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How angry young voters help explain the historic UK election upset

Photos: Getty Images, Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox

Analysts are calling it a “youthquake,” a massive surge in voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in last week’s snap British elections that decimated the Conservative Party, dealt a brutal blow to Prime Minister Theresa May, and capped a stunning turnaround for the left-wing Labour Party and its unabashedly socialist policies.

If preliminary polling data holds true, this will have been the third national election in less than a year where young voters appear to have played a disproportionately large role in shaping the final outcomes.

In the UK, voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds is estimated to have reached between 66.4 and 72 percent (depending on the report) — significantly higher than the 43 percent of voters in that same age range who cast ballots in 2015. (By comparison, American voters the same age had 50 percent voter turn out in 2016.)

The post-Brexit UK has specific conditions that may have contributed to the massive surge in voter turnout, but we may be witnessing the beginnings of a global generational shift of voting and political engagement with implications far broader than the borders of the UK.

From the rise of the far-left populist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who surged in popularity during the first round of voting in the French presidential election partly on the strength of his appeal to the under-30 set, to America’s youthful romance with Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries election to last week’s swing in the United Kingdom toward Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the West’s youngest voters are having a moment.

The question is: Is it a movement? Are we in another 1968 or 1919? Is this a coming revolution? And if it is a movement — is it going anywhere?

One thing is clear: As researchers from the Washington-based advocacy group Young Invincibles have noted, young people are increasingly less financially secure than their parents were at their age, with fewer prospects for bridging the gap. When the system feels like it has failed you, upending the system sounds pretty appealing.

The youth vote played a real role in creating the UK’s hung Parliament

On Thursday night, the UK witnessed an upset the likes of which hasn’t been seen in that country in a generation — or two. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party thoroughly routed Theresa May’s Conservatives, obliterating her majority and resulting in a hung Parliament. Immediately, pundits attributed Corbyn’s remarkable, and unexpected, surge in no small part to 18- to 24-year-olds.

Observers were already bracing for a potential youth impact on the election. When the prime minister called for the snap election back in May, the BBC reported there was a surge of new voter registrations from under-25-year-olds: Some 57,987 voters under 25 signed up the first day after elections were called, more than any other demographic.

Those voters seem to have helped prop up Corbyn, who had seemed all but dead politically as recently as late March but instead saw his party gain an eye-opening 29 seats. Corbyn’s socialist policies — which include nationalizing key industries and sharply raising taxes on the rich — hadn’t resonated with the public in past elections. This time around, they did, especially among the young.

Corbyn and his strategists appear to have recognized, and acted upon, a point made to me by Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of Tufts: Millennials do well with direct engagement and targeted calls to action. Corbyn’s team tailored their message to the young and relied less on old-school campaigning than on a sophisticated social media campaign that addressed the local and national concerns of young voters.

What happens when the future looks worse than the past for the young?

These three countries — France, the US, and the UK — share something important, and depressing: a young population that feels, justifiably, that their future looks far bleaker economically than the world their parents faced at the same age. That’s combined with an increasing general distrust of government that has begun to translate into political action. (The youngest voters, too, are less likely to be disenchanted with socialist messaging, as they didn’t grow up during an era when such ideas were instantly blackened by association with the Soviet Union.)

In France, youth unemployment hit nearly 25 percent in 2015 (it’s since dropped to 21.6 percent), and the job market has long been dubbed stagnant at best. It’s also an employment landscape notoriously difficult for new, younger workers to break into.

In the United States, the millennial perspective is similarly bleak. Homeownership among under-35-year-olds is at a historic low — and increasingly out of reach — when compared with other generations at the same stage of life.

American millennials carry tremendous debt and earn, on average, 20 percent less than their boomer parents did at the same age. A study released in January by the Young Invincibles found that the ability to acquire and retain wealth had dropped radically for many millennials.

“Young adult workers today earn $10,000 less than young adults in 1989, a decline of 20 percent,” the report noted. “When baby boomers were young adults, they owned twice the amount of assets as young adults.”

And in December, researchers at Stanford University found a dramatic downturn in what sociologists call “absolute mobility” — which is the potential for out-earning one’s parents.

Similarly, in the UK, a February study by the Resolution Foundation found that millennials earn, on average, some £40 less weekly than even their siblings a decade older than them earn, let alone their parents.

Finally, the cost of getting the one thing that can still help level income disparity — university education — has spiraled in recent years. Those costs are putting higher education further and further out of reach for more and more young people. One of the most successful rallying cries of both the US and UK elections centered on the rising cost of university and a desire, on both sides of the pond, for free (or nearly free) higher education.

Corbyn, Mélenchon, and Sanders all directly addressed the needs of the youngest voters

Each of the three men who benefited from the surging number of young voters promised to soften the edges of that economic malaise in a way that would have horrified baby boomers raised on a steady diet of Cold War anxiety: by repackaging socialism.

Corbyn promised to end college tuition fees. “The Conservatives have held students back for too long, saddling them with debt that blights the start of their working lives,” he said on the campaign trail. Sanders insisted it was time to make tuition at public universities free and proposed altering student loan rates and fees to make them more favorable to students. And Mélenchon, who has expressed support for the policies of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, campaigned against capitalism itself.

Though none of the three took his nation’s highest office, those campaign promises paid off, at least to some degree. Mélenchon was wildly popular among young voters who divided themselves on the far reaches of the spectrum, choosing to swing to the far left or the far right but largely rejecting the traditional parties. In the first round of the French elections on April 23, Mélenchon nabbed some 30 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old vote and 27 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34. In doing so, he shoved aside the socialists and pulled a healthy chunk of the youth electorate further to the left.

When it came to round two, many of those young French voters said they preferred to abstain rather than vote for either the centrist Emmanuel Macron or the far-right Marine Le Pen, the two frontrunners. They weren’t kidding: The number of voters who abstained in the final round was greater than the number who voted for the runner-up, Marine Le Pen.

Referring to Macron and Le Pen students march for Abstention in Paris May 1, 2017. “Neither the Plague, Nor Cholera, Abstention,” the banner reads.
Sarah Wildman/Vox

In Paris, during the runup to the second round, thousands of young people marched in the streets refusing to remove their Mélenchon stickers, mulishly continuing to rally behind him as a candidate long after he was off the ballot. They insisted they did not want to support the “banker” (Emmanuel Macron, who has worked in finance, and who went on to win the presidency) nor the far right (Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant National Front party has long carried the stigma of racism and anti-Semitism).

The US saw something similar last summer. In states that had held their primaries by June 1, 2016, Bernie Sanders, who has governed for decades as a senator from Vermont as a democratic socialist, not a Democrat, picked up 2 million young voters. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined garnered just 1.6 million youth votes in the primaries. And remember the Bernie or Bust folks? They were positively Mélenchonian in their disgust with the mainstream party candidates.

The Cold War is really over

While these three candidates are hardly from the same party, nor do they share the same policies, their role in their respective elections present a picture that is hard to ignore: their support comes from a younger generation that feel cut out of the mainstream. That’s not that dissimilar from 1968.

Corbyn, Mélenchon, and Sanders all claim to be outsiders (even though each has actually served a number of years in their respective legislatures), and each espouses policies that fall somewhere on the left of the political spectrum. Those two data points add up to an appeal to young voters who feel existing political parties don’t speak for their needs or their aspirations.

Each candidate also addressed a rumbling discomfort among young people who fear that their own futures will not be nearly as bright as those of their parents, let alone their grandparents. This is a postwar Western generation without a sure sense of their future employment or their possibility of owning a home.

“Many younger voters in Western countries believe the current political economic system doesn't serve them,” says David Bach of the Yale School of Management. He lists issues that younger voters gravitate toward addressing, including unemployment, job insecurity, and unaffordable housing, as well as climate change and social justice.

“And unlike older voters, they have no direct experience of communism,” he says, “which means that the old playbook of dissuading voters from supporting leftist candidates by just labeling them ‘socialist’ doesn't work anymore.”

So socialism no longer carries the stigma it once did. And, just as importantly, capitalism no longer appeals as it once did. A Harvard Institute of Politics study published in July 2016 found that 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds polled said they didn’t believe in capitalism. And in the UK, a February 2016 YouGov poll found a general preference for socialism over capitalism.

But isn’t Britain a unique case, given Brexit?

After Brexit, there was no question that Britain’s youngest voters were angry about the direction the country was moving in. The British referendum on leaving the European Union last June was wildly skewed by age group, with voters under 24 voting 75 percent for Remain. Those voters expressed widespread dismay when the Leave vote won the day.

“[O]ur futures have been governed by the votes of narrow-minded older generations who now will sit back and see our bright futures dimmed,” Lucinda Jones, age 20, told the Guardian the day after.

So Brexit, some experts say, makes the UK’s recent electoral experience entirely unique, and not comparable to other elections across the West. There is tremendous anxiety among young British voters not just that their voices have been overruled but that because of it, there will be no job creation in the UK and no possibility to land jobs in Europe, points out Philippe Le Corre at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Even so, there was much skepticism prior to last week’s election that the youth vote would actually turn out on Election Day. Back in 2015, a pre-election BBC report explained, there was a whopping 35 percent spread in turnout between the 18- to 25-year-olds (with 43 percent voter turnout) and the over-65-year-olds (boasting 78 percent voter turnout). That gap has been true for the past two decades, the BBC explained.

But while we’ve become used to a disenchanted youth electorate, you don’t have to go all that far back in history to find a moment when the youth vote was more engaged. Even in 1992, the split between those age groups in the UK was only 12 percent.

The increasing disaffection of youth had contributed to a vicious cycle: The political class had begun to ignore the youth, and the youth felt civic engagement was no longer worthwhile. "It's a no-brainer. Why spend time chasing non-voters rather than concentrating all your energy and effort on those who do vote," David Cowling, a King's College London political scientist, told the BBC.

But that’s meant that youthful issues like housing inequality, university fees, and stagnant job creation haven’t been addressed.

And while Brexit is certainly unique to Britain, the global youth awakening doesn’t feel limited to the UK. It’s likely to influence political campaigns — and elections — going forward. The youthquake, in other words, may be just getting started.

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