Millennials and democracy: Young adults are the most disillusioned generation ‘in living memory’

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — No matter what country you’re in, you’ll usually see young people leading the way at political rallies. While it may seem like their enthusiasm in the democratic process is high, a new report finds most millennials are losing faith in democracy. When it comes to global politics, researchers says the millennial generation is the most disillusioned group in memory and their dissatisfaction is only getting worse as they age.

The Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge reveals 18- to 34-year-olds in nearly every democratic nation show the steepest declines in satisfaction with democracy. Equally troubling, millennials in advanced democracies seem to be fueling the political divide in many countries.

Researchers find young adults are the most likely group to think people with opposing viewpoints are morally flawed. Among western democracies, over 40 percent of millennials say you can “tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics.”

Political dissatisfaction keeps growing

The report comes from the largest global survey on democratic legitimacy ever conducted. Cambridge researchers partnered with the HUMAN Surveys Project to examine data from nearly five million respondents in over 160 countries. The surveys measured the level of satisfaction each person had with their country’s political system between 1973 and 2020.

“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,” says lead author Dr. Roberto Foa in a university release.

“By their mid-thirties, 55% 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.”

Study authors find this dramatic decline is a recent phenomenon. Globally, democratic satisfaction among millennials entering the 2000’s actually measured higher than their parents. This first group of millennials began going to college right before the financial crisis of 2008. Since then, young adults have been losing faith in the system faster than ever before.

In the United States, Dr. Foa says 63 percent of millennials were satisfied with the nation’s political setup in their early 20’s. Once they reached their mid-30’s however, this dropped to 50 percent. Comparing this generation to their baby boomer parents and grandparents, 74 percent say they were satisfied with democracy when they were in their mid-30’s. That number remained strong (68%) throughout the rest of their lives.

Why are millennials turning on democracy?

The report suggests that “economic exclusion” is one of the biggest driving forces of this growing discontent. Researchers say high unemployment rates among young people and a growing wealth gap in society are the strongest predictors of political discontent.

The study notes that democratic countries which have a flatter curve in wealth distribution, like Iceland and Austria, see less people grow unhappy with local politics. Nations where the wealth inequality gap is growing, like in the United States, are seeing larger political divides.

“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,” Foa adds.

Populist parties on the rise

The report finds that millennials across the world are also experiencing democracy in much different ways than the generations before them. For “emerging democracies” in Latin America, Africa, and southern Europe, researchers say young people have little memory of the dictatorships their countries endured before their birth.

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

“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.”

Many young adults are now throwing their support behind populist candidates. These leaders often embrace the “us against them” mentality; promoting a message claiming they stand with the people against an elitist establishment.

“Countries electing populist leaders see sharp turnarounds in disenchantment, to the point where young people appear more satisfied with democracy under populists than under moderates,” study co-author Daniella Wenger says.

The concerning aspect of populism, the report finds, is that it feeds the political division even further. Fans of populism also tend to be the same millennials holding the belief their opponents are morally flawed people.

“The prevalence of polarizing attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics,” Foa warns. “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.”

The report was published by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.