Is this Generation Right?


People are widely presumed to get more right-wing as they get older - but studies suggest those between the ages of 18-30 often hold views to the right of their parents. Vicky Spratt explains why this might be.

"If you're a conservative when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative when you're older, you have no brain" - or so the widely quoted saying goes.

However, in 2013 the polling company Ipsos Mori, along with think tank Demos, released the Generation Strains report which undermined the idea that you inevitably start out on the political left in your youth and move to the right with age.

The report was based on a compilation of 17 years of polling results which compared attitudes across generations. It suggested that in many respects young people today, that's my generation - Generation Y, consisting of 18-30-year-olds - are to the political right of their parents and grandparents when they were young.

Their attitudes include a suspicion of collectivism, a greater scepticism towards the state and more faith in themselves as individuals to get things done. My generation has moved to the left on social issues including homosexuality, women's rights and immigration.

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Changing generations

  • Baby boomers - born in the 1940s to mid 60s, bought their first home when prices were low and watched property prices rise. There was relatively low unemployment and pensions were generous
  • Generation X - described in a 1991 book by Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland, Gen-X came of age in the 1990s. The characters are in their late 20s, highly educated but with no ambition and in menial jobs
  • Generation Y - 18-30 year olds, sceptical towards the state and more faith in themselves as individuals. Post war collectivism is a distant memory

But what is arguably less predictable is that economically we have shifted to the right. One of the unexpected examples of the difference between my generation and those who came before us was the response to the proposition that "the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes".

While about 40% of those born in 1945 or before still agree with the statement, the numbers tumble as you move down the age range, reaching around half that figure among those aged 33 and under.

Similarly, among Gen Y, the claim that "the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain's proudest achievements" is now supported by around 20% of people. When it comes to the pre-war cohort born before World War Two, the figure has stayed at around 70%.

For a while I have noticed a distinct difference between the way my friends and I tended to face problems and the way my parents or grandparents often thought we should face them.

The way we viewed ourselves in society seemed to have changed but I was struggling to explain exactly what had happened.

Generation Y seemed self-reliant and self-confident. Can't find a permanent job? Don't claim benefits - go freelance. Need money? Sell some stuff on eBay. Got a problem at work? Don't join a union, just work hard and get on with it.

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Generation Y has been labelled "Generation Rent" or the "Jilted Generation" and even lamented as the "Lost Generation" - usually by commentators who are older.

But I'm consistently struck by how level-headed many Gen Ys are. From the sixth formers who are willingly about to take on the burden of student debt to the older young professionals who have scrimped and saved , they come across as ambitious, knowing what they wanted out of life and how to get there.

Some take the view that little in life could hold them back and that all that was needed was hard work. In the words of one, "I can achieve anything so long as I put the effort in."

This buccaneering application could be characteristic of our generation if they have come to expect that relatively little will be handed to them and in tough economic times they decided that they have nobody to rely on but themselves.

The flip side of this trait, however, would be that Gen Ys very much expect of others what they expect of themselves.

This manifests itself as less sympathy than in elder generations towards those who appear to be in hardship, whether they are unemployed or seeking certain types of medical care.

Time and again we heard the refrain that if those who claim help weren't willing to help themselves first, then they should not and could not expect the continued generosity of others - and that this was the compassionate thing.

Asked whether her generation would like to see a tougher approach to the welfare system, Molly, a 19-old student from London, concurred. "I mean fair enough to the people that literally can't get a job and have to be on benefits - but I think it's quite good that our generation feel that way because we're more inclined to go out there and get a job."

Whether it be an unemployed jobseeker, an alcoholic in ill-health or someone wanting housing, Gen Ys are more likely to think that if they're just given help time after time they won't stand on their own two feet, which would be the real evil. It's a "tough love" approach.

This attitude is despite the fact that Gen Y-ers are one of the demographic groups most likely to be benefit recipients.

None of this necessarily means they will vote for centre-right political parties. "I don't think young people believe political values are based around an identity of being a Labour voter or a Conservative voter," says Mark Kidson, 25, of the British Youth Council.

"They want to support gay marriage. They are relaxed about immigration but they do want to be tough on those who don't want to contribute to society. These mixes of views are not well represented by any of the main political parties."

Some people will mourn this shift towards individualism while others will celebrate it. The fact is, though, that up until now it's been largely overlooked by the media and politicians alike.

Generation Right was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST on Monday, 16 June.

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