Millenials are an ambiguous generation. On the one hand, the media portray them as politically passive, while scholars speak of the lack of connection with politicians. The project of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) tried to find the truth about a political engagement of the Millenial generation. We spoke with a FEPS Senior Policy Advisor Maria Freitas about youth voting, a generation gap and the division of Europe on Western and Central-Eastern
Millenials, who are they?
The Millenial generation is frequently depicted in the media in a very negative way. Those born between 1980 and 2000, aged 15 to 35, are often described as being lazy, apathetic, not politically engaged, and sometimes even having issues in getting into the ballot boxes. The generation is portrayed as disinterested in exercising their right to vote. And this was actually what prompted FEPS and partners all over the world to look in the ways in which politics and the relationship of politics with Millenials and vice versa could be ameliorated.
How did you investigate the Millenial generation from the technical point of view? Which was the methodology of the research?
What we decided to do was to launch a pilot project with a think tank Center for American Progress, our counterpart in the United States of America. Our team looked for questions to ask in this survey. We held brainstorming meetings with the relevant stakeholders in Brussels and beyond to identify the issues, the topics that we would like to work on.
After we did that framework, we launched a pilot survey in Poland, Italy, and Germany. From there the excitement was so great that we actually did the survey in 22 countries all over the world.
We pursued a focus group research. Basically, we got a representative group of young people in each country, North, South, East, West, with respect to income, education, age, gender. So, let’s say, we had 12 young people representing various areas of the country. Then, we questioned them about the topics we have prepared before to validate whether these topics would be of interest to pursue then in a quantitative survey. The latter was done with a survey service provider, to whom we have also sent our specific template of questions. We did a survey of 1000 young respondents in every country. This deep and rich process makes us confident in the data and the analysis that followed.
More recently we have also launched in November 2018, ahead of the European elections in May 2019, a new set of questions, asking what Millenials were expecting from the European project, European integration, etc.
Why do you think that Millenials` political behavior is of particular importance for studying nowadays?
Why is it important to understand the expectations and aspirations of this generation? It is demographics that matters. Not only because of its share of size, it is a generation that it is important to engage in the act of voting, to make Millenials part of democratic processes. Therefore, this was the reason we decided to bring about the greater understanding of this generation. And also because of the peculiarities of Millenials, their characteristics. It is a generation that was marked by the 2008 economic crisis. The crisis has delayed much of the markers of adulthood, such as buying a house, creating a family, having children. On the other side, the generation has a higher degree of studies than previous generations, it is connective. The generation of digital natives that have friends all over the world. All these things should inform policy makers in the sense of better responding to the aspirations of this generation.
Thank you very much for such a nuanced characteristic of the Millenials! You have noted that you led investigations all over the world. Did you notice context-specific differences between the Millenials?
In the first bunch of surveys, we focused specifically on Europe. Of course, the difference between Central-Eastern Europe and Western Europe could be felt, more in the terms of expectations of being taken care of, of having access to social security, expectations of a better future. Let’s say these aspirations were most deeply sensed in Central-Eastern Europe, because as we know, the region is not at the same pace as Western Europe in terms of social conditions, salaries etc. And now in the most recent survey, the one that we did ahead of the European elections, we saw that the countries of the South, notably Portugal and Spain, were standing out in terms of solidaristic approach. Example: in their perceptions of migration and immigration, they were showing a greater openness to receive migrants.
The context-specific data could tell more. There are specificities to Germany, because of the political context. But in all the regions, in all of the countries, Millenials were expressing a deep desire to be involved in the decision-making processes and have more impact.
Talking about the regional specificities, which type of political participation, conventional or unconventional, did Millenials prefer in different countries? I know that a regime perspective can have its print on the freedom of deliberation.
We did these surveys in countries where democratic processes are working, and fair and free elections are working as well. Here you could see that Millenials express a great desire for political participation and also convey the tools that they would see as enabling them to participate even more. For instance, they were saying: “Social media is interesting, but it is not the only way we want to engage. We actually want to have a two-way conversation with a politician that will hopefully represent us more”. They showed a great interest for online-voting and making voting an easier process.
In terms of regions, there was no differentiation on the tools that would lead to a greater participation other than large desire to be involved, to be impactful in the policies, and not just being vehicles for democratic exercise in one day and then just being put aside for the next 4 years.
Which parties were more successful at establishing tight communication with the Millenials, mainstream or radical ones?
In the survey we did not ask about radical parties, but we did ask about mainstream ones. In terms of radicalization, we see in the media and even in some recent elections in Europe that radical parties in certain instances do have the capacity to galvanize the Millenial generation. But what our study actually showed is that mainstream parties, and here specially progressive parties, are perceived as being competent, professional, but lacking the capacity to reach the Millenial generation in a meaningful way. Progressive parties are perceived positively, but they need to do an extra step in terms of communication.
Which extra step can politicians make?
What could it be? There are so many ways. Millenials expressed their wish for a political leader that inspires, shares with them a meaningful vision for the future. Politicians have to contribute to that vision. Political parties could create specialized working groups or local party branches. For instance, a young person might be very interested in climate change policies and that would be a contribution focus of that person in that political party. A leadership vision and engagement at the local branch are the 2 ideas that may help.
To sum up, could you memorize the most impressive conclusions of the whole Millenial investigation?
What captured my mind, was definitely the fact that Millenial generation still cares deeply about Europe and European project. This is specially visible in how they perceive their identities. They are first European, and then country national. This is reflected in the recent election turnout at the European elections, where the younger part of Millenials, like 18 to 25, was the one that created a big upsurge in terms of participation. We had 52% in the European elections; it was historical.
Millenial generation is deeply pro-European, but it does not mean that the generation accepts the European project of the status-quo. It needs to be a project that delivers to the expectations of the Millenials. This is the wrap of the main conclusion, the most positive message that arose from the project.