Recent elections in the United States and Europe have shocked both domestic and international audiences. Much of the credit for the surprise outcomes goes to millennial voters, growing as a proportion of the voter pool, and proving themselves both politically engaged and dissatisfied with the status quo.
In both Europe and the United States, today’s youngest cohort of voters came of age during the great financial crisis, in a time of rapidly advancing technology and widespread uncertainty about the future. This formative experience has left the group, here defined as those born between 1985 and 2000, with different values and expectations than older generations, as reflected in their political behavior.
Nowhere was the result more riveting than in Catalonia, which voted to secede from Spain. As residents of a region that has in the past decade enjoyed varying levels of autonomy, many younger Catalonians grew up not even considering themselves Spanish.1 A recent spike in the share of millennials in Catalonia, which coincided with many reaching voting age during a period of heightened political activity, likely helped spur the independence referendum. (Chart)
In the case of the United States, immigration bolsters the already large population of younger Americans, keeping their share roughly stable even as older voters live longer. This growing block of younger voters is taking share from older voters. For the first time in several decades, those born before 1964, Baby Boomers and older, made up less than half of voters in the 2016 election, compared to 25 percent for millennials.2
This trend will become more pronounced in 2020 and beyond as millennials’ relative numbers and participation at the polls increase with their age. The millennial share of the voting public is expected to skyrocket past 34 percent in 2020, which could significantly lift Democratic prospects.3
Millennials are a notoriously unpredictable group, with 44 percent identifying as independents. Still, in 2016, when pressed to declare a preference, over one-half identify as Democrat or leaning Democrat.4
In the snap 2017 British general election, millennial turnout, the highest in decades, largely drove the Labour Party’s surprise gains.5 Given that half of Conservatives are over the age of 65, demographics suggest that Labour can only gain in government as their members replace those Tories dying off. With expectations rising that Theresa May will not last five more years as prime minister, demographics could soon flip the Parliament.
French elections belie the assumption that millennials are automatically a liberal political force. To be sure, they were a tremendous boost to recently elected President Emmanuel Macron, a political unknown who formed an entirely new party to challenge traditional French politics.
However, in the first round, analogous to a U.S. primary, the difference in the vote between Macron, the highest vote getter, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the lowest of the major candidates, was less than 5 percentage points, and among the bottom three, including Marine Le Pen and François Fallon, less than 2 percentage points. Even small shifts in the voting public could have reshaped the final run-off considerably.6
More striking is the relatively high percentage of millennials who voted for Le Pen. Le Pen won 20 to 30 percent of the votes among 20- to 30-year-olds, peaking at well over 40 percent among 30- to 40-year-old voters. Older voters went against Le Pen in large numbers.7
This underscores the importance of unemployment and jobs as a political issue in France. According to Eurostat, the French unemployment rate hovers close to 9 percent but is almost 25 percent among young voters.8 These younger voters will age and, if they fail to find jobs, the right-wing will likely gain strength.
The sudden success of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Germany’s 2017 election was largely thanks to previous non-voters. The AfD’s support came from across the board in terms of age, with the large share coming from the 30- to 44-year-old group.9 Millennials are growing as a share in Germany, and they will also age into this important pocket of AfD support. Like France, economic issues are key for millennial workers and slightly older voters who share their concerns.
It is too early to draw hard conclusions about the voting preferences of this important emerging generation. In the United States and Great Britain, this new crop of voters tend to be more liberal and cosmopolitan. In France and Germany, they appear to be more conservative and economically motivated.
What we do know is that their numbers and influence will increase and, given the independent streak of U.S. millennials, their preferences are subject to change. Millennials may well become a more potent force undermining traditional political values, right and left, in the future.
1 Barry, Ellen. “Catalans, Elated but Fearful, Brace for Independence Vote.” The New York Times, September 29, 2017.
2 Fry, Richard. “Millennials and Gen Xers outvoted Boomers and older generations in 2016 election.” Pew Research Center, July 31, 2017.
3 Brownstein, Ronald. “After 2016 Election, Will Millennials Know How to Use Their New Power?” The Atlantic, May 22, 2015.
4 Fry, Richard. “Millennials and Gen Xers outvoted Boomers and older generations in 2016 election.” Pew Research Center, July 31, 2017.
5 Burn-Murdoch, John. “Youth Turnout at General Election Highest in 25 Years, Data Show.” Financial Times, July 20, 2017.
6 Burn-Murdoch, John, et al. “French Election Results: Macron’s Victory in Charts.” Financial Times, ,May 9, 2017.
8 Ben Chu Economics Editor. “Are one in four young French people really unemployed?” The Independent, May 24, 2017.
9 Blickle, Paul, et al. “German Election: The AfD Profits from Non-Voters and Merkel Defectors.” ZEIT ONLINE, September 25, 2017.
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