What hope do we have? Millennials are history’s most disillusioned generation

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Millennials are more disillusioned than any other generation in history, says a new study from the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge.

Faith in democratic politics may well be at an all-time low for most generations, but it’s lower for millennials than any other age group.

In what was hoped would be a “wake-up call” for politicians back in December 2019, an Australian National University (ANU) report revealed that public trust in government was at an all-time low.

The Australian Election Survey of 2100 voters found that 25 per cent said people in government could be trusted – the lowest trust levels since the post-election survey’s inception in 1960.

In 2007, trust in democracy was at an all-time high. A little more than decade later, it hit bottom.

“I’ve been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions,” said lead researcher Professor Ian McAllister.

“This is a wake-up call.

“Winning back the people’s trust and satisfaction would appear to be one of the most pressing and urgent challenges facing our political leaders and institutions.”

It seems governments are still not yet ‘woke’.

But it’s not just Australia’s government that is guilty of uninspiring politics.

Earlier this year, a Centre for the Future of Democracy report found that dissatisfaction with democratic politics in developed nations had increased from a third to half of all individuals over the last quarter of a century.

From Europe to Africa, as well as Asia, Australasia, both Americas and the Middle East, dissatisfaction with democracy jumped from 47.9 per cent in the mid-90s to 57.5 per cent in January 2020.

According to the researchers, 2019 “represented the highest level of democratic discontent on record”.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

And it may have been the best thing to restore trust in Australia’s government.

At the outset of the pandemic in Australia, two-thirds of Australians felt the government was handling COVID-19 well.

Australians are still satisfied with the government’s handling of the crisis, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison “well ahead in terms of being viewed as competent in his handling of the outbreak, followed by Giuseppe Conte, then Boris Johnson, and then Donald Trump”, according to a September 2020 IPSOS report.

However, globally, distrust and dissatisfaction in democracy is at an all-time high, says the largest ever study of attitudes towards global democracy, which revealed how, in almost every global region, 18–34 year olds are the least satisfied with democracy.

Almost five million respondents of all ages in more than 160 countries between 1973 and 2020 were asked about their degree of satisfaction with democracy in their country.

The study, conducted by Cambridge researchers collaborating with the HUMAN Surveys Project, revealed that millennials are more disillusioned with democracy than generation X or baby boomers were at the same stage of life.

“This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their 20s and 30s,” said Dr Roberto Foa, lead author of the report from Cambridge’s department of politics and international studies.

“By their mid-30s, 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 60s and 70s – continue to report satisfaction with democracy, as did the interwar generation.”

At the turn of the century, satisfaction with democracy among millennials was higher than in their parents’ generation.

However, since the global financial crisis of 2008, millennials have lost faith harder and faster than preceding generations.

And while history may suggest that younger generations’ attitudes towards politics and authority soften with age, it seems both millennial and gen X trust levels are still steadily waning.

“In fact, the idea that young malcontents soften in attitude as they age is now reversed the world over,” says a Eureka Alert report.

“Millennials and gen Xers have grown steadily less satisfied with democracy as they have advanced in life.”

‘Economic exclusion’ may be to blame for this attitude, with high youth unemployment and wealth inequality the strongest predictors of the satisfaction age gap.

“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.”

Still, there have been glimmers of hope for democracy, mainly due to a ‘populist wave’ of the past five years.

It seems younger people like populist leaders of both left and right.

“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,” said report co-author Daniella Wenger.

Populism feeds on division,

“The prevalence of polarising attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics.

“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,” said Dr Foa.

Are you satisfied with democracy? Do you feel younger generations have good cause to be dissatisfied with democracy?

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Election 2016: Older Australians are dissatisfied with politics

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?

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