By Mark Wallace
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A growing dataset has emerged over the last few months suggesting a rightwards shift among the young. Be it in the beliefs younger voters hold or the more modest shift in the party they support, it seems that Generation Y are striking out in a different direction to their parents.
More evidence comes today in a new Demos report, Generation Strains, in which the authors examine polling data on the views of different generations on the welfare state. Some of the results are predictable and driven by life-cycle, such as the tendency for young adults to make child benefit a high priority. Others, though, point to generational changes in opinion.
For example, look at the proportion of people in each generation who agree that "the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain's proudest achievements" (all graphs from Demos):
Then there's the question of whether more money should be spent on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes:
This reveals two trends. First, the overall support for higher taxes to fund more benefits is falling across the board. Second, the young are again more radical on the issue – despite being the cohort who are most likely to report being poor. The second-poorest group are the pre-war generation, whose views are significantly more to the left on the question, so poverty is not the only driver of opinion.
Third, here are the numbers for those agreeing with the statement that if welfare benefits were not so generous people would learn to stand on their own two feet:
Again, we see a generally rightwards trend in society overall, with Generation Y among the most hardline – in this instance, they are the toughest after the pre-war generation. The stereotype of the young adopting the emotional politics of the heart is breaking down.
There are a couple of caveats, of course. The authors express concern that generations might interpret the welfare state differently, though there's no evidence of such a trend beyond their qualitative research in focus groups. It's also possible that this is a lifecycle trend, with voters becoming more pro-welfare state the older they get, though the evidence seems too stark for that to be the only process at work here.
It seems most likely that we are indeed seeing a real shift in the political views of the younger generation. They are less emotional and more pragmatic about the way the state spends money. They are far more hawkish on tax and spend than their parents.
None of this means they are more likely to vote Conservative (or even that they will choose to vote at all). It does mean, however, that they may be open to messages which politicians would not normally think of communicating to them. In the longer term, it may mark the start of a national change in our politics – if they keep these views into middle age and beyond, British politics will look very different in the coming decades.