It is a strange time to be young in the UK. In recent years, the surety of 'politics as usual', steady 9-to-5 jobs, and the country's place on the global stage - all important to a sense of national identity and the ability to plan for the future - have seemed to be in a state of flux. In an investigation into the effect this uncertainty is affecting the nation's youth, Demos and the British Council have this week released research which investigates the attitudes and aspirations of Britain's young adults. Using an extensive survey, social media analysis and a series of roundtable events, the report details how 18 to 30-year-olds view the UK's place in the world, their opportunities to work and learn within it, and their attitudes to social media and modern politics.
The report unearths a series of fundamental tensions underpinning modern life as a young adult. Two thirds of the 2,000 people surveyed said they had an 'international outlook,' which they saw as important to achieving their personal goals, leading to despondency and anger over Brexit; while some saw opportunities in a country outside the EU, four in ten felt that leaving the union will decrease Britain's influence in the world, against one in ten who felt the opposite. Young people value politics - 73% of those surveyed felt that it was important to be engaged in traditional Westminster politics - but only 37% felt that modern political discussion reflected the issues they felt were important. This disillusionment was reflected in their voting turnout in elections (56%) and party membership (7%).
For young people, much political discussion and public discourse takes place amongst the ever-shifting sands of social media - recent figures released by the Office of National Statistics suggest that, in 2017, 96% of 16-24 year olds will have used a social media platform in the last three months. In order to better understand political conversations amongst young adults online, we collected 77,000 Tweets sent by 200 of our respondents over 2016, filtering this voluminous, messy dataset to provide background to our survey data.
We found that political life online is similarly fraught with tension. While politics represented a major topic of discussion on Twitter, with 71% of respondents Tweeting about the subject, a third of people surveyed said they felt that social media had made them feel more negative about the political process. Looking at the Twitter data, especially in discussions concerning the EU referendum, you can see why this might be the case - we found, threaded through the memes, jokes and arguments which abound on the platform, high levels of emotion, political disillusionment and vehement attacks on opponents.
The report also finds that while young people are increasingly turning to social media as a source of news (49% said they used Facebook for news in a typical week) levels of trust in these platforms are low. Only 16% said they trusted Facebook, which fared the best of social media platforms. At 12%, Twitter or Youtube are afforded the same level of of trust as the tabloid press. Respondents also raised concerns about the ever-looming spectre of 'false news', with 35% stating they felt it was difficult to tell the difference between truth and lies on social media.
Social media platforms are effective at all sorts of things. In enabling global collaboration, and the instant distribution of information, they are often able to collapse geopolitical boundaries and achieve the kind of international engagement which young people identified as being so important in this report. The findings outlined above, however, suggest that these platforms are deeply imperfect as forums for news sharing and political debate. A generation has found themselves relying for news on platforms which they feel they cannot trust. People who feel that politics is important, and who are engaging in political discussion online even as voting and party membership declines, also feel that very discussion to be increasing their political antipathy.
Amidst the uncertainty and frustration which Demos unearthed in our sweeping survey of the nation's youth last year, we also found hope. Alongside concerns, people expressed ambition, optimism, and a sense of possibility; a sense that the period of flux must end, that the increasing connectedness of the modern world can be harnessed to make things better; that things can and will improve. This report exposes some of the questions which must be answered to ensure that they do.
Josh Smith is a researcher and developer at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, part of Demos