A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion at a gathering of Canada’s conservative movement. A number of well-known Conservative MPs gave speeches, and during the Q&A that followed, the moderator asked each to offer some insight into how they thought conservatives might make their party and its program more appealing to young people. As the solitary socialist in the room, I found myself privately scoffing as most or all issued some version of the same, cartoonishly out-of-touch reply: “Young people love freedom, and so do we!”
Whatever this reductive declaration was supposed to mean, it was abundantly clear — now as then — that the word “freedom” implied something very different to the people on stage than to the majority of young voters who had of late tended to refrain from backing the Conservatives. In the 2015 federal election, for example, despite an unprecedented increase in youth turnout, the Conservative Party had finished firmly behind both the centrist Liberals and the social-democratic NDP among those aged 18–24.
The sentiment nevertheless had a certain coherence given its source.
It later occurred to me that these Tory MPs positing a frictionless union between their own conception of freedom and the values of today’s young were all of roughly the same generation: Gen-Xers who had grown up in the relative comfort of postwar growth and had come of age politically during a period of broadly shared prosperity (at least when measured against the present day). The welfare state, though only a few decades old, was an integral part of the political consensus while Keynesianism was its economic lingua franca.
Against such a backdrop, it’s not terribly difficult to see how the ascendant project we now call neoliberalism might have had intuitive appeal to at least some people under 30. New and insurgent, it ingeniously channeled the individualist zeitgeist of the 1960s while recasting it largely in market-centric terms. It promised liberation from the supposed fetters of an activist state it also successfully blamed for various crises and social malaises. Perhaps more to the point, the thrust of its intervention came after many Gen-Xers had already enjoyed the fruits of postwar social democracy in their early years: shared prosperity, rising wages, free or nearly free college and university, etc. It was in this context that many conservatives of a particular generation forged their politics and worldview.
Not everyone felt this way, of course. Plenty of people, young and old, fiercely resisted the right-wing counterrevolution of the 1980s and ‘90s. But, considering how many eagerly jumped on board, this history is a useful corrective to the popular idea that youth correlates with radicalism and age with conservatism. The latter is more or less the standard conception of the typical person’s political trajectory, perhaps best summed up in the famous quote erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty-five, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re thirty-five, you have no brain.”
It sounds at least intuitively correct and most of us can probably think up a few anecdotes to support it.
It’s also not really true, as revealed by even a perfunctory glance at the political behavior of young people belonging to different generations. In both Britain and the United States, arguably neoliberalism’s two most significant political epicenters throughout the 1980s, young people actually voted in considerable numbers for the dismantling of the welfare state, mass privatization, and for the conservative ideologues intent on carrying them out. Ronald Reagan essentially tied Jimmy Carter among voters 18–29, winning easily every other age group including people 30–44. By the next election, this dead heat would become a rout. Here, for example, is how the New York Times reported Reagan’s youth prospects mere weeks before an election he would win in a landslide:
“In the late 1960’s, the rallying cry for many young Americans was, ”Don’t trust anyone over 30.” In 1984, by contrast, the youth culture appears to put its trust in a President who is over 70. According to combined figures from the two most recent New York Times/ CBS News Polls, taken before the Presidential debate on Oct. 7, voters from the ages of 18 to 24 supported Mr. Reagan by 61 percent to 30 percent over his Democratic challenger, Walter F. Mondale.”
Margaret Thatcher actually won the youth vote in her first two elections, drawing about even with Labour among voters 18–24 in 1979 and winning every demographic over 35 by 10 percent. By 1983, the Tories got more support from those 35–44 than those 65 and older and secured some 41 percent support from those voting for the first time.
If this picture grates against our intuitive sense of the correlation between political values and age, it’s probably because young people manifestly are more likely to lean left than they were four decades ago — the generational gulf separating millennials and zoomers from boomers and Gen-Xers being pretty difficult to ignore.
During the recent Democratic primary race, as in 2016, Bernie Sanders won the youth vote in unprecedented numbers, with older voters breaking overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. In the United Kingdom’s general election upset of 2017, Labour won every age group under 39, capturing more than 60 percent of the vote from people aged 18–29. A Gallup poll conducted in 2018, meanwhile, found that only half of young American adults now have a favorable view of capitalism — down 16 percent since 2010 — while about the same proportion now has a favorable view of socialism. Though a less than negligible plurality of older people also view socialism positively, it’s undeniable that a considerable majority favors capitalism.
Rather than assume these trends reflect attitudes that inherently come with either youth or age — which, as we’ve already seen, doesn’t really bear much scrutiny — we might ask why it is that young people today are often so much less inclined towards capitalism than their parents or grandparents. The simple, though oft-ignored answer is that most young people in 2020 have had a radically different set of experiences and have developed a very different set of political values to match them. In 1960 the median American house price was around $97,000 adjusted for inflation; today the figure is $226,000. Whereas wages grew steadily for workers in the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s, most haven’t seen the value of their paychecks improve since. In many societies, social mobility has plummeted — all while education has grown increasingly expensive and good jobs harder to come by.
If you’re under 40 today, there’s a good chance capitalism hasn’t served you particularly well and that exhausted political narratives emphasizing individual grit and personal responsibility carry a very different connotation than once they did to an earlier generation. The Keynesian variety of capitalism, and the economic prospects it once guaranteed, are completely unimaginable today. Some of the hardest working people I know barely hover above the poverty line and even the more professionally successful among my friends and acquaintances are unlikely to have much in the way of savings (though they probably have plenty of debt).
This is purely anecdotal, of course, which is a good moment to issue the standard caveats about conceiving of politics in generational terms. For one thing, generations certainly aren’t monolithic things: their boundaries being somewhat arbitrary and those within them having an endless multitude of social backgrounds and experiences. Not every millennial or zoomer is hostile to capitalism and there are plenty of people over 60 who either radicalized with age or never abandoned the left-wing politics of their youth. Generations have plenty of division within themselves, both culturally and materially, making the imposition of some unitary narrative an inevitably general and endlessly messy exercise. They’re also to some extent an invention of capitalism itself. As journalist and music critic Jeff Chang has argued: “Generations are fictions, often created to suit the needs of demographers and marketers.”
There’s definitely something to this, but there’s also no denying that generalized trends predominate among particular age groups and that some degree of common experience is the most obvious explanation. Once again, experience is key: political values being a kind of intellectual abridgement through which we all explain and interpret collective reality. There is nothing inherently radical or reactionary about belonging to any particular generation just as there’s nothing inherently progressive or conservative about being a particular age. There is no special epistemology that comes with youth and wanes with maturity, but there are a broad set of experiences and social realities that inevitably shape everyone’s attitudes and political views.
Millions of young people in the first decades of the twenty-first century were not born with some special disposition that made them hostile to capitalism, nor with some reflexive skepticism about political officialdom in general. Rather, looking to political alternatives like socialism or opting out of political engagement altogether (as plenty of young voters are doing today) are both rational responses to the world as they have experienced it; that is, to the manifold crises, financial meltdowns, and political disappointments that have predominated since the end of the 1990s.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Left should start dealing in crass generational politics or rest on our laurels while awaiting rescue from some imagined future cohort of prepubescent revolutionaries that will one day mature into an electoral magic bullet. In an odd way, understanding the sources of generational belief actually stands as a warning against the very idea of doing politics in generational terms, insofar as this tends to presume some intrinsic correlation between age and conservatism (or vice versa).
Instead, social and material realities, not the discrete internal cultures thought to be peculiar to people of different demographics, should be our guide: the better to understand how capitalism is failing — and why so many young people are now looking to very different political alternatives than those once sought by earlier generations.