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Graduates: could economic and political setbacks radicalise a generation?

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Krista Burton had a moderate Democrat outlook before arriving at New York University to study politics. But after watching America’s healthcare system become overwhelmed by coronavirus cases and seeing the surge in unemployment during the pandemic, her views became more radical. ‘Seeing how much [the system] failed so many people, I just lost a little bit of that hope I had,” she says.

After graduating with scant prospects of landing a job in May 2020, the 24-year-old has pursued a graduate degree, focusing her studies on informal community and mutual aid networks. The choice, she says, better reflects her disillusionment with politics and a belief that change must come from grassroots activity — convictions sharpened, like those of many of her peers, by a transition into the workforce at a time of global pandemic.

Every generation likes to think of itself as more enlightened than its elders. But the harsh experiences that people in their early 20s have had over the past two years are likely to radicalise their outlook — potentially in a dramatic fashion, say political scientists.

The last cohort to come of age in a global crisis was during the financial crash of 2008-09 and the economic crises and austerity that followed. Then as now, young people were hit disproportionately. Many joined movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados and contributed to the leftward shift of the UK Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn after 2015.

Now Covid-19 has brought the inequalities facing young people into sharper relief. Hit disproportionately by an economic shutdown that disrupted jobs more than assets, young adults are mobilising around issues such as racial justice and climate change.

But many say they feel marginalised from mainstream politics dominated by older generations, and as they struggle to build lives in difficult circumstances their frustration has not yet found an articulation in a coherent movement or vision. In some cases, their focus is often fiercely local, rather than global.

Graduating students take photographs in New York. Analysis shows that at 35, baby boomers held 21% of US wealth, compared with 8% among Generation X and 5% for millennials
Graduating students take photographs in New York. Analysis shows that at 35, baby boomers held 21% of US wealth, compared with 8% among Generation X and 5% for millennials © Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg

“If there’s not an opportunity for grievances to be expressed through the political system then they’ll be more explosive,” says Keir Milburn, the author of Generation Left, who has worked with the UK Labour party’s leftwing faction Momentum. “Grievances are building up. There’s a real pragmatism — you might say a radical pragmatism — that things need to change.”

‘Abandoned by politicians’

Martino Reguzzoni, a 24-year-old computer engineering graduate who lives at his parents’ home in Busto Arsizio, northern Italy, says his generation has been “abandoned” by politicians, but has, as a result, become more political.

“We have realised that politics directly influences us, placing physical limits on our lives,” he says. “This situation has brought us closer to politics . . . We are the working class and voters of the future, and a stronger generational opinion is already forming.”

Column chart of Unemployment rate in OECD countries showing Young people and women have been hit hard by jobs crisis

Across OECD countries between February 2020 and June 2021, the unemployment rate for under-25s rose from 11.5 per cent to 12.95 per cent. At one point, in May, it reached 18.6 per cent. During the same period unemployment among older people increased from 4.5 per cent to 5.6 per cent. According to the Institute for Student Employers, the graduate labour market in July 2020 shrank by more than 30 per cent in some countries, including Italy, Northern Ireland and Denmark.

Younger people have also fallen through policy gaps. In the UK, which ranks among the worst for both deaths and economic impact from Covid-19, the government prioritised getting children back to school but offered little support to university students, who continued to pay thousands of pounds in fees just to receive tuition online.

“The one thing we heard [consistently] from young people was that it was a learning experience in how political leaders’ decisions affect their daily life,” says Abby Kiesa, deputy director of the Centre for Information and Research of Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in the US.

For Hannah Tasker, who started a graduate degree in anthropology in London after finishing university in an uncertain job market last year, the pandemic sharpened her commitment to social justice. “I’ve learnt that ‘political’ doesn’t have to mean political parties,” she says. “It means whether there is justice, whether the country and economy and society is working for everyone.” Her conclusion is, that it is not.

Generational divide

Even before the pandemic, the wealth gap between generations was becoming a driving force in politics: now that reality is much sharper still. “When they’re looking at the economy they’re not looking at the same thing,” Milburn says. “These generational political distinctions arise out of a generational divergence in material interests.”

In the UK, people aged under 30 are now four times as likely to rent than they were two generations ago. In the US, a 2015 survey found home ownership among those aged 25 to 34 was 37 per cent, compared with an average of 45 per cent for the same cohort in previous generations.

A chart showing the % satisfied with democracy by age and generational cohort that shows successive generations have lower faith in democracy than the previous generation - and it generally deteriorates with age. Millenials (born 1981-1996) have the lowest faith in democracy, with less than half satisfied with democracy

Analysis of US Federal Reserve data by the economist Gray Kimbrough shows the proportion of household wealth held by each generation has fallen over the years: at 35, baby boomers held 21 per cent of US wealth, compared with 8 per cent among Generation X, who were 35 in 2008. Millennials, who reach an average age of 35 in 2023, own 5 per cent of national wealth despite representing 22 per cent of the population. 

The future of the young is also likely to be disproportionately affected by the destructive impact of climate change. “Older people think of climate change as something that’s slightly altering. Young people have a much more doom-laden view of the future,” Milburn says. “There’s a generational split.”

These divided material interests are visible at the ballot box. In last year’s US election, Democratic candidate Joe Biden won 51 per cent of the total vote, but 61 per cent among 18 to29-year olds, reflecting both his plans to invest in green energy and also backing from youth-led Democrat factions pushing more radical policies. In the UK, polling company YouGov called age the “clear dividing line in British politics”. Asset-rich older voters overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives in 2019’s general election and younger people Labour.

Reguzzoni believes a generation mobilised by the pandemic will become more engaged in politics, more active on the issues that affect them and aware of holding politicians to account. “This will lead to a change in political parties, which will no longer be able to ignore issues such as climate change, education, sustainability and the mobility of our cities,” he says.

Yet he also says he and his peers are finding it “increasingly hard to remain optimistic and proactive” after more than a year of isolation. And while some of his generation are taking to the streets calling for radical solutions, his politics remains squarely centrist.

“As never before, I support any form of policy oriented towards the future and environmental sustainability, but above all policies that encourage economic growth [and] reward those who deserve it: meritocracy must be a priority,” he says.

Chart showing percent of adults in two age groups who agree or disagree with the comment "I feel like things in my country are out of control right now". Responses in countries such as Spain, US and UK show a high proportion in both age groups agreeing - nearly 80%. But in many countries the proportion of adults aged 18-34 agreeing with the statement is slightly higher than the proprtion of adults aged over 35

Tom O’Grady, a lecturer in political science at UCL, says young people in the UK have not radically altered their views despite the massive government interventions to deal with the economic fallout caused by coronavirus. “The pandemic is a continuation of trends that have been going for a long time,” he says. “We actually haven’t found much evidence of a leftward shift.”

Political sympathies, he says, are not always grounded in traditional left-right economic binaries, such as where they stand on levels of taxation and government spending. Instead, young adults can unite politically over a sense of economic insecurity or progressive views on social issues such as the environment, drugs policy and civil liberties.

According to a recent study by the Harvard Kennedy School, the proportion of 18 to 29-year olds in the US who think the government must do more to stop climate change increased by 26 percentage points to 55 per cent between 2009 and 2021; the proportion who supported universal health insurance by 17 points to 64 per cent; and who believe immigration is a force for good by 14 points to 37 per cent.

Yet, while 16 per cent of respondents said the economy was their biggest concern politically, the cohort’s view were less clear cut. A majority supported government spending to reduce poverty, but 40 per cent agreed that cutting taxes was an effective way to increase economic growth, compared with 20 per cent who opposed it.

“In terms of economic issues, age is a bit less of a predictor than people think it is — young people are less distinct from their elders and in some cases even more sceptical about tax and spending,” says O’Grady. “We’ve seen evidence that the policies they care about might be different than the policies of the past.”

Politically disenfranchised

For some young people, their wariness about conventional politics is deeply entrenched. According to a 2020 study by Cambridge university, faith in the democratic system had already experienced its steepest decline ever among 18 to 34-year-olds on the eve of the pandemic. They were the first generation to have a global majority dissatisfied with democracy in their twenties and thirties.

Max Fras, a visiting fellow at the LSE European Institute, is not surprised at the disillusionment in countries where the population is ageing, and where the ability of young people to shift the political debate is limited by demographic reality. “I’m quite pessimistic about the ability of young people to bring their agenda to big political institutions,” he says. “You don’t have to care so much about the youth vote because there’s not so many of them.”

Protesters in Paris march against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms. Many young people say they feel marginalised from mainstream politics dominated by older generations
Protesters in Paris march against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms. Many young people say they feel marginalised from mainstream politics dominated by older generations © Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

In Paris, Apolline Godard has made the “purely pragmatic choice” of working in a logistics start-up, abandoning her dream of a creative career in exchange for the financial independence to pay her rent.

“Today, what worries me most is the economic fragility of the people around me . . . Social inequality is going to grow,” she says. She has no idea who she will vote for in next year’s presidential election. “I am really lost,” she says. “How can you judge when politicians’ ideas seem to change all the time?”

How new graduates are able to make their voices heard despite the demographic odds depends on political systems.

In Germany, where a proportional system of voting means smaller parties can gain greater traction, the youth vote has helped the Green party rise in the polls ahead of a September election. In the US, despite Bernie Sanders losing his 2016 Democratic leadership bid, leftwing Democrats with a strong support base among young graduates and workers influenced Biden’s relatively radical platform.

But after huge losses at the 2019 election reversed a youth-driven resurgence under Corbyn’s leadership, the UK Labour party has scaled back its radical agenda.

“Eighteen to 29-year-olds overwhelmingly voted Labour, and they’ve never seen a Labour government. At the moment it’s really hard to see how there would be a Labour government in the next election either,” O’Grady says. “I worry about perceived unfairness, disillusionment, more non-voting. We’re in the situation that they’ve lost out economically in the pandemic, and now they’re losing out politically.”

Technical analyst Niharika Singh, who emigrated to the US from India at the age of two, did not understand her parents’ disillusionment with politics in the US until last year. Now the pandemic has made it clear to her that America’s social safety net is too narrow, and that it needs to change radically, and fast.

“There is no reason not to, except that we’ve convinced ourselves that this is the only way to do things,” she says. “My parents have literally said that they don’t want me and my sister to settle down here with our families eventually . . . This country has not lived up to the expectations we had, which is so jarring.”

Micro organising

In France, 23-year-old Paris resident Thibault Nguyen is struggling to get his career as a freelance sound engineer off the ground. He earns about €300 a month, often working long days of partly unpaid work. “It is difficult to cover my rent, and pay for all the equipment I had to buy,” he says. “This is how it works in this area.”

Anti-climate change protesters in London. Hit disproportionately by an economic shutdown that disrupted jobs more than assets, young adults are mobilising around such issues
Anti-climate change protesters in London. Hit disproportionately by an economic shutdown that disrupted jobs more than assets, young adults are mobilising around such issues © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Still, he is not angry about how Covid-19 has affected his life. Instead he focuses on things he feels he can change — working, and volunteering as a scout leader, where he encourages boys to debate issues from sexism to global warming and change their daily habits. “Paying attention to our carbon footprint, our way of consuming energy, how we get around . . . it all matters,” he says.

This retreat to small-scale politics could be a growing trend among the Covid graduating cohort. Fras describes today’s young people as living in an increasingly “post-political” environment, engaging on single issues rather than sweeping political questions.

“If you’re a young person and you care about a particular issue, you’re more likely to see a campaign than a political movement,” he says. “They’re most likely to go for single issues, vote with their feet, support businesses that they think are ethical. These are not traditional forms of political participation.”

So called single-issue politics can be both radical and successful. In Germany, pressure from the Fridays for Future youth movement and a court ruling that climate law placed too much of a burden on future generations contributed to the government committing to more ambitious climate targets.

In the UK, students frustrated at being forced to pay rent for university accommodation they could not use over the past year called a nationwide rent strike. Protests for racial justice and against planned tougher anti-protest laws have taken over city centres. And new climate organisations such as Green New Deal Rising, a youth movement in which young people pressure MPs to “feel the heat” and take tangible action on climate change, are gaining momentum.

Tasker, who has recently taken part in protests in support of migrants and low-paid workers at her university, says the pandemic has made young people more impatient but also hopeful that it can be a catalyst for radical change. “People realise that stuff like [the pandemic] will keep happening if we don’t do things differently — they’re open to doing things that may have seemed drastic before,” she says.

Additional Reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris and Guy Chazan in Berlin. Data by Federica Cocco in London

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