Compared to baby boomers or Gen X-ers, Millennials are much more disillusioned with democracy than previous generations. In fact, the majority of 30-year-olds nowadays report low satisfaction with their country’s democracy, according to a massive study performed by Cambridge researchers that combined almost 4,000 surveys conducted in countries across the world.
In response to economic uncertainty and widening gaps between social strata, the researchers also found that the youth is most positive about democracy in countries ruled by populist leaders. Surprisingly, this was the case for leaders of both the left and right political spectrum. Previously, the same team of researchers showed that global dissatisfaction with democracy was at a 25-year high.
The tides of times are shifting, and so are our politics
Dr. Roberto Foa is a lecturer at Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy. Along with colleagues, Foa embarked on the herculean task of stitching together the response of over five million people in over 160 countries recorded between 1973 and 2020. Among other things, these people were asked about how satisfied they were with democracy in their countries. All of their replies were then pooled and standardized by the Human Understanding Measured Across National (HUMAN) Surveys project.
The work was massively challenging as there were thousands of data sources that had to be interpreted with care. The volume of surveys, each with its own labels, language, and idiosyncrasies, proved to be immense. But the wealth of data is also what made this study incredibly enlightening, spotting trends not only across the world but also across multiple generations, that may have otherwise been overlooked.
“I think when all you see is the final product, it is
difficult to appreciate just how much work goes into getting there,” Foa told ZME Science.
All of this hard work eventually paid off, though. Foa remembers the first time he saw the graphs and charts showing how the public sentiment on democracy shifted massively across the generations.
“Before hitting that point there are weeks of data management to crunch through, so when you see those first results the feeling is really gratifying. You just don’t know until then whether the project is going to find anything at all – and you are braced for disappointment,” he told me.
“Originally for example we thought there would be a big difference between right-wing and left-wing populism – so when we didn’t find that, it really gets your fascination going. You are forced to re-think a lot of your assumptions, and that is always healthy.”
The most disillusioned generation with democracy in living memory
According to the report released today by the Cambridge researchers, 55% of global millennials claim they are dissatisfied with democracy. Meanwhile, under half of Generation X (40-55 years old) feel the same way, whereas baby boomers (over 60 years) maintain an overall satisfaction with democracy, as did the interwar generation.
Indeed, there seems to be a trend of eroding confidence in democracy and its institutions. Take the UK, for instance. In 1973, 54% of 30-year-olds from the interwar generation said they were generally satisfied with British democracy. In 1984, 57% of UK baby boomers who turned 30 said they were happy with democracy, and for 30-year-old Gen Xers in the 1990s and early 2000s, pro-democracy sentiment reached its peak at 62%.
However, this trend took a turn for the worse in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, leaving many millennials in debt and feeling stuck ever since. As a result, 48% of millennials in the UK are now reportingly dissatisfied with democracy. In the United States, half of those in their mid-30s report growing dissatisfaction with democracy. And the major culprit seems to be economic development — or rather, the lack of it.
In developed countries, the biggest economic discontent has to do with exclusion and inequality. On the opposite end, in countries like Iceland and Austria, where wealth distribution is relatively flat, there are only minor generational gaps in attitudes to democracy.
“Basically, you have two major inequalities in western societies today: the intergenerational wealth gap between young and old, and the spatial inequality between successful global cities like London, New York or San Francisco, and left-behind hinterland regions. Those inequalities produce resentment, and the politics of resentment is populism: wanting to shake the system and upset the complacency of political and social elites. Nobody will ever admits that resentment is the driver of their political or social views. But once people feel that they have a stake in society, everything changes,” Foa said.
Elsewhere, in emerging democracies in Africa and Latin America, besides economic woes, dissatisfaction with democracy is also linked to “transitional fatigue”. Essentially, people are fed up with the seemingly unending political transition to democracy — the proverbial wolves dressed in sheep’s’ clothing — while the youth have no memory of the shortcomings of the autocratic regimes of yesteryear.
Political theorists used to believe that malcontents among the youth surrounding the government and a country’s state of affairs soften with age. However, the reverse seems to be true today in the world, with millennials and Gen Xers have grown steadily less satisfied with democracy as they advance in age.
“By making comparisons between generational groups at identical stages of life, we could really get to the core of the issue from an empirical standpoint: whether youth disillusionment is a “life-cycle effect” or the start of something more profound. And what we found, in short, is that there is real generational divergence taking place – with millennials significantly more discontent in the United States, Britain, southern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa,” Foa told ZME Science.
Besides countries where economic inequality was so rampant as in the US or the UK, the researchers found that pro-democracy attitudes among millennials were more likely in countries that elected populist leaders — whether they are from the left or the right made no difference. Some examples include Greece under the left-wing Syriza coalition, and Poland under the Law and Justice party, or Viktor Orbán’s right-wing Hungary.
For Foa and colleagues, these developments are a direct consequence of public division and polarization, which populist leaders are famous for masterfully exploiting. According to the report, 41% of millennials in western democracies agreed with the statement you can “tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics”, compared with 30% of voters over the age of 35.
Such findings should serve as a wakeup call for moderate parties and their leaders if they are to avert this crumbling decay of democratic attitudes and their underlying values. In the meantime, the reserachers are busy with more breakthrough research.
“We have a lot of ideas for future reports – but foremost is that with the global coronavirus pandemic attitudes are shifting a lot in 2020, so one of the really fascinating questions right now is to parse out what legacy that has left. And we’ve no idea yet what is the answer to that question – which is precisely what makes it worth asking,” Foa said.
The report Youth and Satisfaction with Democracy: Reversing the Democratic Disconnect? was prepared at the Bennet Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge and the Centre for the Future of Democracy.