Something unusual is happening among Britain’s youngest voters, known as Generation Z or the Zoomers. Increasingly, those under the age of 22 seem to be diverging from voters aged between 22 and 39, and appear considerably more conservative, to the point where today’s 18-year-olds are about as right-wing as 40 year-olds.
How might this be explained? Are Zoomers just more irreverent, reacting against their politically-correct older siblings? Or is it that Britain’s newest voters are simply too young to have been shaped by the Brexit shock? Whatever the explanation, in the immediate post-Brexit years the youngest voters were 40 points more liberal than the oldest. Today they are only 20 points more to the Left.
The rise of Right-wing populism in the West from 2014 onwards led some to argue that the future heralded a nationalist revolt against the multiculturalism of the post-1960s era. The staggering demise of mainstream Left parties in recent years is attributed to their pivot away from economic issues toward an embrace of globalisation and a concern with the claims of disadvantaged racial and sexual minorities, and other identity politics issues.
Against this is the theory, found both in conservative analyses like Ed West’s recent book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, and liberal ones like Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart’s Cultural Backlash, that young people are trending ever more Left. Less attached to tradition and more physically secure, they are embracing empathy and liberalising social change, and each new generation is more liberal than the last. Those who vote for anti-immigration parties like Ukip in Britain or the AfD in Germany tend to be older, and, as they die off, western societies will begin electing the Left once again.
The former theory suggests that Left parties need to shelve their wokeness and liberal immigration policies to avoid repelling disadvantaged whites. The latter counsels patience: history is on the Left’s side, and, with generational turnover, demography will carry it to victory. On this score, Biden’s strong poll numbers might be a harbinger of Left-liberal resurgence.
This certainly seemed to be the case in Britain, where, at the December 2019 election, the Tories won just 21% of the 18-24 age group but 67% of those 70 or above, so that age seemed to have replaced class as the primary cleavage of British politics. What seems to have occurred, starting slowly in the early 2000s, and gathering pace after 2010, very much fits his argument that newer generations, moulded in a progressive mediascape and education system, are set to enact “the biggest cultural shift in half a millennium”.
Figure 1, which I have compiled from waves of the British Election Study (BES) going back to 1964, shows little difference in the voting patterns of those under 25 and over 65 up until 2001. However, beginning with the 2005 vote, a six-point gap opened up between young and old, steadily widening until it reached 40 points in 2017 and again 2019. In the last election, according to the BES, nearly eight in ten young people voted for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Left-inclined regional nationalists.
Young people really seem to inhabit a different world to the old, and it is about culture. Most of the age gap doesn’t concern economic redistribution, where Millennials tend, if anything to lean toward individualism and away from redistribution. Rather it revolves around “culture wars” questions, notably immigration, attitudes to race, gender and sexuality, as well as Brexit. Millennials are simply less attuned to British traditions of nationhood and more influenced by the liberal cosmopolitan ethos of film, vloggers, pop music, advertisers and the education system.
The story of the never-ending march of each generation toward liberalism is difficult to square, however, with Gen-Z’s more conservative tilt. If the youngest voters are now moving in a conservative direction, much of the empirical ground under the West-Norris liberalisation claim collapses.
In the earliest stages of a new trend, it is often difficult to acquire sufficient data to rule out statistical blips — but the growing conservatism of the youngest British voters can no longer be readily dismissed. YouGov maintains what is arguably the largest panel of survey respondents in the western world, its Profiles dataset containing the views of over 200,000 people.
This means that for every single age (apart from the very old), there are some 3,000-4,500 people — a much larger sample than one finds for all age groups in most opinion surveys that make the news. So we can’t dismiss trends at the youngest edge of the age graph as a statistical aberration.
One YouGov question asks “Some people talk about ‘Left’, ‘Right’ and ‘centre’ to describe parties and politicians. With this in mind, where would you place yourself on this scale?” The scale is a 7-point question from “very Left-wing” through to “very Right-wing”. The share of those who don’t know where to place themselves is about 30-40 percent between age 18 and 40, with no clear relationship to age. If we remove those in the centre — where it is also difficult to discern an age pattern — and amalgamate all shades of left and right into two categories, this yields the graph in figure 2. (Coda for those sticklers out there: if we don’t remove centrists or those who don’t know, but instead compile everything into an index of all data, the results remain the same.)
What is striking is that the views of today’s 18-year-olds are basically aligned with those of 40-year-olds. If young people were trending consistently more liberal over time, the biggest gap between the two lines should be at age 18, but instead it is between 22 to 26, where there is a 40-point gap between Left and Right.
These trends seem to be ongoing. Profiles data (at least that which I have been able to see) begin in July 2019, and Figure 3 compares data from a year ago with data from now. There is always some variability in a sample, but if you look at the same question a year ago, what you find is that the most liberal age was 20. Now it is 21 or 22. This is consistent with the pattern of a more Left-wing Millennial generation moving through the electorate as it ages while a more conservative Zoomer generation takes its place.
Weren’t 21-year-olds always more Left-wing than 18-year-olds? After all, the younger group haven’t attended university. Actually, no. The British Election Study allows us to go further back to see how things have changed since Brexit. In 2015, the BES age-voting series showed the classic West-Norris cohort liberalisation pattern of Left-identification and voting rising monotonically with age. Eighteen-year-olds were most Left-leaning. That is no longer true.
Why is this? Could it be that today’s 18-year-olds have yet to go through the liberalising crucible of university education, and when they do, they will be as liberal as today’s 22-year-olds? In a word, no. For one thing, the evidence that university has much effect on the political attitudes of students is pretty thin. For another, whether we look at men or women, students or non-students, in YouGov Profiles, the 18-year-olds seem more conservative than the 22-year-olds.
Further evidence comes from the BES. Unlike Profiles, whose data I can’t access for multivariate analysis (even the little I have shown is only permitted due to me purchasing an expensive survey), the BES allows me to screen out the effect of university attendance, gender and even attitudes to immigration and redistribution. Its latest wave asks people who they voted for in 2015 and 2019, so that assuming a 22-year-old in the 2019 data was 18 at the time of the 2015 election, this allows us to compare voters of the same age during both contests.
BES is a smaller sample than Profiles so the data are bumpier, but the basic trends are the same, and what the numbers reveal is twofold. First, in 2019, with the exception of a bump at age 20 which could well be noise coming from a smaller sample, support for the Left peaks at age 24, with 18-year-olds considerably less likely to vote for a socialist or liberal party. By contrast, in 2015, the line — with bumps for smaller sample size — slopes downward Left-to-Right: the younger the voter, the greater their chance of voting for a Left party.
So what explains the Zoomers’ relative conservatism? While I can’t test this systematically because I don’t have the Profiles dataset, I have been able to look at patterns in the figures, and I believe there are two leading explanations. The first, which I consider more likely, is the fading of the Brexit shock. The second, revolving around Zoomers’ hostility to political correctness, receives weaker support.
After Brexit, Millennial voters shifted strongly against the Conservatives. The typical 23-year-old in 2019 had, controlling for gender and education level, an 80% chance of saying they voted Labour, Lib Dem, Green or for a regional nationalist party. But the same voters, aged 19 in 2015, reported just a 68% chance of having voted for a Left party. So young people moved against the Tories between the 2015 and 2019 elections. On the other hand, the 18- and 19-year-old voters of 2019, just 15 and 16 at the time of the Brexit result, hadn’t reached political maturity. Having missed the anti-Tory bump of Brexit, their voting patterns recall those of the pre-Brexit Millennials.
Is there any evidence for a “Jordan Peterson effect” of Zoomers rejecting the Left-liberalism of their older siblings? This would truly be the death-knell for the “coming left majority” thesis. One US survey finds Gen-Z to be more politically polarised, and, especially among men, less politically correct — influenced by countercultural voices on social media rather than the mainstream media and educational institutions. On the other hand, Pew finds American Zoomers to resemble Millennials. This said, firm conclusions are tricky because some of these surveys sample children as young as 13, before they have reached political maturity.
While the fading Brexit shock seems to explain Zoomer’s reduced leftism, this may not be the whole story. For example, in the BES data, which admittedly suffers from a smaller sample, a typical 18-year-old in 2015 — before the Brexit shock — had a 73% chance of voting for a Left party, whereas an 18 year-old in 2019 had only a 67% chance of doing so. This indicates a move to the Right despite Brexit, and that something else might be going on.
Attitudes to immigration or the economy in Profiles don’t appear to differ much between Zoomers and Millennials, so this is unlikely to explain the conservative drift among youth. On the other hand, support for political correctness (net of opposition to it) is 5-10 points lower among 18- and 19 year-olds compared to those aged 22-29. This seems to be especially marked among 18-19 year-old men, who are 10-15 points more opposed to PC than in favour of it — even as Zoomer women are 30-40 points more in favour of it than against it. This gender divide may become a critical one for the politics of Gen-Z.
Political correctness is generally a bigger issue for young people compared to the old. But even so, it’s noteworthy that in Profiles, 20% of 18 and 19-year-olds, the highest of any age, say political correctness is a top issue. This compares to around 13-14% of those aged 22-29 who say it is important. Despite this, there is bumpiness across age groups and results shift somewhat over time, so I am not convinced this relationship is as strong as the Brexit one, and the data seem to fit the story of a Brexit shock better than that of an anti-PC backlash.
West’s argument, like Norris and Inglehart’s, is that younger generations are becoming ever more liberal and will usher in a revolutionary change as the electorate ages. That story is yet to be written, but even though Zoomers appear more Right-leaning than Millennials, we’ll need to see evidence of further change before we can dismiss West’s thesis.
In the 2019 election 18- and 19-year-olds were about 10 points more likely to vote Conservative than those aged 22-30. There is a similar pattern for party identification, with 18-year-olds about ten points more likely to identify with the Conservatives than 22 year-olds. Nevertheless, the distance the Tories still need to travel among Zoomers is great.
James Tilley, using data that tracked voters over a 30-year period, showed that people become 20 points more likely to vote Tory between the ages of 20 and 80. If this holds, today’s Zoomers will still be only 50% Right-leaning when they reach their ninth decade, and long before this the hyper-liberal Millennials will have worked their way through the electorate, causing elections to swing far to the Left before moving back toward the centre.
All told, Zoomer conservatism is currently not strong enough to alter the broad picture West paints. Only time will tell if younger members of Gen-Z drift even further Right, but it’s probably safer to assume otherwise. The Conservatives are going to have to do a lot more to reverse the leftward drift of the culture if they hope to remain competitive in a generation’s time. As things currently stand, they do appear on the wrong side of history.