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The Millennials Are Moving Left

Labour's success in the British election is part of a growing trend across Western Europe and America. What's motivating it?

NIKLAS HALLE'N / Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to consolidate power has backfired. Her Conservative Party lost its governing majority in Thursday’s snap-election, forcing it to form a minority government with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which gained 31 net seats while Conservatives lost 12, appeared to get its boost from young voters. That assessment, if accurate, confirms a trend in American and Western European politics toward a radical turn among young voters that could over the next decade further undermine the political center.

What’s motivating these young leftists? The evidence points to underlying economic factors, and suggests that these voters will have a lasting influence on the fundamental structure of Western economies.

First, the numbers: According to a Sky News exit poll, Labour candidates won 63 percent among voters 18 to 34 years old. The Tories took a dismal 27 percent. Turnout among 18-to-25-year-olds was estimated to be between 66 and 72 percent. In 2015, when Labour ran a centrist campaign under Edward Miliband, only 45 percent of these voters turned out. In this year’s vote tallies, Labour did best among those seats that had highest percent of 18-to-24-year-old voters.

In the Democratic primary last year, progressive Bernie Sanders won more 18-to-29-year-old voters than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. In France this year, in the first round of voting among eleven candidates, leftwing maverick Jean-Luc Mélenchon was far ahead among the 18-to-24 year olds with 30 percent of their vote. In last March’s Dutch elections, with eleven parties contesting, the Green Left Party, led by a 31-year-old parliamentarian, won 35 percent of the 18-to-34 year old vote, considerably more than any other party.

In Italy, according to polls taken two years ago, Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement is the favored party of 18-to-29-year-old voters. Spain’s Podemos, which is now the country’s third largest party, was founded by political scientists who were in their early 30s. The party’s chief theoretician, Inigo Errejon, is 33. When I attended a conference in Madrid last year hosted by Europe’s parties of the left, the median age of the attendees looked to be under 30 years old.

Political scientists are apt to cite what are called “post-materialist” concerns to explain this leftward turn among millennial voters. Certainly, concerns about climate change and about intolerance toward gays, immigrants, and ethnic and racial groups has played a role. In the U.K., young voters disproportionately supported “remain,” which probably contributed to the Labour vote this time. (Corbyn favored a softer exit from the European Union.) But there are also important material factors that are propelling this revolt against the center and the left.

In the United States, rising student debt was a major issue among Sanders’s voters and earlier among the Occupy protestors. In some Western European countries, youth unemployment is extraordinarily high. While it’s 9.4 percent in the United States—more than double the average—and 11.9 percent in the UK, it’s 21.70 percent in France, 34 percent in Italy, and 39.30 percent in Spain. In addition, the way in which political and business leaders have managed the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy may also be leading the young to raise questions about capitalism.

Businesses in the U.S. and Western Europe have increasingly shifted from workforces of full-time, lifetime employees to contracted, temporary, and part-time workers; and labor markets are constantly being reshuffled, as cyber-capitalism creates new niches and specialties at the expense of old ones. In their study of American job growth from 2005 to 2015, economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger discovered that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.” These consist of temporary, part-time, and contracted work that does not, as a rule, include benefits or the prospect of permanent and long-time employment.

In the U.S., many college graduates have had to take low-paid or unpaid internships. Young people also move from job to job rather than taking one job with the expectation of staying there permanently. According to a 2016 study commissioned by LinkedIn, people who graduated college between 1986 and 1990, averaged a little more than 1.6 jobs during their first five years; those who graduated between 2006 and 2010, almost 2.85 jobs.

Western European countries have experienced similar trends. In Holland, which has 5.6 percent unemployment comparable to the United States, more than 20 percent of the employed hold temporary jobs, and 17 percent are self-employed. Part-time employment has soared over the last decade in Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria, and Germany. Temp work through agencies is more than double among 15-24-year-old workers. In Europe, according to a 2012 Eurofund study, 45 percent of those 15-to-29 who are working have temporary jobs. In France, 82 percent of new hires are on temporary contracts.

Such trends have prevailed in the U.K., too; only Switzerland and the Netherlands have a higher percentage of part-time workers. While 24 percent of the U.K. labor force is part-time, 14.9 percent is self-employed. Many young people have to look to the “gig economy” for work. A think tank report on this economy concludes, “The uncertainty over how gig workers will fare over time, however, is making people feel uneasy about whether they will still have a decent standard of living in the wake of ‘disruption.’

Could this change in the economy have led young voters to support parties and candidates like Corbyn, Sanders, and Mélenchon that, unlike those of the center-left and center-right, are highly critical of the current capitalism? I suspect so. And in so far as the trends seem to be ongoing, the discontent expressed by these voters is unlikely to abate as they age and is likely to affect future generations as well.