Young people are often presumed to be more socialist than capitalist – but growing up in an increasingly individualised world has pushed some of us to the right
“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” For over 100 years, this aphorism reflected the well-worn trend of voters becoming more right-wing with age – but in late 2022, the Financial Times published an article by John Burn-Murdoch which outlined how millennials are diverging from this pattern and not voting for conservative parties despite growing older.
There are some clear reasons why this is happening: millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, came of age in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which left them largely disillusioned with capitalism. Additionally, in the UK, the Tories have made little effort to win over young people, instead choosing to court the favour of homeowning, retirement-age boomers by allowing house prices to spiral and fiercely protecting pensions.
Now, Gen Z is coming of age, and attention is turning to the politics of the younger generation: born between 1997 and 2012, by the time the election swings around, well over half of Zoomers will be able to vote. The assumption is, generally, that Gen Z will follow in millennials’ footsteps and shun conservatism. But are we really the radical, ultra-left-wing generation we’re so often stereotyped as?
Economically speaking, you’d think that a ‘left-wing generation’ would emphasise the importance of the welfare state, high taxation and working collectively. But according to a study published in 2021, Gen Z can be individualistic and values self-reliance. A 2021 poll found that 16- to 24-year-olds are overwhelmingly in favour of spending cuts over tax increases. Another study published this summer found that 32 per cent of Gen Z believe it is important to be rich, compared with just 26 per cent of millennials. The report acknowledges that across generations, “young people have always been motivated by ambition, to progress and achieve personal success as well as social standing and power” – but noted that this trend may be more pronounced among younger people given the “economic challenges” they’re facing.
Professor Bobby Duffy, the author of Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? and Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London, agrees that these “economic challenges” have shaped Gen Z’s politics. “Wage stagnation, high inflation and the huge challenges in building up wealth in housing or generous pensions puts them under much more economic pressure than Baby Boomers or Gen X experienced,” he explains. Studies back this up: the Intergenerational Foundation, for example, agrees that young people are hardest hit by rising unemployment while the Open Data Institute recently found that one in five of all 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK live in poverty.
“Gen Z come at the end of a long drift towards individualism we’ve seen for decades, where people are increasingly expected to fend for themselves” – Professor Bobby Duffy
You might think that facing such adversity would inspire a lurch to the left, like it has with millennials, but things aren’t so clear-cut. Unlike millennials, Tory rule is all Gen Z has ever really known: even the oldest Zoomers will struggle to remember a time when the economy was stable or the state offered citizens adequate welfare provisions. For example: while maintenance grants for students and rent controls have been policies in the UK within the last 40 years, both sound like sheer fantasy to the average Gen Z.
“Gen Z come at the end of a long drift towards individualism we’ve seen for decades, where people are increasingly expected to fend for themselves as state support and other structures like trade unions, organised religion and strong local communities have faded away,” Duffy explains. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that many are focusing their attention on areas of their lives where they have at least some semblance of control – such as gunning for promotions at work or taking on extra side hustles – when they’ve been perpetually let down by the government.
It’s also impossible to talk about Gen Z politics without touching on social media’s role in shaping their views. Algorithms prioritise inflammatory, extreme content, which is in turn exacerbating polarisation among young people. Take the intense backlash to the gender equality movement: we’re now at a stage where more teenage boys in the UK have heard of Andrew Tate than the sitting prime minister and 52 per cent of young people think feminism has “gone too far”.
“We see much higher agreement with statements like ‘Andrew Tate raises some important points about gender roles and male identity’ – as much as three in ten young men agree,” he says, explaining that agreement with such statements is much lower among women and older men. “This will certainly be influenced by more exposure to those sorts of messages on social media among those groups – but, as always, this is partly driven by demand, where there is clearly something of an appetite for those messages,” he continues. “That’s the more worrying point – we do need to engage with that, why it’s happening and what we can do to head it off.”
None of this is to say that Gen Z is going to save the Conservative party. While young people have grown up in an individualistic society, they’re well aware that they can’t girlboss their way to a better life. “While Gen Z are more individualised, they’re also more likely to think the system is rigged against them by ‘outside forces’, where individual effort is no longer enough for success – so we may be starting to see a greater awareness of the structural factors that hold some back and push others forward,” Duffy says. Plus, polling still suggests that younger people are more likely to vote for progressive parties, a landmark Channel 4 survey published last year found that Gen Z is overwhelmingly socially progressive, and there are plenty of young people involved in organisations like Just Stop Oil which are pushing for more radical change.
But this does mean that politicians like Keir Starmer can’t sit back and take the youth vote for granted. Ultimately, if left-leaning parties want to inspire young people, they need to whip up some policies for young people, like building more homes or implementing a Universal Basic Income or abolishing tuition fees or combatting the climate crisis or bettering trans rights. It’s not rocket science – but only time will tell whether politicians will take heed, or risk losing young voters to the right.