THE BLOG

Talkin' 'bout a Revolution: Younger Voters, Protest and Change

05/02/2016 12:58 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a book entitled The Millennial World: How millennials can wow at work which claims it will help me, as a crumbly old man born before 1982, understand colleagues in their 20s and early 30s. Also there is an Economist special report on The Young, which describes the opportunities and tribulations facing the same age group. And if I look hard enough I could probably also find a copy of the Cassandra Report, covering the same topic.

In short, like so many people in business today I am surrounded and bombarded by information and advice about how to understand the millennial generation. Personally I'm suspicious of efforts to stereotype and generalise about individuals and their circumstances and motivations. But the Economist report, in particular, provides better insights than most. It encourages a global perspective, rather than focusing on a world where "companies are obsessed with understanding how millennials think, the better to recruit them or sell them stuff", and in which consultants produce "endless reports explaining that they like to share, require constant praise and so forth". The implication is that much of what is written about millennials is patronising and infantilising, which is absurd when there are substantive issues faced by the generation after mine which deserve grown up answers.

A particular problem is lack of opportunity. As the Economist points out, more than 25% of young people in middle-income countries, and 15% in rich ones, are not in education, employment or training. This is a horrible figure, the result of labour markets that are at once fiercely competitive and also rigged in favour of people who already have jobs. The best jobs are to be found in "globally connected megacities", but spiralling housing costs make it ever more difficult to move to them. And less immediately apparent, but in the long-term deeply troubling, is the change in many countries from the old subsidising the young to the other way round, in the form of debt being built up the world over to pay pensions and healthcare for the elderly, a burden that will weigh heavy on generations to come.

Everybody knows that these problems exist. And yet political leaders are reluctant to address them because they believe in a simple truism: old people vote, and young people do not. As the Economist says, in the US mid-terms of 2014 only 23% of those aged 18-34 cast a vote compared to 59% of over 65s. In the 2015 General Election in the UK only 43% of 18-24s voted, whilst 78% of over 65s turned out. It's not hard to do the math. Any sensible politician will keep index-linking that state pension, and keep cutting back on education.

For this to change we may need a rupture with the past; we may need politicians to emerge who can inspire and hold the attention of the millennial generation. The question this morning is whether Bernie Sanders is that politician. It seems improbable that a 74 year old could be the champion of youth, but there is no question that the near dead heat with Hillary Clinton he secured in the Iowa caucuses resulted in large part from his support from younger voters . Compared to the silver-haired but energetic and inspiring Senator, the aristocratic Clintons look old and out of touch with what is bothering America's young adults. Maybe in courting the millennials Sanders is on to something.

I do not want to carry this thought too far. After all there is a Republican rebellion too, primarily against another aristocratic family, the Bushes - but the rise of Trump and Cruz is essentially reactionary, driven by the very different complaints and fears of grumpy old men. But there is evidence from around the world that millennials are finally flexing their political muscles and demanding radical change and a new approach from the political classes. For example in Spain and in Greece younger voters have increasingly found their voices, propelling insurgent parties into power. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn tapped into many millennial concerns during the Labour leadership race, and defeated a slew of complacent establishment candidates. There are plenty of other examples, from Taiwan to Canada and many places in between.

So it is short-sighted to dismiss the Democratic primary in Iowa as an aberration, or as simply a cri de coeur, a protest from irresponsible, youthful, voters who really just want to fire a warning shot across the bows of Candidate Clinton as she inevitably marches to the nomination. The support and genuine enthusiasm shown for Bernie Sanders comes from another place: one where a significant section of the electorate is deeply dissatisfied with politics as usual and what it means for them, and where a passionate, progressive, message is inspiring and exciting.

That said, in all probability the remorseless logic of deep Clintonian pockets, impressive electoral organisation and the fact that 'youth' voters rarely follow through will grind down the Senator from Vermont in the end. But I really wish this wasn't so. I would love politics to start to address the very just complaints of millennials and by extension many others. We all need a change. ‎Here's hoping...