I was born in 1986, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang deregulation of the British banking system, and I was 22 when the global financial crash hit in 2008. For most of my adult life, the UK economy has been in crisis. First recession, then austerity, and now stagnation, with the prospect of another serious, Brexit-induced downturn on the horizon. Economists anticipate a decade or more of lost growth; a semi-permanent, Japanese-style slump. Prepare yourself, they say, for disappointment. That job you wanted? Gone. That house you’ve been saving for? No chance. That mountain of debt you’re carrying? You can keep it. Forever. It’s yours – along with flatlining wages, part-time employment, and income-eviscerating rents.
I belong, in other words, to the so-called ‘millennial’ generation, a category that includes people between the ages of 18 and 34 – or, more broadly, people who reached adulthood after the turn of the millennium. Millennials are significant for two reasons: they are the first age group in recent history to experience a standard of living lower than that of their parents, and they are really, really leftwing.
“[Millennials] are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution,” Time magazine’s Joel Stein wrote in 2013, “not because they are trying to take over the establishment, but because they are growing up without one.”
Millennials have already changed the electoral landscapes of Europe and North America. They have fuelled the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Their emergence has left some progressive leaders feeling confused and frustrated.
“I thought I was pretty good at politics,” Tony Blair confessed at a public event in London a few weeks ago. “But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it.”
“I think it’s fine that all these young students have been so enthusiastic for [Sanders],” Bill Clinton remarked sarcastically during a campaign appearance on behalf of his wife, Hillary, in New York in April. “[They say] ‘Just shoot every third person on Wall Street and everything will be fine.’”
Shooting every third person on Wall Street is probably quite an appealing proposition to some millennials: young voters are increasingly disdainful of the compromises struck by traditional centre-left elites.
During the Democratic presidential primaries, Sanders attracted huge amounts of support by repeatedly attacking key Clinton-era policies, from financial liberalisation and welfare cuts to free trade and mass incarceration. Likewise, Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last summer was a rejection not only of Blairism but of Tony Blair himself. Even before the publication of the Chilcot report, Corbyn had indicated that he wanted the former prime minster to be investigated for crimes associated with the war in Iraq. (In response, Blair has all but admitted that he would prefer a Conservative-led government to a Corbyn-led one.)
The sources of millennial discontent are not hard to identify: millennials are politically radical because they are economically stressed.
In Spain and Greece – the epicentres of eurozone austerity – youth unemployment rates range from 40 to 50 per cent. Nearly half of all Canadians under 30 struggle to find steady work. One in five British students expect to spend 10 years paying off their debts and one in 10 expect to be in debt until they die. Young Westerners lead financially precarious and insecure lives. They have very little control over where they live, how they live, or who they live with, and they have lost confidence in the economy to deliver good jobs cushioned by rising salaries.
The anger is most intense among millennials from middle-income backgrounds raised to believe that an expensive education would guarantee professional success. University graduates in Britain and the US now find themselves caught in a trap of static wages, steep indebtedness, and crushing monthly rent payments. They look at their baby-boomer parents – who moved directly from higher education into full-time work, and then from full time-work into comfortable retirement – and wonder why things aren’t working out.
“[Millennials] are revolting, not just because they are disappointed and feel poor, but also because they feel gutted by great expectations,” Derek Thompson of The Atlantic argues. “They remember the 1990s economy. They remember the ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ stickers … But they also recall stalled growth in the 2000s [and] the broken social contract around college, which no longer functions as an automatic elevator to middle-class comforts.”
Yet, for all their apparent militancy, millennials have a reputation for being over-sensitive and politically correct. Rightwing commentators see the increasing tendency of students to no-platform controversial speakers as evidence of a growing culture of censorship in Britain, which seeks to silence ‘harmful’ views for the benefit of supposedly vulnerable groups.
“Surely ‘decolonising education’ would involve banning ‘post-colonial’ syllabuses from schools and universities?” Eleanor Halls wrote in a piece last year for GQ magazine entitled ‘Millennials: stop being offended by, like, literally everything.’ “Frankly, it’s time for Generation Snowflake to stop melting and get an icier grip.”
There is actually some evidence that millennials are less emotionally robust than other generations. Researchers in the US have found that incidences of narcissistic personality disorder are three times higher among Americans in their 20s than they are among Americans in their 60s, and young people in Britain tend to suffer from higher levels of stress than people in other age brackets.
But you don’t need a £20,000 PhD in psychology to understand the causes of that stress.
Millennials aren’t coping with one crisis – they are coping with several. In addition to punishing labour market conditions, they face rising rates of inequality and weak community ties, both of which have contributed to a general breakdown of trust in Western countries. And the decline of party politics based on clearly defined class boundaries has encouraged new forms of political organisation. Issues related to gender, ethnicity, and nationality – as well as those related to social justice – have galvanised a raft of new youth-led movements, most notably Black Lives Matter, the grassroots campaign aimed at ending the violent, militarised policing of black communities across America.
This revolt has been stirring for a while. In the US, before Black Lives Matter, there was Occupy Wall Street, the first popular attempt to hold those responsible for the 2008 crash to account. Then, in 2010, thousands of British students protested in central London against Coalition government plans to raise tuition fees at English universities. And here in Scotland, millennials played a central role in the campaign for independence in 2014.
The independence referendum is not normally characterised as a battle between competing generations, but age had a significant impact on how Scotland voted. Older Scots were more likely to support the Union, while younger Scots leant heavily in the other direction.
Two groups provided a disproportionate share of the Yes campaign’s noisiest and most disruptive activists: National Collective and Radical Independence. Both National Collective and Radical Independence were run almost exclusively by millennials: recent graduates in their mid-to-late-20s who grew up in middle-class households and held strong leftwing views.
The millennial case for independence could be flimsy. National Collective was frequently pilloried for its ‘wish trees’ and sub-standard political poetry. At its best, however, the argument developed by independence-supporting millennials was more compelling than that advanced by the SNP. In contrast to the White Paper’s mangled vision of an independent Scotland shackled to Nato, the Queen and the Bank of England, Radical Independence called for a sovereign, nuclear-free Scottish republic with its own currency and monetary policy.
“We want a radical redistribution of wealth, progressive taxation, [and] a repeal of Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation,” Cat Boyd, a founding member of Radical Independence, wrote shortly after the referendum. “We are entering this new era in Scottish politics with our eyes open – we do not expect the SNP … to simply give us these things.”
With a second independence referendum now in sight, following last month’s Brexit vote, Radical Independence plans to reconvene. But the terrain is less hospitable for the left this time around. Much of the grassroots enthusiasm generated two years ago has been soaked up by the SNP. A big chunk of millennial Scotland now owes its political allegiance to the country’s ruling party, and that allegiance is likely to grow, not weaken, as the fight over Scotland’s constitutional future intensifies.
Moreover, in the context of Brexit, millennials may find that independence frustrates, rather than fulfils, their expectations. The SNP is already reframing independence as a conservative concept; a way of protecting Scotland’s status within the EU and of sheltering Scots from destabilising forces south of the Border. During the next referendum campaign, Nicola Sturgeon will target two constituencies in particular: wealthy voters, who overwhelmingly rejected separation 21 months ago, and Scottish business, which is inherently hostile to political instability. In doing so, she will avoid being overly-prescriptive. A Yes vote won’t mean a revived, strengthened social democracy with an enhanced public sector and an expanded welfare state, as it did in 2014. It will mean a simple transfer of legislative sovereignty from one parliament in London to another in Edinburgh – and then the wholesale reaffirmation of Scotland’s commitment to the European project, regardless of how centralising, deregulated and undemocratic that project is or becomes.
How does Scotland’s youthful, agitational, left fit into that picture? It will, in all likelihood, face a tough fight to ensure that any progressive gains independence confers – a more redistributive tax system, for instance, or a sharp reduction in defence expenditure – don’t prove limited or short-lived, thereby pushing millennial-aged Scots into the same mood of cynical despair that characterised Labour politics at the end of the Blair years.
As well as their distinctive age profiles, the 2014 Scottish Yes campaign, the 2010 student protests, and Occupy Wall Street have something else in common: they all lost. Scotland voted No, English university tuition fees were tripled, and – last time I checked – New York’s financial district remains emphatically unoccupied by the radicals who once gathered in Zuccotti Park. I’d add to this list of leftwing failure Syriza – which, very soon after taking office, was ruthlessly neutered by Angela Merkel and the IMF – and Bernie Sanders, whose bid for the US presidential nomination has all but fizzled out. (The Vermont senator is certain to endorse Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention later this month.)
Millennials can be loud and provocative and publicity-savvy, but they don’t have a sustained track record of political success. For one thing, young people don’t vote regularly enough, or in large enough numbers, to consistently win elections. Take the European referendum. There are 17 million millennials in the UK, most of whom support British membership of the EU. But across Britain, turnout was lower in areas with lots of young residents than it was in areas with lots of older ones. The Leave campaign’s margin of victory was substantial, at 1.4 million votes, but not insurmountable. What might have happened had more millennials cast a ballot on June 23?
Millennials are further restricted by the vagueness of their ideology. Polls show that a majority of American millennials would vote for a socialist presidential candidate, that British and German millennials prefer socialism to capitalism, and that Canadian millennials are disengaged from mainstream politics. But beyond a generic feeling of hostility towards ‘the establishment’, the millennial world view is not very well defined. Indeed, in 2014, a survey by the Pew Research Centre in the US found that millennial attitudes were often contradictory, with respondents approving simultaneously of spending cuts and more infrastructure spending, smaller and bigger government, and higher and lower taxes.
Of course, you would find these sorts of discrepancies in any age group. What matters is how people behave collectively and, so far, millennials have been more willing to support leftwing candidates and causes than people of other ages. The real question is when – or if – millennials will use their leverage to transform politics on a permanent basis. The current deleterious state of the Labour Party and the reassertion of establishment control over the Democratic party suggest that young activists are still locked in a power struggle with the leaders of the old, sclerotic, centre left. But that balance is likely to shift as millennials come to form a larger and larger proportion of the electorates in Britain, Europe and the US.
“What [Corbyn and Sanders] represent is the political breakthrough of millennials,” Aaron Bastani, editor of the leftwing website Novara Media, says. “They are not going to win elections now [or] probably, in five years’ time. But in 10 or 20 years’ time, they define who goes into Downing Street, they define who goes into the White House … The ideas, the beliefs, the perceptions, and the motivations of this cohort matter … [They] simply will not carry on the politics of the last 10 or 20 years.”
The fallout from last month’s EU referendum has sent Britain into a tailspin. Westminster is directionless. The economy is teetering. The chief orchestrators of the Leave campaign have no idea what they are doing. Nicola Sturgeon calls it “Project Farce.” But I suspect the sense of chaos is more acute for those with a clear memory of what life was like in the late 1990s and early 2000s – the boom years of liberal globalisation – than it is for millennials.
I can vaguely recall the morning of May 1, 1997, when Tony Blair was elected to office with a majority of 179 seats. My dad woke me with the news that the Tories had been wiped-out in Scotland. I was 11. Eleven years later, the New Labour experiment – with its undeliverable guarantees of indefinite growth, rising social mobility, and British constitutional unity – completely unravelled.
The material consequences of the 2008 crash have shaped every aspect of my adulthood. I spent a good slice of my 20s paying rent out of an ever-deepening overdraft. But in truth, the symptoms of the crash – depressed pay, weak job prospects, and escalating debts – were visible, especially to the young, long before the banks marched us all off an economic cliff. The instability now consuming British politics has been rumbling under the surface for a while. Millennials are, at least, trying to do something about it. And if they don’t, who will?