In recent months, thousands marched in anti-austerity protests and thousands rallied in solidarity with refugees. Is the attendance of young people in such events signalling a sea change in youth political engagement, despite the low turnout in elections? Maria Grasso argues that although mass rallies put political activism in the news, empirical research shows that political disengagement amongst Britain’s youth continues to rise.
London has witnessed two rather large demonstrations in recent months. On 12 September, and joined by a victorious Jeremy Corbyn, the Refugees Welcome rally is said to have attracted over 100,000 protesters. On June 20, over 250,000 were thought to have joined the capital’s anti-austerity protests, with more attending similar events across the UK. While still a far cry from the record ‘million’ of the anti-war protest in 2003, the recent protests are still relatively very large for UK standards. But how do we make sense of these protests in the context of falling voter turnout and declining support for traditional political parties?
As I show in my new book, Generations, Political Participation and Social Change in Western Europe, there are quite marked differences between generations in their patterns of political participation, not just in the UK but also in other European democracies. The youngest generations – those that underwent political socialisation or came of age during the 1980s and 1990s – are much less politicised than older generations. I arrive at these new results by employing data from the European Values Study since the 1980s, and by applying new sophisticated statistical methods for the analysis of age, period and cohort effects.
The findings for institutional political participation, such as voting or joining parties, echo those of Robert Putnam for the US. Yet I break new ground in showing that younger generations are also less likely to engage in unconventional/informal/extra-institutional modes of engagement than those coming of political age in the more radical 1960s and ‘70s. Such modes include demonstrating, joining occupations or becoming engaged with the actions of ‘social movement organisations’.
This is an important if depressing finding for two reasons. First, the literature until now has generally assumed that the decline in formal participation amongst youth was not particularly concerning since young people just chose to engage differently – through informal channels. Second, the evidence from my study suggests that both formal and informal political involvement will continue to fall in the future, as these younger, less politicised generations come to replace the older, more civic generations in the population.
Generations coming of age since the progressive 1960 and ‘70s also seem to be markedly more conservative than the older, baby-boomer generation. In a paper co-authored with my colleagues Stephen Farrall, Emily Gray (School of Law, University of Sheffield), Colin Hay (Sciences Po, Paris) and Will Jennings (University of Southampton) we show that the generations that came of age under Thatcher-Major’s and Blair-Brown’s time in office – we call them ‘Thatcher’s Children’ and ‘Blair’s Babies’ – are much more economically right-wing than the generation coming of age before them – ‘Wilson/Callaghan’s Children’. In another paper we also show that they are much less likely to engage in political activities – including protest activism – than the generation socialised in the 1960/70s in Britain. The evidence from these studies further suggests that as Karl Mannheim wrote in 1928 in his famous essay on The Problem of Generations “nothing is more false than the usual assumption uncritically shared by most students of generations, that the younger generation is progressive and the older generation eo ipso conservative”.
So how do we make sense of such relatively large demonstrations in relation to these results from empirical research? Visibility is key: while large demonstrations put political protest and activism on the TV news, they can exaggerate impressions of political activism as a proportion of the population as a whole. Seeing young people in the protest crowd can suggest anecdotal evidence that they are politically engaged, but empirical evidence shows that the vast majority of young people in Britain have little or no contact with political bodies or political activities and only about 40 per cent turn out to vote. Instead, research suggests that it is individuals from the older, 1960-70s, baby-boomer generation who tend to spearhead protest movements – including those against austerity and in favour of rehoming greater numbers of refugees – that have emerged in Britain most recently. Therefore, recent demonstrations unfortunately do not yet signal a newfound youth political re-engagement but are rather simply the reflection of the greater politicisation – in their youth – of this older 1960-70s ‘protest generation’.
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Dr Maria Grasso is Lecturer in Politics and Quantitative Politics at the University of Sheffield, and is the Deputy Editor of Mobilization (Western Europe). Her new book, Generations, Political Participation and Social Change in Western Europe is forthcoming with Routledge in early 2016.
(Featured image credit: Paul de Gregorio CC BY-NC 2.0)