Milibank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution
This article was updated at 3 p.m. on September 30, 2019.
In public perception, age is often related to political views. “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head,” the 19th-century French monarchist François Guizot is supposed to have said. King Louis Philippe’s prime minister was swept from power by the 1848 revolution, presumably by a combination of republican under-30s and older Frenchmen who had lost their heads. Since then, Guizot’s famous one-liner has often been updated.
There is indeed some evidence that people become more conservative with age, as an individual’s views evolve with one’s lifestyle and needs. However, most research suggests that one’s political outlook is formed at an early age, shaped by major economic and political events. In the United States, economic insecurity has pushed Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Gen Zers (born after 1996) to the left on nearly every policy issue, economic and cultural alike. Young Americans want their country to become more “European,” favoring tuition-free education, single-payer health care, and an increased role for the state in the economy. Older Americans are the ones who tend to be attracted to Donald Trump’s populist cocktail of immigration restriction, protectionism, and easy money.
But if a European-style welfare state is the preferred destination of young Americans, where are young Europeans heading? After all, they already have most of the things their transatlantic counterparts say they want.
According to the standard account, the 2008–09 economic crisis and the migration crisis of 2015–16 were bound to drive voters into the arms of the far right. Young Europeans were seen by some as easy prey for populists, as they had no memories of the bad old days of nationalism and war in the mid-20th century.
Indeed, in the European elections in 2015, the far-right National Front and its leader, Marine Le Pen, came in first among French voters under 35, winning 30 percent of their votes. However, more recent election results suggest that Millennials and Gen Zers, like their American counterparts, are pulling the center of gravity of national politics to the left rather than the right.
In the European elections held earlier this year, Le Pen’s score among the young nearly halved, and the Greens triumphed, despite the efforts of the renamed National Rally to attract the youth vote by installing the charismatic 23-year-old Jordan Bardella as the lead candidate.
Across the Rhine, Germans ages 30 and under gave the Greens their best-ever result in a national election. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) came in a distant sixth among the young.
Overall, the 2019 European elections were a disappointment for the leaders of the populist right, some of whom had boasted about taking over Brussels. Unable to win the youth vote in any major EU country except Italy, Poland, and Hungary—more about those countries below—the far right collectively recorded a net gain of only 13 members in the 751-seat European Parliament.
Recent national elections point to the same leftward trend among younger voters. And data from Eurobarometer, which has regularly surveyed the population in all EU member countries since 1973, show that a rising proportion of Millennials and Gen Zers identify themselves as left-leaning or centrist.
It is no surprise, then, that polls show growing support among younger European voters for policies advanced by left-wing parties. Millennials and Gen Zers value public services; they worry about racial and other forms of discrimination, as well as about climate change. They are more pro-European than previous generations and more willing to hand over new governing powers to Brussels.
Yet on closer inspection, Europe’s young are less progressive—or “woke”—than their American contemporaries. A third of Millennial and Gen Z voters in Europe consider themselves centrists, compared with about a fifth who are on the center left and fewer than a 10th who are far left. Young Europeans may worry about the environment, but for four out of five under-25s, it is not their No. 1 or even their No. 2 priority. And they are emphatically not socialists. Like their parents, most of them believe that the private sector is better at creating jobs than the state is, that work contracts should become more flexible, and that competition is good. Indeed, under-25s have a more positive view of globalization than do older cohorts.
In the U.S., Millennials and Gen Zers are losing their belief in the American dream, with its individualistic promise that your destiny is in your own hands. Some surveys even put socialism ahead of capitalism with very young voters. In Europe, by contrast, the under-30s are more disposed than their parents to view poverty as a result of an individual’s choice. Even as they still support the social contract typical for Europe, whereby the welfare state limits inequality and provides generous public services, they are also less in favor than older generations of fiscal redistribution to reduce inequality.
Research from the International Monetary Fund shows that the young bore the brunt of Europe’s post-2008 economic downturn. Because pensions and salaries—especially in the public sector—were relatively well protected, older voters were much less exposed to the consequences of the financial crisis. It was younger Europeans who were hit by very high unemployment rates, precarious or part-time employment, and the low wages that go with such jobs. Moreover, fiscal-consolidation efforts generally hit younger age groups harder than older ones, especially pensioners.
All of this has contributed to a growing generational economic divide. The inflation-adjusted income of EU pensioners has risen by nearly 10 percent since 2007, according to the IMF, while that of the rest of the population fell during the financial crisis and has only recently regained its precrisis level. Before the crisis, the under-25s were not much more at risk of poverty than the over-64s. Now they are nearly 10 percentage points more likely to be poor.
As in urban areas of the United States, rising costs for housing further squeeze the young’s spending power. In the U.K., recent college graduates find it much harder to get on the “property ladder” than their parents did—unless their parents can assist them. That helps explain why there is greater inequality within the younger cohorts of Europeans than among seniors.
So why aren’t European young people as receptive to tax-and-redistribute ideas as their American counterparts? Perhaps because they know, from experience, that those policies can’t immediately fix what ails their countries.
Many young Americans share Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vision of democratic socialism as something that already exists in northern Europe. “What we have in mind and what my policies most closely resemble,” she told Anderson Cooper earlier this year, “are what we see in the U.K., in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”
However, the young people who actually live in those countries have a less rose-tinted view of European welfare states. During the crisis, Europe’s young learned that the welfare state in practice provides a much bigger safety net for older voters than for younger ones.
According to polls, only about a fifth of Americans under 35 want the U.S. president to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the older age groups, support for the wall is evenly divided. Yet in Europe, Millennials and Gen Zers are not fundamentally different from the population as a whole when it comes to immigration. Survey data show that they have a more positive view of immigration (from inside and outside the EU) than do older generations. Almost as much as their parents, however, they want national governments and the EU to take additional measures to fight illegal immigration.
In this context, it is worth taking a closer look at the Danish parliamentary elections held in June. The anti-immigration Danish People’s Party plummeted to 8.7 percent from 21.1 percent in 2015. But that was not because voters were frightened by anti-immigration policies. It was because the big center-left and center-right parties co-opted the far right’s agenda—even supporting the infamous “jewelry law,” whereby the state can seize assets from refugees to cover the costs of their stay. This enabled the established parties not only to win back older voters from the People’s Party, but also to retain the support of younger voters. In comparison with the 2015 national elections, the Social Democrats and the center-right Venstre actually improved their scores among 18-to-24-year-olds.
In the 1990s, it was Denmark’s Social Democrats who adopted “Third Way” social and economic policies, sometime before Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder. The Danes may once again be taking the lead. Sweden’s governing center-left party has already followed the Danish example by toughening its migration stance.
Yet what works in Scandinavia can fail elsewhere. In Germany, the center-right Christian Democratic Union—led by its Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union—adopted a tougher stance on immigration following its poor showing in the 2017 Bundestag elections. The policy shift may have helped stem the drift of some older voters to the right-wing AfD. But it came at the cost of losing the 18-to-34 age group to the Greens. Postelection surveys show that the CDU is now losing nearly four times as many voters to the Greens as to the AfD. Significantly, the Greens take pride in being the only party to have consistently defended Angela Merkel’s 2015 refugee policy without ifs or buts.
One reason generalizations about European politics are hard to make is the profound difference in the experiences of the citizens of the continent’s nation-states. In the U.S., the GDP per capita of the highest-income state (Massachusetts) is roughly twice that of the poorest (Mississippi). In the EU, by contrast, citizens of Luxembourg are more than nine times as rich as Romanians.
There is also much less common history. Growing up in the Soviet Union has left older Estonians, for example, with very different views from older Spaniards, who grew up under Francisco Franco.
In the EU’s newer member states, which joined in 2004 or later, the older generations remain much more skeptical about democracy as a form of government than do their contemporaries in the rest of the EU. They are also more hostile to further EU integration and more concerned about safeguarding national sovereignty. For many Central and eastern Europeans, the collapse of the Soviet Union was as much about restoring national independence as it was about restoring liberty and democracy. They have little appetite for ceding sovereignty to Brussels.
However, Gen Z is the first generation to grow up in a truly continent-wide EU. With the economic gap between West and East narrowing, albeit slowly, the EU’s socioeconomic coherence ought to be increasing.
Sure enough, the younger groups on both sides of the former Iron Curtain seem to be converging on some issues, such as their support for democracy and EU integration. Yet this convergence is not visible on all issues.
As in the Mediterranean countries, the young in Central and eastern Europe care most about classic bread-and-butter issues, such as unemployment and rising living costs. But differences persist with respect to values. People ages 18 to 34 in most of Central and eastern Europe still oppose same-sex marriage. In the EU’s “old” member states, by contrast, opposition to gay marriage is, on average, below 20 percent. Similarly, although Millennials and Gen Zers in Central and eastern Europe are less hostile to migrants than their parents are, a large gap remains between West and East.
For younger voters in the EU’s original member states, ethnic and religious variables are much less important in defining citizenship than for their parents. For Central and eastern Europeans, however, where your forebears came from still matters. Indeed, young Hungarians and Croatians tend to associate ancestry with nationality even more than older generations do.
Moreover, political convergence is likely being hindered by migration patterns within Europe. There is a good deal of movement from East to West: According to the 2011 census, for example, more than 10 percent of the Polish-born population now lives in another EU country. But it is the better-educated citizens from the newer member states who are most likely to move. This may help the original member states address their demographic challenges. But it also means that the population remaining in Central and eastern Europe tends to lean to the right.
In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party came first among 18-to-29-year-olds in the May European elections. Moreover, more radical parties, such as the alliance of nationalist parties formerly known as the “Pro-Polish Coalition,” performed especially well among young voters. In Slovakia and in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the populist right also does well among the young.
This trend is also visible in some older EU member states where the economy is shaky and young people are leaving en masse. In Italy, the European elections saw the right-wing Lega party narrowly win the largest vote-share among the Millennials and Gen Z. The neofascist Brothers of Italy also performed well among younger voters. This is a recent development. Just over a year ago, in the March 2018 national elections, the left-wing populist party Five Star Movement overwhelmingly won the youth vote.
A reverse dynamic is visible in Austria. In 2017, 30 percent of those ages 29 and under voted for the nationalist-right Freedom Party in the parliamentary elections. In May, having been hit by a scandal, the party came in third with the same age group (17 percent), far behind the Greens (28 percent) and the Social Democrats (22 percent).
Nevertheless, the Austrian case is a reminder that immigration is an issue for young voters even in countries that are faring well economically. It is striking that, with the exception of Italy, it is in the EU countries with the lowest youth unemployment and the highest GDP per capita—Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium—that Millennials and Gen Zers cite immigration as one of their biggest concerns.
Over time, today’s younger voters are bound to matter more in elections. The polling firm YouGov has calculated that almost half a million Leave voters are dying each year in the United Kingdom. Assuming constant voting patterns, already by January 2019 enough Remainers had reached the voting age and enough Brexiteers had died to reverse the 2016 result in the event of a new referendum.
Yet we should not exaggerate the near-future impact of the Millennial or Gen Z vote in Europe. On average, voters ages 30 and under now make up only 18.6 percent of an EU member state’s electorate. Fully 40.1 percent of the EU’s population is 50 or older. The median age in the EU has been rising, from 39.2 in 2004 to 43.1 today, and is expected to increase further, to 45.4 in 2030. By comparison, the median American is 38 today—a Millennial. It will be at least another 15 years before Millennials and Gen Zers form the majority of the voting-age population in Europe.
The short-run trend is therefore that the old will dominate in European politics. In 2017, for the first time, more than half of the voters in the elections for the German Bundestag were over 50. That was because, as in so many countries, the old are more likely to turn out to vote than the young. According to research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, voter turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds is, on average, 16 percentage points lower than among adults ages 25 to 50.
True, participation in European and national elections by the young has been on the rise in many countries, notably France and Spain. Surveys also suggest that the younger generations are getting more interested in politics. But the same can also be said for older generations.
This helps explain why European politicians pitch to the old more than to the young. In Germany, the moribund grand coalition decided in August to ease access to pension payouts. In Denmark, the Social Democrats swept to power in June promising to roll back pension reforms introduced by the previous center-right government. In Italy, the Lega leader and former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini significantly relaxed the conditions for early retirement before exiting the government this past summer. In Poland, the nationalist government cut the retirement age for men by two years and for woman by five. And in the Netherlands, the pensioners’ party 50Plus even won a seat in the European Parliament in May. The late German President Roman Herzog warned of a future “pensioners’ democracy.” In most of Europe, that future has arrived.
To lose sight of that reality can be dangerous. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron increased social-security contributions for middle-income pensioners to finance a corresponding decrease for the young. The old should give the young “a little hand,” he argued. Together with the wealth-tax cut and the fuel-tax hike, this was the policy that triggered the “yellow vest” protest movement that, for a time, seemed to threaten Macron’s presidency. According to the best study to date, 43.9 percent of the participants at the height of the protest movement last November and December were at least 50 years old. The 18-to-24-year-olds represented just 6.2 percent.
France was once famous for its tradition of youthful revolts, from the student protests of 1968 to the banlieue riots of 2005 and the massive student mobilization against labor-market liberalization reforms in 2006. Today, it is the older voters who can bring the country to a standstill. The climate protests or women’s marches that attract many young people in France are orderly by comparison.
The politics of the future in Europe seems unlikely to resemble the politics of generational division in America. The continent is divided in many respects, but it does not face a “generation war.” The gap between the generations seems narrower, the political opportunity to mobilize younger voters less enticing. By and large, Europe’s young are more pro-EU and more environmentally conscious than older voters. But the financial crisis seems to have weakened their commitment to the welfare state, especially compared with the Baby Boomers. And on immigration, they are not wholly allergic to the arguments of the populist right, especially the farther east you travel.
The EU’s founding political bedrock—the traditional center-right and center-left parties—is crumbling. The days when the Volksparteien parties could capture upwards of 40 percent of the vote are gone. But their place can be taken by parties (or coalitions) that work out how to appeal to both older and younger voters.
En Marche in France, the Social Democrats in Denmark, and the Greens in Germany are the most successful to date. Each of them captures solid vote shares among nearly all age groups. In 2017, Macron combined right-leaning economic-policy proposals with progressive positions on value issues and climate change in a way that had remarkably broad appeal. In Denmark, the young embraced centrists who focused on immigration, pensions, and the environment, leaving the far right—who had rashly called environmentalists “climate idiots”—out in the cold.
The German Greens started out in the 1980s as part of the antinuclear and pacifist movements. They were clearly to the left of the SPD. But in recent years they have moved decidedly to the center ground. Last year Winfried Kretschmann, the Green prime minister of Baden-Württemberg, and conceivably a future German chancellor, published a book with the surprising subtitle For a New Definition of Conservatism. Kretschmann cites Edmund Burke as an inspiration, arguing that the father of conservative thought favored gradual change over revolution.
Burke is indeed relevant to European politics today. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he wrote that the real social contract was not Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contract between the people to establish a sovereign or “general will,” but the “partnership” between the generations. In his words: “Society is indeed a contract … The state … is … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
In the time of Brexit, it is—perhaps ironically—an Anglo-Irish thinker who provides the inspiration for a recasting of continental politics along lines that unite rather than divide the generations.