The young have more sway in the US than in Europe

The young have more sway in the US than in Europe. March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C (24/3/2018). Photo: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA (Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0). Elcano Blog
The young have more sway in the US than in Europe. March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C (24/3/2018). Photo: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA (Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0). Elcano Blog
March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C (24/3/2018). Photo: Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA (Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0).

A significant number of young people seem to have mobilised against Trump in the US mid-term elections held on 6 November, which swept the Democrats to power in the House of Representatives although the Republicans retained their majority in the Senate. Elsewhere, contrary to what was initially claimed, young people in Britain did turn out in large numbers for the referendum in 2016 and voted overwhelmingly against Brexit. The relative weight of young people is greater in the US than it is in the EU as a whole (still with 28 members), although in both cases their demographic patters are rapidly diverging from the rest of the world’s.

Those aged between 0 and 29 years account for 50.6% of the world’s total population. In the US the figure drops to 39.16%, and in the EU to only 33.1%, when in 1996 the proportion was the same as in the US. Amongst those aged between 10 and 34, which comprises some of the millennials with part of “generation I” (those who were born and fully raised in the digital era), there is also a mismatch: in the US they account for 20.44% of the population whereas the figure in Europe is only 17.4%.

The problems of the two sets of young people are different. In both the US and the EU young people believe that they are worse off than their parents, which is only partly true (particularly in terms of life expectancy and health). But it is true in terms of income and employment prospects, as indicated from, among other sources, a McKinsey Global Institute report. The situation has become evident in the appearance of a ‘second adolescence’ among 18-29 year-olds: certain key life events connected to work and employment, marriage and children and house-buying are being postponed to a new transitionary phase. Europeans and Americans also share the frustration of realising that university degrees no longer ensure decent incomes. One study found that 43% of recent graduates in the US are underemployed. This has been aggravated by the fact that many youngsters in the US have taken on large debts in order to have access to higher education. The students’ accumulated debt totalled US$1.5 trillion (€1.34 trillion) this year according to the Brookings Institution, which predicts that 40% are likely to default by 2023.

Until now, the pattern had been one of widespread abstention among young Americans in elections, especially in the mid-terms. In 2014 less than 20% of young people turned out, although they now account for 53% of the electorate if the millennials are included. We will have to wait for the post-election polls for confirmation, but various projections, such as one by Tufts University, suggest that turnout among 18-24 year-olds in the most recent US elections was up by 10%, and that they largely voted (68% according to exit polls) for the Democrats, contrary to other age groups where votes were more evenly distributed.

Unlike in Europe, youngsters in the US are catching up with the baby boomers in terms of demographic and electoral weight. Eight million more young people could vote this year than in 2016, when Trump was elected to the White House. Young people in the US have mobilised in favour of gun control (especially this year in the wake of February’s massacre in Parkland, Florida, and the March for Our Lives a month later), the reproductive rights of women (even more so with the shift in the balance of power in the Supreme Court), climate change and healthcare coverage, and against police brutality and the cost of education, all issues on which the Republicans’ views are the opposite.

In other words, young people in the US are able to dominate and set the agenda, although in order to do so they must mobilise in electoral terms and in other ways. This is not the case in Europe, where there is a danger of gerontocracy and the consequent imbalance in terms of intergenerational solidarity. But even in Europe, and in particular in the UK, young people turned out in greater numbers for the Brexit referendum than initially suggested by a TV channel that gave credence to a false impression: according to the post-referendum polls, 64% of those aged under 25 cast a vote and 70%-75% voted Remain. Nevertheless, Brexit won. Seventy per cent of students think they will be worse off after Brexit and, according to recent polls, 67% support a new referendum. Age has become a key factor in politics, both in the US and in Europe, but young people hold more sway in the former than in the latter. And that is even more the case in the world as a whole.