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06 March 2015

Millennials: Engagement needed

Posted by: Thomas Maes Secretary General, Young European Socialists

Categories: millennials, voting

So first the good news: contrary to popular beliefs among political pundits but in line with what many of us active in youth politics had a gut feeling about, young Europeans are neither apolitical, nor particularly extremist, and certainly not euro-sceptic.

Perhaps the most striking result of the first outcome phase of FEPS’s Millennial Dialogue project is that despite selecting a sample of three EU member states with a very different socio-economic situation, the young people in the survey give very similar answers to all of the questions related to their life, their aspirations and their priorities, even if their answers to the questions about the politics of their countries differ. This indicates a clear scope for an expanded European project, as well as for common political action among young people in different countries: the results validate the image of a generation without borders, cultivated for some time by the young political left.

What is also heartening is to see that Europe’s young people clearly have their heart on the right (left) side. The answers are not only similar across countries, but they are also similarly compatible with a left-wing political agenda: across the board, young people give high to very high importance ratings to such leftist mainstays as “ensuring equality of opportunities for all” or “improving and maintaining good educational facilities”, while “building and maintaining a strong military force” is considerably less popular. They furthermore rank the economy and environment well above right-wing agendas such as terrorism and immigration in their assessment of which factors will affect their future and their quality of life.

Among all of this good news, there is obviously a snag: the results so far reported appear to contradict the dire situation European social democracy has found itself in for over a decade, and arguably longer. If young people are politically engaged and identify with the left’s priorities and objectives, and more so than those in older age groups, then it should logically follow that in electoral politics, the left should be experiencing a secular rise as older groups gradually die off and the Millennial generation enters the electoral stage. Instead, social democracy appears to be quite literally dying out as its core vote ages, and other parties on the political left struggle to maintain a foothold even if they seem in less immediate danger of extinction, and periodically experience peaks of success. All of the left is in serious danger of the fatal erosion of their support by various right-wing extremist and euro-sceptic formations, whose aims run directly contrary to the sentiments expressed by the young people surveyed.

The key to resolving this apparent contradiction lies in the answers to the survey’s questions that directly relate to party politics. For even though young people show themselves to be highly political in their general interests and their world-view, they are at best lukewarm towards party politics (referred to simply as “politics” in the actual questions and answers, perhaps rather deeply reflecting the neo-liberal cast of the political as a sphere separate from life): “politics” only appears very low down a wash list of general interests, young people claim their generation is less interested in politics than their parents’ and grandparents’, and very few report taking part in political debates, demonstrations or meetings.

Interestingly, the only question that yields significantly divergent answers between the three countries surveyed is also related to party politics: when asked to what extent politics and politicians deliver the same priorities that the respondents were also asked to grade for themselves, a staggering gap between the countries opens. Whereas in Germany, respondents seem to see very little difference between their own priorities and their politicians’, Italian and Polish youth seem to trust their politicians’ priorities only half as much as they trust their own, and in one case even report that politicians seriously over-prioritise a topic (the military in Italy).

When those of the respondents who indicate that they would not vote in an upcoming election (a surprisingly small proportion of the total respondents – notably, in the qualitative study many of the respondents indicating that they would vote give negative reasons such as that those who don’t vote, can’t complain) are asked why, the answers from the three countries once again fall into line, and the rather dull “I don’t trust politicians” tops everywhere, accompanied by such interchangeable sentiments as “all parties are the same” and “I don’t think my vote makes a difference”. All of these responses clearly indicate thatyoung people tend to see “politics” and politicians as a monolithic class interest that has little to do with their own world, priorities and opinions. In at least one sense, neo-liberalism appears to have achieved its goal of the irrelevance of politics.

From all of this, the conclusion should clearly be that the contradiction between left-wing sentiment and erratic voting (or non-voting) behaviour among Millennials stems from a clear source, namely the incorporation of most of the party-political left and especially of social democracy into a broadly neo-liberal consensus defining politics as a sphere distinct from society, and certainly from the economy. This has been a long process, and has traditionally been offset by social democracy’s strong voter bonding (using traditional means of communication) and later by its ability to tap into new voter potential by renewing itself content-wise, but it currently appears to be at a dead-end: in today’s hyper-connected world, politicians can no longer hide their inability to deliver on their values, and the most common excuses (“market pressure” being the most popular one) are quickly invalidated by alert bloggers. It is not surprising that in such a climate, the mainstream left cannot prosper: in fact, it cannot as long as it does not recognise that there is a more fundamental contradiction between being mainstream and being on the left.

One way of resolving this more fundamental contradiction is suggested by the survey’s results themselves: among the barrage of negative sentiment about politicians, young people report that “the views of younger people are largely ignored by most politicians” and that “very few, if any politicians encourage people of their age to get involved in politics”. Now, these are relatively easy to tackle, even if until now they rarely are tackled: in today’s aforementioned hyper-connected world, the views of young people are easy to tap into using social media, and besides being an ageing movement in general social democracy also has the strongest tradition of organising among young people through youth organisations. It would suffice to give more credence and more responsibility to these views and organisations to resolve a large part of the contradiction: all it takes is for the movement’s cadres to come to terms with the fact that young people would generally prefer it to be resolved in favour of the left, rather than the mainstream. As the study shows.

Young people enter a situation where they are unable to sustain themselves or their families economically, and feel powerless to decisively alter political circumstances. There appears to be a big generational gap in politics and young people feel their opinions are strikingly underrepresented.

Hence, most migrants from that area are young men, which is not the easiest group to integrate. The exodus of a young (relatively) well educated generation could thus leave these countries behind and in decades of deadlock. The lack of interest of young people in politics prevents the necessary political momentum and change from happening. The aspiration for progressive politics should be to create incentives and possibilities for those people to work and live in their home countries, and try to find long term solutions. Also a shift of attitude of the established parties towards the youth in those countries is urgently needed.