MD Blog

Analyse this. Submit your blog opinion posts about millennial engagement with politics and read expert views from around the world

28 September 2015

Millennials & authority in the UK & US

Posted by: Hannah Cunningham, Politics Student at the University of Manchester


Just 16% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth (IPSOS MORI, 2014), with barely 2% of people claiming to have a ‘great deal of trust’ in MPs in general (British Election Study, 2014). The same trend emerges when it comes to approval of the government – the proportion of people who disapprove or strongly disapprove of the job the UK government are doing greatly outnumber those who approve or strongly approve in every age group, and the competition tends to be slightly closer in the younger groups (BES, 2014). This data supports the results of polls by IPSOS MORI, which show that politicians are deemed to be less trustworthy than estate agents, bankers and journalists (2014). Polls from Gallup suggest the same is true across the pond, with the gap between those who trust the US government to work in their interests most or all of the time and those who can only trust it some or none of the time widening further, and the latter coming out on top consistently since 2003.

At the same time, however, there is seen to be a crisis particularly with youth political engagement in both countries. A clear example of this is in terms of voter turnout, with much less than half of the eligible electorate aged 18-24 actually voting in the 2015 general election (43%), although when all millennial age categories are included this rises to 48%. This compares with almost four out of five registered voters aged 65+ turning out to vote. The figures were similar for the US, where puts the turnout for 18-29 year-olds at 50%. The last three elections have had particularly high turnout across all ages as part of an overall pattern which is reflected in a higher youth turnout, but even in 2008 where they were seen to be key to the election of Barack Obama, the vote share among 18-29 year olds was still ten percentage points lower than the overall turnout (52% compared to 62%).

Although young British voters have turned out to vote in smaller numbers than the general population for some time, the age gap has especially widened since 1997, meaning that the figures for more recent elections reflect a significant disengagement in this youth generation.

Lack of trust in politicians is the #1 reason Millennials don’t vote in the UK, while in the USA it comes second to a lack of interest in politics. Similarly, trusting politicians more ranks first for UK Millennials as something to encourage an interest in voting, while in the USA this was pipped by more knowledge about politics and feeling that voting made a difference.

So if trust in politicians is dwindling on both sides of the Atlantic, and far more of us disapprove of the job they’re doing than approve, why is there a particular pattern of disengagement among the young – specifically, those currently aged 15-34, the ‘Millennials’?


It is part of a wider attitude to authority among the millennial generation. While not strictly anti-establishment, they are far more inclined to question their establishments than their elders. This pattern can be seen in the endeavours of the music industry and organised religion to engage with this age group. Through an analysis of how the Millennials interact with these establishments, we can draw some important conclusions which help us to explain why formal political participation is low and indifference high.

A crucial difference is that with this generation, trust is seen as a basis of authority, whereas before authority has been based out of tradition and deference.


An analysis of how the Millennials have approached authority in the music industry should be guided by the change in consumer patterns, increasingly away from purchasing (whether physical or digital), and toward streaming. While fewer than one in five UK Millennials claimed to have a paid subscription to a music streaming service, this dwarfed the figures for those aged 35+, which averaged at less than 5%. This trend emerged in the US data as well, but the contrast was not so stark, with 22% of Millennials subscribing compared to 14% of the older generations.

Additionally, well over a third of UK Millennials ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agreed that they didn’t feel the need to own music because everything they wanted could be streamed. Less than half of that figure agreed with the same statement among older generations. 30% of UK Millennials similarly claimed that the majority of their listening was done on streaming services, a proportion which rose to nearly two in five when looking at just the teenage Millennials.


The rise of streaming presents a challenge to the music industry as an establishment because, with artists no longer so dependent on convincing consumers to purchase an album for exposure or income (although it might be minimal) and instead being able to have their music on a streaming platform, the ‘quality gate’ that labels used to be able to exercise is effectively lifted. The control that major record companies used to have over what was available to the consumer and how much it should cost is undermined.

This is symptomatic of an attitude among Millennials that music (qua music) is not something that has to be paid for, since it has always been readily available to them for free; data from Audiomonitor on those who have downloaded illegally using ripping software, torrents, or free sites shows that the younger the respondents, the more likely they were to have used them. More than two in three UK teenagers and over a half of US teenagers (compared to 27% of the general population) admitting to having done so.

Paying for a streaming service is paying for more than music – it is paying for the privilege of having almost all music freely available, easy to play on mobile devices, and for the service of having music curated and recommended for you in a personalised way.


Streaming is not the only way in which Millennials are challenging the major record labels who used to be the main players in the music industry establishment. The rise of the digital market has allowed Apple, a technology company, to dominate – holding 47% of the UK digital market and 64% of that in the US. Apple sets standardised prices of 59p-99p in the UK and $0.69-$1.29 in the US which labels, if they want their artists on this platform, must conform to. Since well over a third of Millennials listen to the majority of their music as digital files (although this figure does include files ripped from physical formats), compared to 23% of the general population, it is no surprise labels are accepting these distributing terms.

Labels have adapted to millennial attitudes to music in some ways, for example in the creation of ‘360’ deals, which guarantee labels a share of not just recorded music and DVD sales, but everything artists generate revenue from. This often includes merchandise sales and revenue from live concerts.


Even just speaking of those who owned music (in any format), exactly one third of UK Millennials said over 80% of it was in a digital format. This could be evidence of the emerging ‘flat white economy’, built up of the young and the socially conscious. They prefer experiences to material items and they often live in close proximity to others with little space for a CD collection. Out of the music products they spend money on (and they are far more likely to spend money on a music-related product or receive one as a gift than their elders), they particularly over-index on the purchase of gig and festival tickets. This affects their interaction with the industry because as they become the target audience the demands on record companies are shifting. They need to address that shift in order to keep up with the new market (think VFestival and iTunes/Apple Music festival).

The US Millennials, too, are significantly more likely to buy or have been bought a music-related product in the past six months than their elders. They were most likely to over-index, however, on digital downloads and vouchers gift cards for music retailers (digital and physical). Though they did also over-index somewhat on concert tickets and slightly on festival tickets, this data would suggest that the US market is not as experience-oriented as the UK. It may be for this reason that the iTunes festival in the US only on for five nights, compared to its month-long run in London (although in 2015 it is set to hold just 10 concerts).


The majority of Millennials identified as non-religious in comparison with a majority of those aged 55 and older who were Christians. There is a documented pattern of declining religion in the UK. This should not, however, be taken as evidence that Millennials have turned their backs on the religious establishment completely. The Audiomonitor data suggests that when it comes to church attendance among those who did identify as Christian, the Millennials were far more likely to be regular attendees, while the figures were much lower for their elders, with the majority of those aged 45-64 not attending services at all.

A key reason for this is the difference in religious denominations between the Millennials and the previous generations, which is likely to be influenced by immigration. The majority of those aged 55 and older (and similarly high numbers of Gen Xers) were Anglicans. The patterns of religious commitment (as far as it is measurable) tend to be lower among Anglicans, who on average attend church the least often, and are in any case not obliged to attend services, and are also most likely to defect from it if it was the religion they were brought up with (British Social Attitudes Survey, 2011). This trend continues beyond Christianity, too, although trends are less reliable because there are far fewer respondents in these categories. The proportions of those belonging to the next two most popular religions in the UK, Islam and Hinduism, spiked within the millennial age categories (Audiomonitor, 2015), and weekly religious service attendance figures were highest for this category (BSA, 2011).

A key inter-generational difference here is that the Anglican Church, with its established role in the British state, has been traditionally accepted by previous generations who engaged with it on some level, but have shown a lack of commitment in formal participation. The Millennials, because they have seen the acceptance of this church gently decline among their parents’ generations, or perhaps because more of their parents and ancestors were never a part of this traditional establishment, are much less deferential. This clearly does not mean they have an intolerance of religious establishments, as seen in the Catholic Church attendance patterns, but it does mean theyare more likely than their parents to think normatively about the establishments they subscribe to.

Data from the Pew Research Center describes a similar decline in religious affiliation among US Millennials. The increase in those who identify as religiously unaffiliated seems to owe itself to the much smaller numbers of those identifying as ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Mainline’ Protestants and, to a smaller extent, Catholics. Those whose religion falls within ‘Historically Black Protestants’, ‘Other Christian’ or ‘Other Group’ remains relatively constant across all generations. Millennials also stand out in a Barna Group study as the least likely to value church attendance, reporting just one in five Millennials who felt that going to church was important.


So, if there has been a cognitive change in how Millennials approach authority and establishment with regards to the music industry, what can this tell us about why they, more than generations before them, have become for