April 21, 2020

By the time my first-year university students turn 25 they will have experienced two major financial crises and a global pandemic.

That’s not bad going.

Born between 1996 and 2015, members of ‘Generation Z’ are now guaranteed to spend their formative years surrounded by economic shocks and stagnation. Given that what happens during these ‘coming of age’ years strongly affects our politics and how we see the world around us, what might this mean for Zoomers in a post-Covid world?

Unlike my students, I was born in 1981 which either makes me an old Millennial or a young Gen-X’er. Formative experiences for my generation included the dominance of the Conservatives and then the arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour, which seemed to usher in a new liberal zeitgeist. It was also a time of continuous economic growth, falling unemployment and expanding university education. There were certainly challenges but nothing seemed to go seriously wrong until the terrorist attacks on 9/11, or at least that’s how I remember it.

For my Zoomer students, however, the coming of age experience has been utterly different. Their formative experiences have included major economic downturns and recessions, international crises and divisive debates about the ‘losers of globalisation’ and the rise of global populism.

They were children when Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Great Recession followed. They were in primary school during the years of austerity, and in secondary school when the country voted for Brexit (a contest which they were not eligible to participate in). And today, after having already been set back by the Great Recession, they are preparing to graduate and enter the workplace just as a global pandemic sweeps across the globe and pushes the economy into yet another financial crisis.

Whereas older Millennials entered the workforce as the Great Recession hit, leaving them to navigate a ‘double crisis’ that was political and economic, Zoomers are about to enter the workforce against the backdrop of both the Great Recession and the Great Lockdown, leaving them to navigate a ‘triple crisis’ that runs across politics, economics and health.

It takes years, if not decades, to make sense of generational effects, so we can’t know the true extent of the Covid fallout for years. But we can at least use past evidence to make a few informed predictions about the future.

We know, for instance, how values are shaped by what happens around us. It was the relative economic security and affluence of the post-war economic ‘miracle’ that at least played some role in encouraging the (then young) Baby Boomers to gradually move away from the concerns about physical and economic security that had dominated the minds of their parents, who had lived through two world wars, the 1918 flu pandemic and serious economic distress.

Coming of age between 1961 and 1982, the Boomers benefited hugely from the rapid expansion of the middle-class, welfare state and university education. They enjoyed rising living standards, rising life expectancy and did not need to worry too much about their basic security.

It was this wider environment that helped pave the way for the great ‘liberal revolutions’ of the Sixties. Boomers came together to push through a shift away from ‘materialist’ values — focused on survival, security and fulfilling basic needs — toward a new era of ‘post-materialist’ values where, because those basic needs are met, people had the resources to indulge other ‘higher-level’ concerns, over freedom, self-expression, social status and esteem. The political effects that followed — a preoccupation with lifestyle issues, minority rights, sexual liberation, environmentalism, and so on — were all downstream of this value shift.

Not everybody participated in this shift, of course. As we now know, the liberal revolution did not appeal to the economically precarious working-class and self-employed, low-skilled service sector workers and people without degrees, who still prioritise security over social status and group attachment over lofty appeals to universal principles. The Left’s failure to recognise this lies behind many of its crushing electoral defeats, like Jeremy Corbyn’s in 2019.

Nor did the liberal revolution appeal to traditional social conservatives who simply did not share these post-materialist values, no matter how many university degrees they won or how much money they earned. True, liberal progressives came to dominate the agenda, but they underestimated how, from the 1990s onward, these other groups would come together to try and slow the liberal revolution. This ‘counter-revolution’ would end up powering the rise of populist and conservative parties across Europe, pushing social democracy into an existential crisis and then handing victories to Brexit, Trump and Boris Johnson, among others.

Many liberal progressives hoped that young Millennials and Zoomers would come to their rescue; that these newly-ascendant generations would mobilise a backlash to the backlash. But that was based on the assumption that these same young voters would have a somewhat similar coming-of-age experience to their Gen-X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents; that they would enjoy economic security and be able to afford the increasingly expensive university education — two things we know are central to the development of post-materialist values.

Yet the Great Recession and the Great Lockdown give us good reason to question that assumption. Even before the latest crisis researchers in the UK were already warning that the inter-generational contract was coming unstuck.

And even before the first of these two financial crises, young voters were suffering from low wage growth, leaving them with similar earnings to cohorts born 15 years earlier, were more likely than their predecessors to work part-time, to work in low-pay jobs, to be less likely to move jobs and so less likely to achieve pay rises, to have lower rates of home ownership, to have harder commutes, to spend more of their incomes on housing and, at least for Millennials, to live on disposable incomes no higher than they were for Gen-X’ers at the same age.

In short, whereas Boomers enjoyed considerable improvements compared to their parents’ generation, for the Millennials and Zoomers, this generational progress has stalled. Even before the current crisis, these youngsters were sliding back down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, back toward those more fundamental concerns over economic security. The arrival of Covid-19 will likely entrench all of this, focusing their minds not only on economic security but, at an even more basic level, their physical security too.

This is especially likely to happen southern Europe, where Zoomers in the more impoverished and indebted south are already having a fundamentally different life experience from the same cohort in the more secure and stable north. Even before the coronavirus crisis erupted, Europe’s next generation of leaders were grappling with unemployment rates of only 6% in Germany and the Netherlands but 29% in Italy, 31% in Spain and 36% in Greece. The Economist recently referred to the latter as the ‘pyrrhic victors’ of globalisation; while they have played by the same rules as their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, and also previous generations, two financial crises in close succession mean that they “have singularly failed to reap the expected benefits”.

This not only helps explain why two million young Italians have left their families and country over the past decade, but also why we are now witnessing growing divides in the attitudes and outlook of Zoomers across Europe. As one study has shown, since the Great Recession younger people in ‘debtor’ states such as Italy, Greece and Spain have become far more sceptical of the EU than their counterparts in ‘creditor’ states like Germany, who have been much better insulated from the economic fallout. Such findings challenge the seductive narrative that Euroscepticism will steadily ‘die off’ and that a newly-ascendant generation of pro-Europeans is about to ride to the rescue. They also make it hard to avoid the conclusion that these divides will sharpen in the coming years, as different member states have very different experiences of the recovery.

This will have big political effects, even if we don’t see them for a while. As various academics have shown, economic crises also tend to be followed by a decline of trust in politics, a loss of confidence in how democracy is working and increased pessimism about the future. Just as the Great Recession was followed by a decade of political upheaval — one that witnessed the rise of populism, Brexit, Trump, the fragmentation of Europe’s political systems and also the rise of the Greens — it seems likely that the Great Lockdown will pave the way for something just as volatile.

Perhaps it will trigger a return to the familiar. If Millennials and Zoomers are now falling down the hierarchy of needs, then might they revive older debates about economic redistribution, jobs, taxation and inequality? We could be about to witness the return rather than the retreat of the traditional Left-Right divide in politics.

Who, then, will this young cohort trust to manage these pressing issues? Some thinkers have suggested that whereas the economic crash in 1929 represented a failure of markets that paved the way for a bigger role for the state, and whereas the stagnation of the 1970s represented a failure of the state that paved the way for the return of markets, then together the post-2008 Great Recession and post-2020 Great Lockdown might pave the way, once again, for the return of the state.

Zoomers, it seems to me at least, will feel especially comfortable with a new era of big government, especially if it is far more active against climate change and crony capitalism. After all, unlike their Gen-X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents, this is a generation that, in little more than a decade, has watched the state come to the rescue on not one but two occasions.

And who will be the main beneficiary of this new wave of disillusionment? Given that economic hardship has tended to benefit the Left more than the Right, one way to answer this question is to suggest that we might now see something of a return of social democratic and/or Green movements, especially when their economic radicalism is combined with the one issue that really does animate my students: climate change. Whereas the liberal revolution of the Sixties often presented environmentalism as a lifestyle or status concern, for today’s Zoomers it is both existential and apocalyptic; it is often seen as being as central to their sense of security as food and water.

Might this point to a continuing surge of support for Europe’s Greens? Perhaps, although until now this has mainly been a phenomenon for the more affluent Zoomers in northern Europe. Further south, it seems just as plausible to me that, when their counterparts start to look for answers, they might simply not look toward politics at all.

As Stuart Fox, a leading academic on generational change, told me: “I think we will see the economic consequences of this have more of an impact than anything else in the medium term, and the likely impact will be to make today’s young people even less interested in politics, and even less likely to be politically active, than the Millennials”.

Seen through the eyes of these Zoomers, politicians have consistently failed to manage a succession of crises: the Great Recession; a refugee crisis; the outbreak of Covid-19; and, most importantly of all for this generation, climate change. Perhaps then — when yet another crisis has been and gone — Zoomers will not ask who they should vote for but rather whether they should bother voting at all.