The Kids Are Alright: How Millennials Are Reshaping Global Politics


Photo credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

By Jeremy D. Rosner and Andrew Fair 

The Millennial generation – voters born roughly between 1980 and 2000 – helped propel Barack Obama to two terms as President, and now pundits are looking at these young voters again to understand how they may affect America’s approaching midterm elections – including whether they will bother to vote this year. But the political impact of Millennials is not just an American phenomenon; this intriguing generation is distinct nearly everywhere in the world, and is reshaping global politics in important ways.

To be sure, Millennials are shaped by the unique economic conditions and political events in their individual countries. Yet as a global rule, they share some important characteristics with their American peers: they tend to be socially liberal and tolerant; technologically proficient and welcoming of technological change; and enthusiastic about globalization. All this may reshape global politics for decades to come.

More secular and socially liberal 

One of the most striking qualities of the world’s Millennials is their secularism and social liberalism. Compared to older voters, they are almost uniformly less religious and more tolerant on issues of gender and sexual preference. In a 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of 39 countries, respondents ages 18-29 in nearly every country surveyed are more likely than older voters to say homosexuality should be accepted. In a 2013 Financial Times-Telefonica survey of Millennials across 27 countries, 51% say they are less religiously devout than their parents.

At a time when strains over religious and cultural fundamentalism are center stage in so many countries – from Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay measures in Russia to pushes for Sharia law in the Muslim world – this strain of secular liberalism could have a profound impact over time.

Tech savvy 

Global Millennials also tend to share a close relationship with technology. They are the world’s first generation of digital natives, and in virtually every country they use the Internet and social media far more than their elders. According to the FT survey, 76 percent of Millennials globally own a smartphone, and majorities or pluralities of Millennials in every country surveyed choose the Internet as the best source for coverage of news and social issues. From Egypt’s Tahrir Square to Ukraine’s Maidan, they have pioneered ways of using technology to bring political change.

Having grown up wired, the world’s Millennials have a different relationship to technology and globalization than older voters. Worldwide, 69 percent of Millennials believe “technology creates more opportunities for all.” Whereas many workers in past periods viewed technology change and globalization as forces that might take away their jobs, Millennials tend to heartily support these dynamic forces. That may presage global changes in the politics of trade and attitudes toward life-long learning and career change.

Environmental protection

Another unifying attitude for most of the world’s Millennials is a strong commitment to environmental protection. Outside of North America, majorities of Millennials in most regions of the world consider environmental conservation to be a “very pressing” issue (in the US, Canada, Japan, and parts of Western Europe, majorities still say it is a “very” or “somewhat pressing issue”). This focus on the environment suggests the politics of issues like climate change may experience a major shift as this generation moves into positions of increased influence and power. 

Economic fairness  

Global Millennials also tend to share a concern about issues of economic fairness and opportunity. In many regions of the world, large majorities of this generation consider the gap between rich and poor to be increasing in their countries. Large majorities also believe that their governments do not provide enough support to the needy. They are strongly concerned with a perceived lack of opportunity; 63 percent of Millennials say it is difficult for their generation to make the progression from school to the workplace. 

Differences about the role of government 

But if the world’s Millennials converge around stronger than average support for diversity, tolerance, the environment, and fairness, they differ from each other in notable ways about what their own governments should do to build a better life. In particular, there are big regional differences in levels of optimism about whether government can play a positive role in their country’s economy and society.

In the United States, Millennials are more likely than older Americans to support a bigger government that provides more services: in the Pew survey, 56 percent of Millennials say this, compared to 41 percent of the country as a whole. Much of this outlook flows from their negative reaction to George W. Bush, including economic policies that they believe brought on the Great Recession, and foreign policies that they feel led to two questionable wars. That is a big part of why these young voters supported Obama at higher rates than their older cohorts in the past two presidential elections, and why young adults have become substantially more likely to support the Democratic Party since 2006.

By contrast, Millennials in many Western European countries are relatively skeptical of their governments, viewing taxation, bureaucracy, and the weakness of public institutions like the EU as responsible for the global downturn. In the UK, Millennials are less supportive of the welfare state than older generations. In Germany, younger voters have favored the center-right Christian Democrats, in part because they see it as having brought relative economic stability and low unemployment.

Millennials in Central Europe are more skeptical than older adults of government, but for different reasons. Growing up in countries that are still recovering from the problems of command economies, these Millennials have stronger than average support for free-market approaches and leaner government. Meanwhile, in markets that grew strongly even during the global downturn, such as China and Brazil, Millennials’ support for a free market is relatively high.

Optimistic, but with big variations 

Millennials are on average more optimistic about the future than those older; 67 percent in the FT-Telefonica survey believe their country’s “best days are ahead.” But there are marked divisions between developed and developing countries. Millennials in developed countries are generally more pessimistic (with notable exceptions, such as Australia, Canada, and South Korea), and those in many emerging countries are more upbeat. Only 47 percent of North American and 41 percent of Western European millennials believe their countries’ best days are ahead, compared with 79 percent of Asian, 78 percent of Latin American, and 69 percent of Eastern European Millennials.

What form of participation? 

There is no doubt that the Millennial generation will reshape global politics in the coming years – and already has begun to do so. The big question is what form their impact will take. Their rate of participation in elections around the world will be a big part of the answer. This year’s mid-term congressional elections in the US and the European Parliament elections in May will provide some clues. The shape of their impact will also depend on which issues most motivate their voting and other political involvement – particularly whether they primarily give voice to their economic anxieties, or to their social liberalism.

Some critics have derided the Millennials as the “me-me-me generation.” But whether they emerge as global narcissists or idealists – as a selfless or “selfie” cohort – their imprint on global politics will become steadily clearer in the coming years.


 Jeremy D. Rosner is Executive Vice President at Washington-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a global consultancy for public opinion research and campaign strategy. 

 Andrew Fair is a former Assistant Analyst at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

 

Led by Jeremy Rosner, executive vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, GQR Global Political Update is a platform for expert international campaign consultants to analyze new global trends, challenges, and developments in their field. 

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