The anti-woke moral panic and the generational divide

Young people are turning to the left while the older generations move to the right, well that's how the story goes. So why we might be seeing a political divergence along age lines?

This is an article from the sixth issue of the New Economics Zine. You can find the full issue here.

The last decade has witnessed the opening up of a generational political divergence of unprecedented scale. The general picture is this, young people have been moving towards the left, while older generations have overwhelmingly been voting for the right and adopting conservative social and political views. It’s a widespread, though not universal trend which, although it emerged in many different countries at roughly the same time, takes its clearest form in the UK and US.

The trend has proven incredibly persistent. Millennials, roughly those currently aged between 25 and 40, are the first generation to buck the post-war trend to become more conservative as you age. This is causing conservatives no little concern. With the creation of too few new Conservative voters to replace those who are dying off, they can see a looming demographic timebomb. It’s a fear that’s important to understand as it lies beneath many current right-wing political and cultural tendencies.

Culture war narratives and anti-woke’ discourse are in effect a means of diminishing and dismissing the grievances of the young while providing conspiratorial explanations for the generational divide in politics. The young are moving to the left, the anti-woke story goes, because they’ve been indoctrinated into censorious intolerance by cabals of leftist teachers and lecturers. It’s a ludicrousness proposition but that hasn’t stopped it having real world effects. While the Stop Woke Act instituted by Florida Governor Ron De Santis is the most notorious example, prohibiting discussion of racism, oppression, and economic inequality in schools, colleges or workplaces, the UK has its own iterations with, for instance, the moral panics about free speech at universities feeding into catastrophic defunding of the humanities.

A phenomenon like the generational divide in politics, which emerged suddenly on an international scale, must have been triggered by something equally sudden and international.”

For the most part these stories function as comforting morality tales for those doing well from the situation, but as causal explanations they simply don’t work. A phenomenon like the generational divide in politics, which emerged suddenly on an international scale, must have been triggered by something equally sudden and international. The financial crisis of 2008 fits the bill. That event, and the way it played out across the 2010s, crystallised a longer-term divergence of material interests between the generations. Those over 55, but especially over 65, who own their own home and have pensions invested in stocks and shares, have found their interests increasingly aligned with the performance of the linked finance and real estate sectors. If the stock market booms, then the value of their pensions increases; if property prices are high, they will feel wealthier and can borrow more from their banks. This has not been true for the young whose access to home ownership has dramatically diminished. They are overwhelmingly dependent on income from work and wages in UK have performed terribly. They are currently pegged at the level they were in 2005. That’s eighteen years of zero wage growth, a period of wage stagnation not seen since the Napoleonic wars.

Although these trends were evident before 2008, they were massively accelerated by subsequent government policies which have favoured finance and inflated asset prices, from the hundreds of billions spent bailing out the banks to the tsunami of free money (quantitative easing) central banks have handed over to the financial sector. Incredibly low interest rates have, by making it unattractive to keep money in the bank, added to a glut of liquid cash looking for a home. Yet business investment in the UK has been relatively flat. Why invest in new technology and job-producing industry when higher returns can be found speculating on real estate and stocks? As this state of affairs accorded with the interests of the asset rich elderly, even if only by proxy, it’s little wonder they’ve tended to vote for more of the same – but this low-growth, low-interest, high-asset price world offered little hope for the young. The recent pandemic related economic recession is, along with the accelerating impacts of climate change, pushing us into a new economic situation of persistant high inflation and high interest rates, but while the previous situation persisted the state of the world looked very different to young and old owing to the different positions they occupied in the economy. 

While these divergent experiences offers the context for diverging world views it doesn’t, on its own, explain the content of those views. For that we should look a little more closely at anti-woke discourse and action. Florida’s Stop Woke act bans teaching the idea that people are oppressed based on their race or gender, or that a person bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress… because of actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex”. Behind the fallacious use of the language of equality the real aim is clear. It aims to eliminate any argument that individual outcomes have structural causes. If you want further evidence of the centrality of this focus just look at the moral panic around Critical Race Theory. That’s even more explicit in its aim to ban structural conceptions of racism.

I’d argue that openness to structural explanations of social phenomena is the key content of the generational divergence in views.”

It’s easy to see how narratives which argue we are individually responsible for the outcomes in our lives is more attractive to those who have, on at least some measures, done better than they might have expected. It’s also easy to see why it’s an unattractive narrative for those who have had their expectations of the good life confounded. I’d argue that openness to structural explanations of social phenomena is the key content of the generational divergence in views. Supporting evidence for this comes from unexpected quarters. A recent report from the centre-right think tank Onward found that Millennials think equality should be prioritised over economic growth and that a person’s position in society is due to outside factors rather than individual effort.”

The Onward report titled Missing Millennials in reference to the Conservatives’ lack of voters in that cohort, offers a more analytical approach to the generation gap but it still attempts to play down the problem. It points to polling showing Millennial dislike of increased taxes as evidence that they can still be won over to Conservatism, yet this argument only appears convincing when abstracted from its context. The repayment of student debt effectively acts as 9% tax on graduates who reach the annual taxable income threshold, just £25,000 for 2023 graduates. This means young graduates have incredibly high marginal tax rates of up to 71%. Little wonder that they are sceptical of increased taxes.

In opposition to the idea that young people are merely confused centrists we could offer other recent opinion polling in both the UK and the US, which reveal young people as more pro-union and pro-strike than any other generation. This is not just because they are young. Data from the US shows Gen Z, with Millennials not far behind, as far more pro-union than the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers were at their age. The same seems true in the UK, with the highest support for the recent strike wave coming from 18 – 34-year-olds despite the anticipation it would disrupt their lives the most.

Ultimately however, commitments to equality and an openness to structural explanations of social phenomena are much better proxies for the world view of the young than policy preferences unconditioned by context. Such a position stands in opposition to the dominant ideology of the last forty years. Theorists such as Wendy Brown have shown that what she calls Neoliberal Responsibilsation”, the idea that we as individuals are solely responsible for the outcomes of our lives, is not something existing in the realm of ideas but has been the guiding logic for the intense program of institutional reforms of the last thirty years. The introduction of student fees, for example, was driven in large part by Human Capital theory in which education is recast as an investment undertaken with hopes of a satisfactory return through higher subsequent income. The rejection of such meritocratic alibis for current inequalities is aligned with an openness to arguments in favour of fundamental structural change whenever they are offered.

Such an option will not be on offer at the next UK general election and as such the generational political division might be harder to discern for a while. The shape of generational inequality is also likely to change due to the dizzying recent rise in interest rates and the high inflation at which they are purportedly aimed. The thirty percent of households who have a mortgage will be subject to skyrocketing repayments as the period of fix terms on their mortgages come to an end. This will also have a generational inflection as older cohorts are more likely to have paid off more of their mortgages or own their home outright. We don’t yet know what impact this will have on people’s wider world views. Much depends on the political opportunity structure that unfolds. It seems likely, however, that older homeowners may find themselves increasingly politically isolated.

Keir is co-director of Abundance, a new organisation focussed on developing and implementing Public-Common Partnerships. He is the author of Generation Left.

Image: Eva Bee

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