Youth Perspectives

Millennials are feeling disillusioned with democracy. This is why

Voting democracy young people government elections

Satisfaction with democracy is falling fastest in 18 to 34-year-olds around the world. Image: Unsplash/Element5 Digital

Janet Barrie
Writer , WEF
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  • Satisfaction with democracy is falling fastest in 18 to 34-year-olds around the world.
  • This trend is driven by inequality between the generations, according to a new report.
  • Figures from the US Federal Reserve point to a growing wealth gap between millennials and previous generations.

Young people around the world are more disillusioned with democracy than any other generation in living memory, according to new research.

The report, from Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, found that millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996, are less satisfied with democracy than any other age group.

Have you read?

Researchers spoke to nearly five million people in over 160 countries between 1973 and 2020, and found that in almost every region, it’s among 18 to 34-year-olds that satisfaction with democracy is in steepest decline.

They’re also less happy with democracy than either their parents’ or grandparents’ were at the same age.

The generations before the millennials are defined as Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), Baby Boomers (born between 1944 and 1965), and the Interwar or Silent Generation (1918 to 1943).

Intergenerational Change: The Global Picture
Millennials are the least satisfied with democracy of any age group Image: Bennett Institute for Public Policy

The report shows both millennials and Generation Xers have grown steadily less happy with their political systems as they’ve advanced in life.

Mind the gap

So what is driving this trend? Researchers say we need to look back to the economic crisis of 2008 to find the answers.

Up until that point, millennials were even more enthusiastic about democracy than their parents were. In the 12 years since then, though, high youth unemployment and wealth inequality have caused what the researchers term ‘economic exclusion’.

The result: millennials have lost confidence in democracy far more quickly than older generations have.

Figures from the US Federal Reserve point to a growing wealth gap between millennials and their elders. By the time their generation hit a median age of 35 in 1990, Boomers collectively owned 21% of the nation’s wealth.

When Gen X reached that age in 2008, they owned 9% of the nation’s wealth.


What is a Global Shaper?

As of July 2019, US millennials outnumbered Baby Boomers by 72.1 million to 71.6 million. They won’t reach that median age of 35 until 2023, but they currently own just 3.2% of the nation’s wealth.

Dr Roberto Foa, lead author of the Cambridge University study, said countries with wealth spread evenly across the generations show only small differences in attitudes to democracy. But those differences are large and growing in countries where the wealth gap is greatest.

“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,” he says in an interview for The World.

The impact of populism

Regional differences make for interesting reading in this report, which suggests this collapse of confidence in democracy is most obvious in the Anglo-Saxon world: in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

It says though there are similar trends in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe. In these emerging democracies, it also notes what it calls “transition fatigue”. After a quarter of a century of democracy, younger generations no longer remember old dictatorships, or the battles fought by their parents for political freedoms.

Youth satisfaction with democracy change over time.
Youth satisfaction with democracy increases under populist leaders. Image: Bennett Institute for Public Policy
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Related topics:
Youth PerspectivesGlobal CooperationGeo-Economics and Politics
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