Are the millennials revolting?

Saturday 22 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Frobisher Auditorium 2 Millennial Dilemmas


Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

Just a few years ago, anyone under the age of thirty with a strong interest in the UK’s membership of a trading bloc of wealthy European nations would have been considered a quaint eccentric. Political party memberships had dwindled to historic lows and youth turnout at elections was at rock bottom. Millennials - young adults who came of age after 2000 - were said to be apathetic: turned off by politics and more interested in careers, consumption and social networks than changing the world. Then, all of a sudden last summer, young people were at the forefront of the campaign to install veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. This summer, huge numbers of millennials declared membership of the European Union a cornerstone of their personal identity, campaigned on the Remain side in Britain’s EU referendum, and even turned out on the streets to protest when the vote went the other way. In retrospect, it seems we are at the climax of a steadily developing trend. The supposed apathy and political lethargy that was the legacy of the non-politics of spin appears to have been reversed. From housing to higher education, young people have opinions and are not afraid to express them - often by angrily denouncing the profligacy of the Baby Boomers who have undermined their economic security and now wrenched them out of Europe. The millennials have been radicalised.

Or have they? First of all, of course, not all millennials backed Corbyn or the Remain side in the EU. And what of those who did? Were these positions the result of a critical engagement with political realities, reflecting a rigorous challenge to the status quo? Or simply a case of going with the fashionable flow? Critics point out that support for the EU in particular is hardly radical, that the unquestioning support for ‘Europe’ expressed by many suggested groupthink rather than genuine critical thinking. The same critics point to the trend for ‘no platforming’ on university campuses, with student unions banning unpopular speakers from their debates, as evidence that the millennials are in fact deeply conservative and averse to challenging ideas. And as for the ‘generation wars’, some of the most prominent advocates of the idea that the young have been sold out are from precisely the generation said to have done the selling out - including former Conservative government minister David Willetts.

So is millennial ‘radicalism’ any more than a youthful endorsement of the politics of the status quo? Or is the very idea of generational politics - the insistence that it is possible to predict a person’s views based on their age - a lazy generalisation that obscures more than it reveals?