Turning Right? Generation Selfie in an Age of Austerity

About the author
Matthew Lakin is researching a DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford. The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.

A selfie, one of the hallmarks of Generation Y

Abandoned Youth

There is an apparent paradox in the political attitudes of the young in the West today: the young support a set of economic policies that are the causes of their own plight. The policies administered in the ‘age of austerity’ with its centrepiece commitment to retrenching the frontiers of the state have hit the youngest hardest. A recent IPPR report into youth unemployment among the EU countries found that ‘7.5 million young people’ were not ‘engaged in employment, education or training’ making up over ‘13 per cent of the EU’s youth population.’

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Youth unemployment is one of the biggest economic and social problems facing the Western world. It has increased substantially since the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Unemployment remains high: Spain and Greece have youth unemployment well over 50%; Italy had have almost 40% of its youth without work, training or education; Ireland has an unemployment rate of 28% and France has over 1 in 4 of its young inactive. The United Kingdom and the United states – with unemployment rates of 21% and 16.3% respectively – fair only a little better. Staggeringly high (youth) unemployment was not inevitable. It was largely an outcome of political decisions and structural and distributional arrangements that benefit the elderly and the rich at the expense of the young and the poor. What is befuddling therefore is that the young, supported by opinion polls and survey evidence, support many of the political assumptions that lead to these outcomes.

Turning Right?

With this plight, many predicted that the young – like the young who flocked to social democracy in the 1930s and 1940s – would turn to Centre-Left, social democratic or interventionist prescriptions for economic recovery. With financial institutions collapsing, a severe credit crunch and deep recession, many expected a reawakening of faith in the state not only among political elites but among populations. This collapse of free markets – or the neo-liberal orthodoxy – would bring about a ‘progressive moment’ in which the primacy of economic efficiency would be replaced by the primacy of social justice.

Image shows Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary.
Viktor Orbán, leader of the right-wing Fidesz party and prime minister of Hungary.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Between the beginning of the financial crisis in late 2007 to the the middle of 2012, the politics of Europe turned sharply to the Right. In Britain, Gordon Brown’s Labour-driven Keynesian response to the Great Recession of 2008-09 gave way to David Cameron’s Tory-driven austerian economic. In Europe, governments of the Centre-Left – Bulgaria’s Stanishev Government; Hungary’s Bajnai Government; Lithuania’s Kirkilas Government; Portugal’s Socrates Government; Slovakia’s Fico Government, and Spain’s Zapatero Government – were toppled by incoming governments of the Centre-Right – Bulgaria’s Borisov Government; Hungary’s Orbán Government; Lithuania’s Kubilius Government; Portugal’s Coelho Government; Slovakia’s Radicová Government, and Spain’s Rajoy Government. In the United States, President Barack Obama’s ‘New New Deal’ gave way to a reactionary Tea Party movement ideologically engaged in repealing Obama’s progressive liberal agenda. In the recent September 2013 election Australia – even though not as affected by the financial crisis as Europe and the United States – turned to the Right by electing the Liberal-National Coalition under Tony Abbott. Despite the financial crisis, there has been no renewal of enthusiasm for the activist state nor a belief in curtailing the worst excesses of the market in order to iron-out the distributional imbalances of wealth.

Generation Y

Image shows an iPhone lying on a computer keyboard.
Millennials are used to modern technology and do not expect to encounter government restrictions on things like the internet.

These political movements to the Right are part of a complex cultural, economic, political and social process. Part of this complex process involves the confusing, disappointing and fascinating electoral and political behaviour of the young. The Millennial generation – ‘generation Y’ – is the name of the demographic cohort that succeed ‘generation X’. The Millennials were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. This generation was born in the era of globalization, hyper-capitalism, the sensibilities of consumerism, technological advance and the inheritance of a growing level of uneven prosperity. They are technologically-savvy and fully attuned to the mores of pop culture in the arts, literature and music.
They were also a cohort – especially in Britain and the United States – that were born, brought up and became of age in an era of gaping social and economic inequalities. They saw politics as a decision-making method for social problems replaced by the private world of finance, merchant values and individual (economic) choice. They are Mrs Thatcher’s and Mr Blair’s, President Reagan’s and Clinton’s, Chancellor Kohl’s and Schröder’s, and Mr Hawke’s and Mr Howard’s ‘children’. They are a fascinating generation. Far from being apathetic or suffering from ennui, recent social survey attitudes in Britain have revealed that the Millennials in Britain are broadly anti-statist across the piste. It reported that in both its ‘moral outlook’ and its attitudes towards the welfare state, Britain – and elsewhere – had been affected by ‘individualisation’. Surveys reveal a ‘hardening of attitudes towards social welfare and economic redistributionism’, with a majority of the British population ‘less likely to favour spending on welfare benefits.’ Strange that the young should be for the welfare retrenchments when the grant to universities has been abolished albeit for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and replaced by £9,000 a year tuition fees; the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance; and the proposal by David Cameron to scrap entirely benefits for under-25s. Simultaneously, Cameron has pledged that the Conservatives will shelter and protect pensioners from the welfare measures. Yet, the young remain the least support of further redistribution than any other generation: ‘the younger generation seem to have a different view of welfare, even after allowing for the general shift in attitudes across society.’ The same is true in America. Pell Grants – federal aid for students in financial need – have been constrained and eligibility contained, whilst social security for the over-65s has been largely protected. There is also a continued increase – especially among the young – of relaxed attitudes towards abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. In the US, whilst approval of same-sex marriage has swelled to 52% it is still small compared to the 69% of 18-34s that support it.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."Generation Y therefore generally support freedom both in the bedroom and the boardroom. They are consistent anti-statists. Sir Winston Churchill, among others, famously observed that ‘any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.’ The young today are fiscally conservative (i.e. tax-cutting, spending-slashing) and socially liberal (i.e. supportive of non-majority alternative lifestyles). The Economist triumphantly announced that the British youth’s attitudes marked ‘liberalism’s comeback’. Liberalism, in this sense, is used in the European context: low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility are this generation’s lodestars!

Against formal politics

Image shows Russell Brand holding a microphone.
“It’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class” – Russell Brand in his interview with Jeremy Paxman.

Anti-statism is a contributory factor for the comparatively low turnout of the young among the generations at election time. Comparatively low turnouts among the young is not a new phenomena. In the US, the 18-24 cohort have uniformly turned out in smaller numbers than the cohorts over 25. The UK has an identical trend. Whilst overall turnout in the General Election of 2010 stood at 65.1%, voters under 24 were well under 50%. But with attitudes of generation Y moving Right, presumably the Centre-Right will reap the electoral rewards. What is different however from the low turnouts of the past, is that the gap between the non-voting young and the voting older is getting wider. The trend and downward trajectories of lower youth voter turnout does not amount to disaffection of politics per se. It is a rejection of formal politics. Russell Brand’s much-publicised interview with Jeremy Paxman is a case in point. Brand, the verbose English comedian, called for a ‘revolutionary’ form of politics because he didn’t get ‘authority from this preexisting paradigm’. Brand’s non-recognition of the ‘preexisting paradigm’ translated as not being ‘arsed to vote.’ Brand’s critique of formal politics, whilst trite, is mirrored surprisingly in the politics of the contemporary Centre-Right. The Centre-Rights anti-statist, tax-cutting, bureaucracy-slashing anti-politics of the American and European Right is a form of anti-politics, albeit one shorn of Brand’s hopes of radical and transformative participatory politics. Appealing to the ‘people’, the Centre-Right attack and berate the ‘preexisting paradigm’ of decision-making in order – not to hand power to the ‘people’ as Brand argues – but the disciplines of the free market economy. The Centre-Left – or those of a social democratic or progressive sympathy – depend upon a positive or participatory conception of politics for its success. Not merely the politics of the street advocated by Brand in a great line of populist revolutionaries, but also the formal processes of politics as embodied in the institutions of the state. Antipathy to formal politics benefits the politics of the Centre-Right.
Even though the anti-political mood or disaffection with the formal institutions of politics chimes with the Centre-Right, there are two problems. The first is that ‘generation Y’ – across Europe and the United States – are statistically predicted to be poorer than their parents. The impoverishment of the young and the ossification of social mobility may be blamed on the bureaucratic state at the moment, but it is quite possible that the generation’s view will shift to see the unregulated and immoral market beset by special interests as the ultimate source of their problems. If so, the political interests of generation Y could possibly shift Leftwards. Nick Boles, a member of the British government, spoke for many when he observed that the Tory Party was seen as an ‘alien’ party because it was seen as the ‘party of the Rich’. The Republican Party has long been pejoratively associated as the Party of big business, corporations and special interests. Second, among the politics of the Centre-Right lingers a remnant and vestigial moral conservatism that repels the instinctive progressivism of the young. The Republican Party and the Abbott Government in Australia are against same-sex marriage. Centre-Right parties additionally disagree with a majority of the young on issues such as the decriminalisation of marijuana. The Centre-Right’s social conservatism is partly strategic (i.e. keeping its various fractious conservative coalitions together) and nostalgic. The Centre-Right across the world are performing a ‘politics of repeat’, nostalgically looking back: Mr Cameron looks back to Mrs Thatcher; ‘Mutti’ Merkel back to Chancellor Kohl; Speaker John Boehner back to Newt Gingrich; Mariano Rajoy back to José Aznar and Abbott back to John Howard in Australia. The perfunctory politics of looking backwards is routinely punished at the ballot box across the world.


Image shows a black and white photograph of Gertrude Stein.
The writer Gertrude Stein said, “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation… You have no respect for anything.”

Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway described the post-war expatriate generation after WW1 ‘the lost generation’. Indeed, generation Y is a lost generation wadding through a swamp of its own narcissism. A few days ago the word ‘selfie’ was announced as the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. ‘Selfie’ – referring to self-portrait photograph taken at hand-held, short-distance – defines the generation. Tom Wolfe called the 1970s the ‘me decade’ to refer to the cultural narcissism which accompanied the coming of age of the Baby Boomer generation. Compared to generation Y, the Baby Boomers of Wolfe’s description look positively saintly! The generation are largely and consistently libertarian: marrying, to its logical conclusion, economic and social libertarianism. Their vague scepticism of the state has given rise to the idea that their political destinies lie with the Right. But their social libertarianism and belief in social actualisation is more resonant with a progressive Left politics. At present, this generation is not especially powerful as it shuns the formal processes of politics. It is the ‘jilted generation’; let down by its previous generations, alienated from the rewards that come from economic growth and preternaturally individualistic. Their individualism disables them from political significance. The moment generation Y begin to vote en masse, they will begin to matter and have the chance to change the politics of the West. Their individualism has the potential to affect the politics of Left and Right and with it the future contours of politics.

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Image credit: banner; Orbán; phone; Brand; Stein