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Debating Millennial Apathy: What Are Global Attitudes Toward The Political System?

Ruth Meier, from Silver Lake, Kan, votes at the Prairie Home Cemetery building, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.

CREDIT: AP/Charlie Riedel.

This story originally appeared in our summer magazine, an annual publication that features engaging pieces on issues affecting young people.

Media commentary throughout advanced democracies is full of coverage on growing trends of political disengagement, such as low voter turnout and a growing disillusionment with politicians and political parties. Much of this coverage has come to focus on the Millennial generation.

Young adults, we are told, are politically apathetic compared to older voters. But is this really the case? To what extent are Millennials worldwide truly disengaged from their respective political systems? Have today’s institutions become stagnant, failing to adequately serve the needs of the Millennial generation?

In light of these questions, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Center for American Progress (CAP), Generation Progress’ parent organization, began the “Millennial Dialogue” to understand the aspirations, issues, and values of those aged 15–34 and how they affect their interaction with politics. To do this, FEPS and CAP partnered with AudienceNet to gather insights into this age group across 15 territories, providing the most comprehensive international survey of its kind.

Millennials might not see the world in the same way as other generations but this is often due to circumstance. There is a sense of grievance at having expectations raised so high during childhood, only for them to be dashed in adulthood. The political system, as it stands, is not improving this situation. One American respondent told FEPS: “I feel the cost of living seems to rise every day but our pay isn’t, it gets so frustrating because as a young child you’re encouraged to go out and become successful and you’ll be happy and things will be easier but that’s not the case. I feel like we are not being heard. I have yet to meet a politician who understands me.”

This is a generation irritated by experience, feeling that it cannot turn to the political system for solutions. The shadow has been cast beyond national government too. For many in Europe, the EU did not deliver in its response to the economic and employment crisis. While this has had the negative effect of rising populist and Eurosceptic trends, that tendency is less apparent among younger voters. Millennials have been taught not to expect job security or other typical moments of career development, such as raises and promotions. Some have even pointed to a proxy class conflict, with Millennials turning away from trade unions, which are mistakenly seen as protecting older workers at the expense of the young, exacerbating the long- term instability of work for Millennials themselves.

All of this serves to delay the fulfillment of various markers of adulthood, like homeownership. Increasing numbers of young adults are forced by circumstance to live with their parents. Some see this as a sign of immaturity, with young adults choosing the easy way out. The survey shows, however, that Millennials who live with their parents (rather than with friends, partners, or alone) are less happy with their lives by a factor of 10 percent. One of the most poignant statements in this project came from a young Italian person who said, “I have been without a job for three years now, and with it my dream to buy a house. I was living at home with my parents, and I shelved the idea of getting married and having children because even my partner is not working… At what age we will have children? Never! It will never happen… and right now, we are too busy looking for work in order to start a family. And the years pass…”

The aspirations of this generation are not much different from that of their parents, but their experiences have been. Disenchanted with solutions the traditional political system offers, Millennials are increasingly turning away from political parties. The surveys show that mainstream parties are not only failing to attract young voters but are also seen as untrustworthy. Most Millennials say politicians break their promises and are far removed from the realities of everyday citizens. Politics, they say, are reserved only for the elite and influenced by institutions at the expense of democracy.

This “Millennial Dialogue” survey took an empirical approach to make an effort to really hear the voices of the Millennial generation. The surveys show some inherent contradictions: Millennials know that decisions made by politicians have a direct impact on their lives and respond positively when questioned whether they will vote in the next election. However, actual voter turnout is much lower and many express a lack of knowledge as a factor keeping them from taking an active role.

This is not to say that young people have given up on the political system in its entirety. Many say they are interested in individual issues that they read and comment about online. Equal rights are close to the hearts of this generation, as is the willingness to embrace a wider array of gender identities and sexual orientations. It is interesting to note the entrepreneurial spirit among this generation, with many young people aspiring to own their own business.

FEPS, CAP, and AudienceNet are working together to discover the underlying reason why this narrative of growing political apathy is gaining momentum. Studies like this one are therefore necessary in preparing for upcoming elections and addressing Millennials’ concerns.

How should mainstream political parties respond to these challenges? They need to recognize that traditional parties must adapt to Millennials, not the other way around. Online communication will be a crucial tool of engagement for Millennials.

Many noted that they believe social media should play a key role in politics and serve as a transparent and interactive platform for politicians and constituents to exchange ideas on how to shape their countries. Mainstream political parties should do a self-critique, followed by a careful selection of party leadership—personal integrity and honesty were the most appreciated qualities for a politician among surveyed Millennials.

Finally, politicians need to improve not only communication but also the content behind their policies. Online political communication shows a clear lack of empathy and social media and politics often mix to produce severe forms of bullying. The Millennial generation needs personal, fast, and responsive political leadership, as unemployment and the economic crisis continue to be a daily reality.

The times of greatest social advancement have been when institutions responded swiftly to a changing social reality. To avoid the stagnation of institutions and the tyranny of online mob rule, both our means of communication and governance need to adapt to each other. If this process is to be truly for Millennials, it will inevitably have to be done by Millennials.

Dr. Ernst Setter is the Secretary General of the Foundation For European Progressive Studies. David Kitching is the Director of Social & Political Research at Audiencenet. Maria Freitas is a Junior Policy Advisor at the Foundation For European Progressive Studies.

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