Millennials more disillusioned with democracy than any generation in living memory, research suggests

Andy Gregory
·5-min read
Youth disillusionment with democracy is at its highest level in living memory, study suggests (Carl Court/AFP via Getty Images)
Youth disillusionment with democracy is at its highest level in living memory, study suggests (Carl Court/AFP via Getty Images)

Millennials are more disillusioned with democracy than any generation in living memory, research suggests.

A majority of the world’s young people may now be dissatisfied with the political system, according to a study by Cambridge University's Centre for the Future of Democracy.

The research is based on the largest global dataset on democratic legitimacy, which collates the attitudes of more than 4.8 million respondents in 160 countries, between 1973 and 2020.

Economic exclusion, evidenced by high youth unemployment and wealth inequality, was deemed the major cause for increased discontent in developed democracies. In emerging democracies in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southern Europe, “transition fatigue” was deemed a major factor, as generations come of age who lack memories of authoritarian rule or the struggle for democracy.

An unlikely saviour of democracy emerged, however, in the form of populism – with youth satisfaction in democracy soaring by an average of 16 percentage points during both right and left-wing populists’ first terms in office.

The “major exception” to this rule is Donald Trump’s presidency, researchers said.

“This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties,” said Dr Roberto Foa, lead author of the report from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies.

“By their mid-thirties, 55 per cent of global millennials say they are dissatisfied with democracy, whereas under half of Generation X felt the same way at that age. The majority of baby boomers – now in their sixties and seventies – continue to report satisfaction with democracy, as did the interwar generation.”

Generation X is defined as those born between 1965 and 1980, while baby boomers are those born between 1944 and 1964.

In the UK in 1973, for example, 54 per cent of 30-year-olds from the interwar generation reported satisfaction with British democracy. An even larger majority of UK baby boomers felt satisfied on turning 30 a decade later, and for 30-year-old Gen Xers in the 1990s and 2000s it reached 62 per cent.

However, among UK millennials who turned 30 during the past decade, just 48 per cent felt satisfied with British democracy upon reaching that birthday.

The data cannot definitively indicate support or disdain for democratic values, but can surmise how people think their institutions are performing, researchers said.

Respondents may be strong believers in liberal democracy but be dissatisfied with the performance of such institutions in practice – or, alternatively, be satisfied with their government institutions even though they fall well short of accepted democratic standards.

Globally, as the first millennials began university at the turn of the century, satisfaction with democracy was higher than in their parents' generation.

It fell sharply following the financial crisis of 2008, with millennials losing faith harder and faster than older generations.

“Higher debt burdens, lower odds of owning a home, greater challenges in starting a family, and reliance upon inherited wealth rather than hard work and talent to succeed, are all contributors to youth discontent,” said Dr Foa.

“Right across the world, we are seeing an ever-widening gap between youth and older generations on how they perceive the functioning of democracy.

“This democratic disconnect is not a given, but the result of democracies failing to deliver outcomes that matter for young people in recent decades, from jobs and life chances to addressing inequality and climate change.”

In western democracies, millennials also appear more polarised by politics than their elders.

Some 41 per cent of millennials in such countries agree that you can “tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics”, compared with 30 per cent of voters over the age of 35, according to the research.

Noting that populism tends to eschew pluralism, and paint those holding differing political views as less moral or well-informed, authors also identified a link with youth dissatisfaction with democracy and a rise in populism.

They pointed to studies showing that individuals dissatisfied with democracy are more likely to support populist parties that eschew liberal democratic norms.

But they found that this discontent tended to sharply drop during populists’ first two years in office, noting that the most significant boost in positive attitudes towards democracy came from the “populist wave” of the last five years.

They cited sociologist Colin Crouch’s suggestion that populist movements – rather than encouraging democratic dissolution – could “suggest a democratic re-awakening”, in light of an apparent re-invigoration of participation in democracy by young people backing political outsiders willing to break the mould of established norms

However, populism’s longer-term effects on youth democratic contentment are less clear.

“Ifpopulism is a healthy corrective to the failures of democratic institutions to addresspublic frustrations and the complacency ofpolitical elites, it is a remedy best taken insmall doses,” according to the report.

Though “populism in power” can temporarily increase youth democratic contentment, once populists are in office for more than two terms, this presages a major democratic legitimacy crisis, the authors said, with youth satisfaction with democracy declining gradually at first, and then “precipitously”.

Often populists’ promises are too grandiose to be delivered, researchers said, while they can also be hamstrung by institutional resistance,

“Frequently, populists bring this resistance upon themselves, by initiating fights against constraining institutions in the name of ‘the will of the people’ rather than working to build coalitions,” the report said.

This can lead to “populist paralysis”, at which point – aware that their popular support is fading – such administrations often start to constrain civil rights and political liberties, the authors said.

"The prevalence of polarising attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics," said Dr Foa.

"The populist challenge must shock moderate parties and leaders into action beyond cosmetic rebrands. If it does so, populism may still prompt democracy's rebirth, rather than the onset of its gradual decay."

Additional reporting by PA

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