With inflation soaring, trust in governments plummeting, and the global economy teetering on the brink of collapse, one might expect to see the masses out in the streets, calling for the heads of their rulers. But instead of rage and rebellion, we mostly see apathy. Rather than getting radicalised, people are dropping out.
Political alienation is at a high. As headlines proclaim disaster after disaster, from the pandemic to recession to the climate “apocalypse”, people are losing their faith in the future. In the US, public trust in government is lower today than it was after Watergate, and Americans are disengaging massively from politics on social media and cable news. In the world’s democracies, voter turnout has dropped from an average 80% in the Eighties to closer to 60% today. More than half of that decline reflects generational change. In the US, for instance, citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 typically turn out at a rate more than 10 points lower than those over the age of 30.
Lower turnout, particularly among the young, has skewed politics towards the extremes. In France, barely 40% of the electorate voted in the recent election, part of what Le Monde described as “political de-socialisation”. Those under 35 who did bother favoured Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the aged Trotskyite, or Marine Le Pen, the doyenne of French fascism, over President Emmanuel Macron, who embodies the technocratic centre.
A similar pattern is playing out in the United States. As apathy rises, young voters have tended to favour more ideologically extreme candidates such as Bernie Sanders, who, in the 2016 primaries, won more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. But for the most part, young Americans are rejecting the system altogether. According to the political scientist Yascha Mounk, while more than two-thirds of older Americans still embrace democracy, only one in three millennials do.
It would be one thing if people were merely tuning out of politics, but they are increasingly dropping out of the economy as well. In Japan, the historical heartland of workaholics, observers in the Eighties began to note the rise of the “shinjinrui”, or the “new race”. These were young people who rejected work for a life as “freetors”, often living with their parents and spending their time traveling, playing video games, and pursuing hobbies. Lately, a similar phenomenon has spread elsewhere in Asia, including China, where millennials have abandoned striving in favour of “lying flat.”
Even before the pandemic there were rising labour shortages in Europe, which are expected to become more severe in the future. But the problem isn’t limited to Europe. In the US, labour-force participation fell from its peak of 67.1% in 2000 to 61% today, according the St. Louis Fed. A 2021 report from the Chamber of Commerce noted that as recently as 2012, there were four available workers for every job. Today that number is barely 1.4, half the historic average. The decline is particularly marked among men, whose participation rate has dropped by 5% since 1980. Today, an estimated one-third of America’s working-age males are not working.
The answer to why so many are dropping out starts with economics. In the United States, social mobility has declined precipitously over the last four decades. A 2016 study found that since the early Eighties, the chance of middle-class earners moving up to the top rungs of the earnings ladder dropped by approximately 20%. According to projections from Deloitte, by 2030, millennials will be the largest adult generation by far but will own only 16% of the country’s wealth. Gen Xers will hold 31%, while Baby Boomers, who will be entering their eighties and nineties, will control 45%.
Partly, this is a result of the post-pandemic reluctance to take low wages or accept jobs in the “gig” economy, where pay and hours are often uncertain. Some low-wage workers have also found state support during the pandemic to be, in many cases, more profitable than work itself. In countries such as Italy and Spain, high levels of public welfare delinked from work have also been associated with the persistently high unemployment.
A recent analysis of Federal Reserve data shows that young Americans with a college degree today earn about as much as their Boomer grandparents without degrees did at the same age. Upwards of 40% of recent college graduates have jobs that don’t require a degree at all. In 2018, half of all college grads made under $30,000 annually, and another recent study suggests that most underemployed graduates remain that way permanently.
In Japan and China, too, college graduates face diminishing opportunities. And unhappiness among the young is growing across the developed world. A 2017 study found that young people in France, Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany were even more pessimistic about the future than their American counterparts.
This rising disaffection has severe implications for our political and economic health. Capitalism certainly is not in good stead. A strong majority of people in 28 countries around the world believe capitalism does more harm than good. More than four in five worry about job loss. It’s hard to sell a system that provides so little opportunity, particularly for new entrants and small firms.
It is possible to imagine a future society in which a small, hyper-productive managerial elite delivers food, housing, and pleasure to unemployed and demotivated plebs. This idea has wide acceptance among American tech oligarchs. According to Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders, most believe that “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” This notion, usually associated with Universal Basic Income (UBI), has been endorsed by numerous oligarchs, including Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar, Elon Musk, and Sam Altman.
This prospect — of governments providing their citizens with unearned lucre to boost consumption — would seem a natural fit for a population that is unmotivated and often lacks useful skills. Rather than working, people can live in subsidised apartments and spend their time feeding their cats, losing themselves in the emerging metaverse, drinking, and smoking pot as they grow old without ever starting a family. A prototype for this model has already been glimpsed in America’s Covid-19 relief program and in Biden’s proposed Build Back Better plan, which would have extended benefits to those who were able to join the workforce but don’t care to.
Some may call this socialism, but it is closer to Brave New World. Marxists and social democrats, whatever their flaws, traditionally celebrated work. They did not envision a a stagnant, oligarchic society that would come to resemble the last centuries of the Roman Empire or Qing dynasty China. As author Aaron Renn suggests, societies where income transfers have become a way of life tend to be bad for their members. Native American tribes that receive a form of de facto UBI from casinos show shocking levels of drug abuse, alcoholism, and idleness.
In the future, the disaffected masses could find themselves living more like prisoners than citizens. Avoiding that outcome requires finding ways to replace disaffection with ambition and a commitment to human progress. “The habit of despair is worse than despair itself,” Albert Camus noted in The Plague. Absent a recommitment to growth and democracy, we can expect a future of stagnation and ever-growing inequality — one in which we, lacking the will and capacity to create new riches, may find ourselves reduced to fighting, like junkyard dogs, over the scraps of a diminished world.