in November’s American presidential election, 18-29 year olds favoured Clinton over Trump by a decisive margin of 55%-37%. This would appear ample evidence that millennial voting behaviour is in-keeping with our expectations.
Efforts have been made to explain this, although it is always difficult to rationalise sociological habits on such a largescale. Initially, the possibility of voting patterns depending on generation was considered; perhaps growing up in the more liberal age of the post 1960s would imbue younger people with the social values associated with the left?
This idea of a generational determinant, however, was challenged by a 2014 investigation by ScienceDirect. Their findings revealed that voters in the past 100 years have revealed similar yearly ageing effects, with a net move to conservatism of 0.32-0.38% per annum. In other words, any category of voters within the last century (such as 18-28 year olds) has become 0.32-0.38% “more conservative” each year, regardless of whether they grew up in the post war years, the 1960s or the 1990s.
More compelling then is the explanation that it is the ageing process which endows us with more conservative values. An existing combination of the most socially liberal society the West has ever seen, and the highest number of young people going to university, means that Western Millennials are, by in large, the most socially enlightened generation in history. These values translate into a sense of justice which makes them more inclined to agree with left-wing social policies aimed at levelling the playing field, and hinged on a concern for all.
As we get older, factors such as rising tax obligations, finding a house and supporting a family can refocus our initially longsighted, morally ambitious horizons to a nearer prioritisation of those we care for. Human propensity for looking to the past with rose-tinted glasses also makes us more inclined to defend the status quo, again posing a shift to a conservative mentality. Of course not all of these issues, and in some cases none, affect all people, but movement along the political spectrum so evident in the statistics suggests that this is a fair interpretation of voting behaviour.
Despite the data seen earlier, however, there are signs that contemporary Millennials are upsetting this script. A 2015 YouGov article noted that, whilst today’s students remain socially liberal, their stance on economic matters is in fact to the right of the general public. For example, 76% of the general public believe the minimum wage to be too low, compared with only 74% of students surveyed. Across the Channel, such a shift is being even more radically exposed by Marine Le Pen’s quite extraordinary levels of support amongst the young; by some estimates, her favourability is as much as 7 percentage points higher amongst the under 30s than amongst the overall population. (With the upcoming election, this runs so starkly against the grain of current western European trends that Horizons shall be investigating French Millennial voting behaviour in a separate blog-piece soon).
Once again, the story is similar in America. Although Clinton held on to the under-30 vote, her victory dipped decisively from Obama’s over Romney in 2012 (60%-36%).
Graph source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/behind-trumps-victory-divisions-by-race-gender-education/
Accounting for this in a plausible manner is a far harder task due to the lack of consistency with other votes in Europe (look at Geert Wilders’ crashlanding in the Dutch elections and Alternative for Germany’s disappointing result in the Saarland state election). More significant to the risk in drawing overzealous conclusions is that it is an ongoing event, precluding the benefit of hindsight analysis, and so we do not yet know whether this is a momentary ‘blip’ or a long-term redirection in millennial voting habits.
Nevertheless, efforts are being made to explain modern political movements which may elucidate the reasons behind this change. A recent article in Vox argued that the upshot of the gradual success of the welfare state system across Europe is that people are no longer so concerned about their economic stability. As a result, they are free to worry about other issues, for example immigration and national identity, which ushers them in the direction of nationalist parties such as UKIP and Front National. These parties’ lack of comprehensive, watertight economic policy does not deter their growing support, which crucially suggests that this is of less importance to supporters than their fortress-mentality nationalism.
Yet problems arise in rationalising recent millennial voting behaviour solely along these lines. Although the welfare system in Britain might give young people the assurance of a safety net which did not exist 100 years ago, an inaccessible housing market, rising student debts and real-term wage stagnation surely provide ample room for economic concern. The same can be said for France with its high unemployment rate. In this context, the suggestion that Millennials endure less financial strain than before the financial crash simply does not float.
This correlation with the worldwide rise of populism, however, cannot be ignored. In fact, compelling attention has been given to the implications of kickback against globalisation by an increasing number of voices, including the writer and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. He believes globalisation – born in the 1980s and propelled into the 21st Century as the proclaimed zenith of capitalism – is seen by many as an abject failure in poverty alleviation. Amidst runaway inequality, most people feel like they have not shared in the benefits. So powerful is this sense of disillusionment that the traditional division between the left and right is being replaced by that between nationalism and globalism.
If this is taken to be true, the implication is that people can now be socially liberal and economically conservative, or the other way round. In extremis, Millennials could simultaneously subscribe to rights for gays, gender equality and climate change reducing measures, and at the same time favour a more defensive, nationally-minded economy, wary of the international titans hoarding the world’s wealth. What makes the ‘populism package’ so tractable in modern times is that it can absorb traditionally contradictory stances into one, anti-globalist front.
It is important not to get carried away with the impact of this shift. As the YouGov article notes, “This doesn’t mean they [students/young people] tend to fall on the right-wing side of the debate, but simply that they fall on the left-wing side to a lesser extent”. Young people have still tended to the left in recent votes, but the signs are perhaps showing that this can no longer be taken for granted. As the alleged merits of an international ‘super-economy’ continue failing to reduce student debt, guarantee a job with a substantial salary or put a roof over heads, it remains to be seen whether Millennials – especially those highly educated and living in cosmopolitan areas – will start to trade in idealistic values for concerted action against this system.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks