Young people used to be in the forefront of demanding radical social change. This article, which I wrote in 1999 and needs updating, looks at why that is no longer the case. Instead, youth are increasingly conservative voters. Amongst explanations for the depoliticisation of youth, the dire state of the left plays a big part.
Remember the US TV sitcom Family Ties? The storylines around radical-liberal 60s parents bringing up 80s conservative kids. It was like the world-turned-upside-down – after all, aren’t youth supposed to be the radicals and adults the conservatives? Well, it seems that the Family Ties situation has come to represent a widespread and very real social phenomenon, where youth actually are rejecting both radicalism and politics.
Previous generations of youth were at the forefront of leftwing struggles. This was especially the case in the 1960s and 70s when young people often took the lead in several fields of radical and anti-establishment politics. Now at the end of the century there is a reluctance to be swept up in any cause. The political passion of youth appears to be dead. Where the passion still exists in this younger age group, it seems that it exists only for religions and movements of group identity – phenomena which seems to have more or less displaced political movements in the 1990s. It also used to be that the left would seek its audience amongst youth. However, today youth are voting National and Act and are often the most cynical of the age groups about leftist ideals and views.
In the 1990s youth as a category have proved to be rather conservative in their voting habits. The National Party used to be a party for old fogies, but that’s all changed now. National have alienated their older voters and are picking up a new generation – post-Muldoonists – people whose experiences of national politics started only during the days of Rogernomics or later. Consequently, today, National’s strongest support comes from those in the 25-29 age group. Young voters are now said to be the single most enthusiastic block for Jenny Shipley.
The National Party target the youth vote more than ever. They claim that they are now the natural party for the under-30s voter. This is the logical move for National, as, according to Cabinet Minister Nick Smith, ‘the 660,000 voters under 30 represent a constituency ripe for the picking. They are more numerous than pensioners and more open-minded.’ The play for youth was undoubtedly successful in the 1993 election, where according to Mannion, ‘more than 40% of 18-29-year-olds supported National’.
A 1996 voter survey also showed youth to be a valuable sourse of support for rightwing parties. According to research by Alan McRobie, voting statistics broken down into age-groups showed that the greater the number of younger voters present in an electorate the greater the support was for Act. Research by Jack Vowles produced similar results. He found that
Second only to non-voting, National did best among young voters. However, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, with an impressive 1.7% of the national vote, did even better among 18-24-year-olds at a little over 6%, possibly making it the third most popular party in that age group behind National and Labour.
Vowles also found that ‘Labour voters tended to be significantly older than average.’ The probability of voting Labour ‘increased about 2% for each 10 years of age.’
It seems therefore that the parties on the ‘left’ no longer attract substantial youth support. Even the Alliance – the most leftwing in Parliament – attracts an elderly vote. At the peak of their popularity around 1994-5, half of the Alliance’s support was from retired people. In this context it’s not so surprising that the Alliance focuses on issues such as restoring the government assets rather than anything like lowering the drinking age.
In fact the Alliance has also been somewhat unsuccessful in attracting youth activists. According to ex-Alliance candidate Keith Locke, the ‘test of any left or progressive party is its ability to attract youth, and here the Alliance has been spectacularly unsuccessful. There are very few under-30s activists, and the voters come more from the older age group.’ Part of the reason for this, according to him, is that the party has avoided ‘controversial issues (marijuana, voluntary euthanasia, republicanism and so on) in deference to its morally conservative elements.’
Likewise, in his post-1996 election analysis Green co-leader and Alliance MP Rod Donald argued that the Alliance ‘were perceived to be backward looking and unrealistic. The protest vote went elsewhere. Many young voters are from a generation with no experience of what we were talking about.
The most visible symptom of the depoliticisation of youth is their absence of involvement in any type of public political activity. Youth are no longer interested in the movements that bring people into the streets. The great marches of the past are long gone. This is evident, most of all, in the sad tertiary education demonstrations of recent years. Such protests are now typically the preserve of a tiny and insignificant group of students. Despite the growing problems students face, in terms of fees and loans, attendance at student union meetings in also miniscule. At some universities students have to be offered chocolate fish so that enough will show up for there even to be a quorum.
Youth are also not joining political parties. Survey research on political party membership in 1994 undertaken by the Electoral Commission was striking in showing that those aged 16 to 29 made up only 2% of the tiny memberships of political parties in New Zealand. Youth are also reluctant voters: of all the age groups, the Electoral Commission has the most trouble enrolling young voters. The election-day turn-out for those young voters who do enrol is also believed to be very low. According to the 1996 election analysis of Vowles et al. non-voting ‘was twice as likely among the youngest age group than the sample average.’
Quite simply, youth have little interest in politics today. This notion is backed up by a recent survey in which only 58% of 18-29 year-olds claimed an interest in politics. This compared to 79% of 30-49 year-olds and 85% of those over 50. The same survey also showed that youth only visit or contact MPs or write letters to the editor in half the numbers of the average population. Also illustrative was the finding that only 15% of 18-29 year-olds had attended a public meeting or demonstration in the previous year. This compared with 19% for the general for the general population. The depoliticisation of youth is evident in that young people have spurned traditionally politically activity in favour of lifestyle ‘activism’ such as environmentalism, consumer boycotts, trendy religions or simply hedonism. Living by the slogan ‘The Personal is Political’ has meant that those youth with a political interest can easily avoid involving themselves in actual collective political action. Youth are not even participating in other arenas of civic life. The organisations that they used to join en-masse – such as Scouts, Girl Guides, university clubs – have experienced a significant decline.
Part of the explanation for the strange state of youth politics lies in the fact that to be on the ‘left’ today is often to be conservative. More and more, the old left is associated with being backward, attempting to prevent change, and with being boring, moralistic, and restrictive. Rather than being about anything liberating, today’s left is more often than not about dictating to the public what we must not read, watch, smoke, drink, participate in etc. Quite simply, as a letter published in the June edition of Metro magazine said, the left seem to want to stop us having fun:
Although not a great fan of the Shipley government, I shudder to think what bossy and shamefully restrictive government by Labour-Alliance would mean for a free-spirited and fun-loving city like Auckland. No caffeine in coffee, no flirting in bars, light beer for everyone and constant guilt trips imposed by Alliance and Labour do-gooders… can’t we just have some fun?
The author has a point. And what he is commenting on has particular consequence for youth and politics. After all, if being young leads one to want to be free, to have fun, to take risks, have adventures, then it is not surprising if the ‘left’ political parties are seen to offer little. As an illustration of this and of the general breakdown of the old left-right system of New Zealand politics, it is Jenny Shipley who advocated the lower drinking age and people like Helen Clark who wanted to keep 18-20 year-olds out of bars.
The late Bruce Jesson often pleaded for the left to rethink its conservatism. He argued that the left had lost its role of being at the forefront of new ideas and of change and been transformed into a passive creature of resistance and the past:
Past generations of Left-wingers used to describe themselves as progressives and would seek their audience amongst youngsters. These days, the Left is conservative and seeks its audience among the elderly. It’s a natural response for the Left to defend the values of the welfare state against the onslaught of the New Right. I do it myself. As an old-fashioned socialist, I am now a conservative. While it is perfectly natural for ageing lefties like myself to cling to the attitudes of our youth, ultimately there is no future in it. The Left has spent the last decade either, in the case of those of us in the Alliance, resisting change or, in the case of Labour leaders like Lange and Clark, succumbing to it. Rather, the initiative has been with the New Right at he level of ideas, and in a broader sense with the Young Right.
Lack of political issues
Another important insight into the apathy and rightward drift of youth is understanding that, along with all the changes of the past 15 years, the big issues have also gone. Therefore there are no substantial movements of labour, or women, of Maori and large single-issue campaigns, the best thing on offer now seems to be the odd pointless education march or nationalistic anti-nuclear demo. There are no equivalents to Vietnam, Springbok tours or even Muldoon to create a radical political reaction. And where there are actually serious issues to fight against (such as NZ involvement in imperialistic wars or the implementation of Rogernomics) the ‘organised left’ is hopefully disorganised and disoriented by its nationalism and its congenital pro-Labour politics.
To today’s youth who have grown up in post-1984 New Zealand, the vast political and economic changes are obviously well bedded in and accepted – they have never known anything else. They have not experienced anything but slump capitalism. As Chris Trotter has pointed out, ‘X-ers, for the first time in two centuries, must anticipate a lower standard of living than their parents.’ While this might be expected to radicalise them, the opposite is the case. Firstly, the new economic situation encourages a desire amongst youth for stable and status-quo economic policies. Secondly, the pressure to pay student fees, survive on low incomes, get good jobs, pay off student debts and so on all combine to take the attention away from anything like politics or philosophy.
For those in employment, the increasing hours of work required in Employment Contracts Act New Zealand serves to decrease the time available for political activity. Furthermore, the current demise of the working class as a political force means that there just does not seem to be a mass agent for social change any longer, so the possibility of radical change appears to be off the agenda and not worth the effort. The social and economic malaise of slump capitalism therefore only seems to add to the deradicalising process for youth. It produces a cynicism that is not conducive to leftwing politics but, instead, to anti-politics and lifestyle ‘activism’.
On the other hand, those youth who are optimistic about their aspirations and the health of the economy, are also naturally inclined to provide support for perceived economic stability. So the left’s overwhelming pessimism and dreriness is also its Achilles Heel for attracting these types. For youth seeking a belief system that is optimistic or confident, the rightwing seem to have more to offer.
Part of the explanation for the fact that the left does not attract the interest of youth is quite simply because the left has itself become so moderate. The so-called parties of the left, the Alliance and Labour, don’t offer anything radical. While they once promised the transformation of society, they now offer such things as slight increases in tax and the setting up of state-operated banks. And greater social regulation.
Not only have parties like the Alliance and Labour lowered their horizons, but they seem to have stopped promising anything at all. They differ little in their election promises from the traditional rightwing parties. Meanwhile, supporting the parties of the right is, in a way, a logical reaction to the fact that under capitalism there is no real alternative to the market.
It seems that today’s youth have a different set of values to previous generations. In comparison to the Baby Boomers, those in Generation X are somewhat more cynical and perhaps shallow. For example, a survey of US university students in 1967 about values contrasts significantly with a recent survey of Generation Xers at university. In 1967, 82% of baby boomers at university said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was the main objective of their education. That goal was last on the list in 1996. Instead, ‘in 1996, 74% of Gen Xers said the objective of a university education was to be well off financially.’ ‘In 1997, 69% of Gen Xers feel the need to plan for retirement, while only 51% of boomers at a comparable age in 1974 felt the same’.
This trend is also backed up by National Party research which, according to Nick Smith, shows that the under-thirties ‘are far more concerned about practical issues like jobs, housing and personal security than flower power and the meaning of life. They are realists, not idealists.’
While it might seem that the problem of youth apathy and conservatism is partly due to an increase in selfishness and shallowness in youth, the old left really need to take some of the blame. The old left needs to be supplanted by a new left that incorporates a generous dose of libertarianism in its thinking. That’s not the only answer to the left’s failure to connect with youth today, but it would be a good starting point. Stop telling us what we shouldn’t or can’t do, and instead open our eyes to what could be possible in a more liberated society.