Related people: Stuart Fox

There is a well-established conventional wisdom that today’s young people are a politically alienated generation, meaning that they are seen as estranged or withdrawn from politics. Whether it is their low turnout in elections or their support for protest and social movements, the young are held up as a generation put off politics by the failure of politicians to engage with them.

So ingrained is this wisdom that the idea that low political interest, rather than alienation, might have anything to do with the low participation of the young is routinely and casually dismissed in both academia and the media, despite the growing body of research showing that British Millennials are actually an unusually un-alienated generation when it comes to their trust in politicians and their faith in the responsiveness of politicians to their demands.[1]

This view of the young as politically alienated has formed a prominent aspect of Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to engage the youth vote since he became Labour leader, and on June 9th (before any reliable data had appeared) the Guardian’s Owen Jones was already declaring Corbyn’s success in doing so based on Labour’s impressive election result.

WISERD’s Young People & Brexit survey[2] allows us to look at how the Millennials’ political alienation just after the 2017 election compared with that of their elders, and whether it was related to their overwhelming support for Labour. We asked our respondents about three key perceptions indicative of political alienation: whether they felt that politicians could be trusted to put the national interest ahead of their party interest, whether politicians cared what ‘people like them’ thought, and whether they felt that politics was so complicated they found it hard to understand what was going on.

Figure One shows the results of analyses in which we calculated the probability of respondents from each generation feeling alienated in terms of these three perceptions, while simultaneously accounting for other traits associated with them (such as differences between men and women, or those based on education, employment or ethnic background).[3]

The data shows first that most people in the British electorate are likely to feel that politicians cannot be trusted, or that they have no influence over the political process, and second that the differences between the generations are small.

Nonetheless, the Millennials are less likely than their elders not to trust politicians or feel that politicians do not care what they think: on average, they are 6% more likely to trust politicians, and 5% more likely to feel that they have a voice in the political process. The one form of alienation they are significantly more likely to exhibit is the view that politics is too complicated for them to engage with: Millennials are 10% more likely than their elders to hold this view.

Figure 1, Source: YouGov

Source: YouGov

How important was the Millennials’ alienation in the election outcome? When we calculate how likely the Millennials were to report voting for Labour in the election, they are unsurprisingly shown to be far more likely to do so than their elders: they typically had a 41% chance of voting for Corbyn’s party – an average of 14% higher than the older generations. Accounting for political alienation had, however, no impact at all on this figure – the Millennials continued to have a 41% chance of supporting Labour regardless of whether we accounted for their trust in politicians, their feeling that politicians do not care what they think, or their lack of confidence in their understanding of politics.

Quite contrary to the media narrative regarding today’s young people, therefore, Britain’s Millennials remain the least politically alienated generation in the electorate for their political trust and faith in their influence in the political process, although they do stand out for feeling that that process is too complicated for them to effectively engage with.

As our previous posts have shown, the Millennials’ lower levels of interest in politics are a far more important trait for differentiating them from their elders. Moreover, the Millennials’ alienation had virtually no impact on their decision about who to vote for in the general election. While there is little question that Jeremy Corbyn has managed to reach out to the youth vote in a way other politicians can only dream of – even despite Labour’s support for the ‘hard Brexit’ to which most young people are opposed – it is not because of their alienation from politics that he has managed to do this.

[1] See, for example, ‘Apathy, Alienation and Young People: the Political Engagement of British Millennials’, Maria Grasso’s ‘Age, period and cohort analysis in a comparative context: Political generations and political participation repertoires in Western Europe’, or Martin Wattenberg’s ‘Is Voting for Young People?

[2] The survey was conducted online by YouGov Plc. on a representative sample of the adult British population. The sample size was 5,095, with fieldwork conducted by 9th-13th June. The weighted data is representative of the adult British population. More information can be obtained from the authors on request.

[3] This was done using logistic regression analysis on the weighted sample, predicting the likelihood of responding that politicians cannot be trusted, that they don’t care what ‘people like me’ think and that politics and government is too complicated, while controlling for generation, gender, ethnicity, social class and education.


About the Young People and Brexit project

Young People and Brexit is an interdisciplinary study of how young people in the UK feel about and are responding to the UK’s exit from the European Union. Drawing on both existing and new research from throughout WISERD, and the expertise of a range of organisations with expertise and interest in youth political engagement (including Youth Cymru, the National Assembly for Wales and Members of the UK Parliament) the study will consider a range of issues such as the impact of Brexit on young people’s broader engagement with politics and civil society; the ways they are responding to and trying to influence Brexit through their political behaviour; the consequences of the EU Referendum for young people’s interest in and feelings about UK and devolved politics; the ways Brexit have forced young people to reconsider their understandings of citizenship and identity; and the impact of the EU Referendum and Brexit itself on inter-generational conflict in domestic politics.


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