New research suggests young Britons are more liberal than any previous generation

David Kingman examines the evidence that young Britons have become exceptionally liberalHippy peace

The Economist reported last week that recent research shows young Britons are more liberal than any previous generation. It’s important to emphasise at the outset here that this refers to liberalism in the classical sense – i.e. the post-1979 generation (also known as “Generation Y”, “The Millennials” or “Thatcher’s Children”), report views which can be broadly characterised as liberal in relation to both social and economic issues. So, what does this mean in practice?

Free love… and free trade

Firstly, it should come as no surprise to hear that younger generations are more likely to be socially liberal than their older relatives. In relation to contemporary political debates, this means that young people are heavily in favour of racial equality, gay marriage and other forms of personal freedom (according to the opinion poll evidence cited by the newspaper). International comparisons also reveal that those aged 15 to 35 are less concerned about alcohol, tobacco and cannabis consumption than their peers in other European countries. Altogether, the attitudes expressed by young people suggest that they are sceptical of attempts by government to regulate personal freedoms or morality; they believe people are best left to make important decisions for themselves.

Perhaps the more interesting finding of this research is that British young people are overwhelmingly economic liberals as well. Today’s young people are significantly less collectivist than members of previous generations were at the same stage in life, being more inclined than members of older generations to say that they think social problems are a matter of individual responsibility, and more likely to say they think deficit-reduction should be prioritised over growth. They are supportive of privatising enterprises which used to be run by the state, such as utilities, and opinion polling also revealed that they are less likely than older generations to think that the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements.

These attitudes suggest that this generation really does deserve the label of “Thatcher’s Children” which is sometimes given to those born after 1979, who grew up in an era when the view of government and society espoused by Thatcherism – which had once seemed so radical – had become mainstream. In reality, it’s not really surprising that they should be more comfortable with economic liberalism than members of older generations, many of whom would have matured and formed their opinions during the pre-Thatcher era when a much higher degree of government intervention in both society and the economy was viewed as the norm.

It could even be argued that the whole design of the education system now makes people more individualist and competitive. Although individual competition for school places on the basis of merit has largely been abandoned outside the remaining grammar schools and the private education sector, ambitious young people are now encouraged to start thinking competitively about how they can get ahead in their lives from the age of about 16, when they have to pick “the right” A-Levels to help get them into the best universities. This is followed by a sense of intense competition (which runs across several years of planning, studying and applying) to try and get a one of the limited number of places at the best higher education institutions, which is usually followed by the difficult experience of trying to get a job or even some kind of worthwhile work experience in a tight labour market inundated by similarly well-qualified young people.

Given this environment, is it any wonder that young people in Britain seem to be becoming more individualistic? And if this sense of individualism is likely to propel many young people to give their best, is this really any bad thing?

Political disengagement

Although it sounds as if young people in Britain could present an interesting vision for the country’s future if the voice of youth was allowed to have its say, the article also confirmed that young people in Britain today are disengaged from formal politics to a remarkable degree.

They are less likely to belong to a political party or a trade union, or to proclaim a belief in one of the established religions, than almost any previous generation in history. At the 2010 General Election the under-35s had an average turnout of just 44%, more than 20 percentage points lower than the national average figure of 65% ‒ and this was for a genuinely competitive election which, it was felt, could shape the future direction of Britain for years to come, and where the early opinion poll success of Nick Clegg appeared to have given young voters an idealistic figure around whom they could galvanise.

Since that election, the political parties have continued to marginalise young people to a substantial degree, targeting them for welfare cuts while leaving benefits for pensioners largely untouched. Thanks to the rise of UKIP, current political debates are dominated by euro-scepticism and restricting immigration from abroad, both concerns of older voters much more than issues which appeal to the young.

This is a pity, both because today’s young people will one day form Britain’s established political class, and also because young people still deserve to be heard, even if it means the politicians have to engage with them in different ways than they have done before. Let’s just hope the politicians get better at listening in the future.

Posted on: 10 June, 2013

2 thoughts on “New research suggests young Britons are more liberal than any previous generation

  1. Tim Lund

    Did you see Will Hutton’s reaction to this in the Observer? He writes

    “Such a view of liberalism does not go to the heart of what it means to live well. Tolerance of other people’s differences is a core element of a liberal order, but a good society is one where we go beyond just shrugging our shoulders at someone’s sexual preferences, religious beliefs or ethnicity. It is one in which we engage with each other, create law and justice as a moral system enshrining human dignity and accept mutual responsibilities. The aim is to live with dignity, to be able to make the best of one’s capabilities and to expect that the consequences of undeserved bad luck – what Dworkin called brute bad luck – would be compensated by society in a mutual compact. This is a million miles from the Economist’s arid conception of liberalism.”

    The key question is whether the state has overreached itself providing the good society for the older, voting generation, and whether, as a result, the best option for the younger generation to live better is not to rely on more state spending. For Hutton, this is unthinkable; for me it’s an unfortunate necessity.

  2. Andrew

    I don’t think the article gives young people enough credit for the shrewd logic that has led many of us towards a liberal, maybe even bordering on the libertarian, political philosophy. To suggest a competitive education system and Margaret Thatcher shaped my world view just doesn’t make any sense.

    Let’s be clear on one thing first. I certainly didn’t become an economic liberal because of Margaret Thatcher, nor do I recognise her as an economic liberal. Actually, I’ll go much further in espousing my lack of respect for the woman by saying I can understand why young people not even born in 1990 wanted to protest at her funeral.

    Rather than seeing her as an economic liberal, I think she was a short term populist as disgustingly wasteful as the socialist governments that came before her. I don’t see any principled difference between over generous welfare and selling off government assets at well below their cost, other than that one was working class welfare and the other was middle and upper class welfare. Nor can her approach to trade unionism be considered at all liberal. If working people want to organise themselves, they should be free to do so without the government imposing rules upon them.

    Nor did my education make me competitive. I think there is pseudo competition in which institutions go to and maybe being born in the first year of what is generally termed gen Y makes me a little different to those born well into the generation but I really never found education competitive at all. What is different however is that we now have to pay for it, so we’ve been a lot more discerning about the product we receive.

    No, these things did not make us economically liberal. I think it was what went before and culminating in the global financial crisis that did that. For the past fifty years government has operated solely in the interests of our parents’ generation to the detriment of all others, whether nominally socialist or conservative. They’ve enjoyed the best standards of living in British history to a level we won’t enjoy ourselves working ten times harder than they did and they’ve done it at our expense.

    They started with the opportunity of a free university education, then a well paid job during a period of full employment, then they bought a house when Thatcher flooded the market with undervalued council house’s at the Treasury’s expense and then supported the high spending low taxing New Labour at the end of their working lives, who signed PPP contracts where the benefits would be enjoyed now whilst the cost would be footed by the next generation.

    They even allowed their own parents pensions to fall in real terms in return for no increase in NI contributions for themselves; that’s the same parents who paid very high taxes for their education and welfare. Of course, once they started retiring themselves, suddenly pensions became indexed to earnings again for the next generations, X and Y, to pay. They also put in place nice winter fuel allowances and free TV licenses that they didn’t give the generation who fought a war for them. I guess the winter fuel allowance is their reward for the all the dope they had to smoke in the 1970s.

    All this and they’re pricing young people out of the housing market too because of government policies that make it easier and more tax efficient to buy the second home than the first.

    Of course, they blame ‘the politicians’ because for their self entitled generation, it’s always someone else’s fault! And my above post is ‘whinging,’ because only their generation are allowed to make political statements….

    Well, I’m not whinging actually, instead I’m an economic liberal. They tore up their side of the contract and I want to tear up my half too. I don’t want them to bleed me dry in the same way as they did to their parents. I would like to see state pensions privatised so I can ringfence my savings from their money grabbing hands. I’d like to see the tax breaks for second homes done away with or, even better, extended to first homes. I’d like to see the PPP bill footed now rather than later so it’s not dumped on my own child. I’d like to see young people have the freedom to organise themselves to bargain against unpaid internships. Above all, I want to see elderly welfare like winter fuel allowances capped or abolished and the TV license can certainly be scrapped (actually, scrap the BBC. The idea that one channel can suit all tastes is antiquated and besides the news they make no programmes whatsoever watched by me!)

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