Comparing young peoples’ political agendas and views on inequality in Australia, the UK and USA

Talking about inequality has become reinvigorated in recent political debate. The financial crisis of 2008 changed real circumstances for many young people in advanced democracies, making everyday life more precarious. New social movements emerged that focused on growing inequality, such as Indignados in Spain and the Occupy movement in the USA. In early 2014 a dense economic text Capital, written by a French economist Thomas Piketty, revealed the international and historical trajectories of growing inequality. The book has been a bestseller.

Young people are concerned about everyday material issues in their lives, from the economy at large, to access to healthcare, work, education and welfare. However, there are also stark differences among young people in how they understand changing economic circumstances and growing inequality, and to whom they attribute the responsibility for its redress. These differences are shaped by the prominence of identity politics and the individualisation of political engagement for young people; as well as actual diverse everyday lived-experiences that young people have. The importance of understanding everyday lived-experience has been emphasised in critical youth political engagement scholarship. Marsh, O’Toole and Jones (2007) for example, following Pierre Bourdieu, emphasise that individuals’ political experiences are shaped by their access to economic, social and cultural resources. Thus, young people can make choices in their political engagement, but it is not unfettered by traditional structures of class, gender and race.

Neoliberal ideals that both demonise those dependent on welfare and the unemployed, and praise individual achievements and self-sufficiency, remain strong in the three advanced democracies we studied: Australia, UK and USA. Even in an era where it is acknowledged that inequality is rising, and that young people are at the forefront of experiencing new forms of disadvantage. Yet context also matters. The actual effect of the global financial crisis (GFC) was not experienced by all young people, in all advanced democracies. Recent OECD data shows that young people in Australia are more likely to attend university, vote in elections and be in employment, than similar young people in the UK and USA; but, despite this, there is a sizable group of young people who do not finish school and a growing rate of youth unemployment. In the USA educational attainment for university and school completions are comparatively high, yet the sheer numbers of unemployed young people – at 3.5 million – and decline of the rate of employment, with low youth electoral engagement, are cause for concern. Youth in the UK seem to have been the worst hit by the GFC, with concomitant very high youth unemployment, sizable declines in employment rates, a large group who did not complete school, and a minority of young people engaged with electoral politics.

Many writing on the sociology of youth accept that life course transitions have changed over the last 20 years. There are generation specific tendencies whereby young people’s lives are less stable, their pathways into work, family and so on, are much more individualised – often described, following Ulrich Beck, as a choice biography. Seminal research by Johanna Wyn and Dan Woodman (2006) analysed young people’s attitudes towards these social changes to move the debate beyond dominant behavioural analyses. They identified three themes to young people’s subjective understandings: responsibility and choice, personal relationships, and finding a balance in life. It is this acceptance by young people of personal responsibility to create an individualised life pathway that is of interest here. The changing subjectivities of young people matter, as they reflect and shape social and political change within society. Looking through this generational context lens also challenges age based generalisations that hide the differences and increasing inequality among young people.

Open ended responses to the question “please list up to three political or social issues you think must be addressed in the next 5 years” shows great variation in the top ranked issues in the three countries. Notably, a majority of young people in the USA, and nearly half in the UK, ranked the economy as an issue of concern for them. In Australia, where young people were less affected by the GFC, the economy was the fifth highest issue, and the first 5 issues all cluster together, with a quarter of respondents nominating them, but no single issue is really dominant.

Australia UK USA
Education            27%

Immigration        27%

Environment/climate 26%

Health                 25%

Economy             23%

Economy             47%

Immigration       35%

Jobs                     31%

Benefits/welfare 29%

Health                  19%

Economy                 58%

Health                      27%

Same sex marriage 23%

Jobs                           19%

International issues 19%

In light of mixed findings across the three countries on the importance of material issues such as the economy, we used our focus groups to explore how young people understand equality and inequality in their own society, and also who they held responsible for the differences in lived-experience between rich and poor people. Discussing an abstract notion of equality was a challenge for our research participants. We divided initial answers to “When you think about the term ‘equality’, what sorts of things come to mind?” into materialist and post-materialist responses. Materialist answers focused on topics such as work/employment, class, education; and benefits; post-material responses focused on a discussions of rights, including mainly identity-based forms of equality, especially gender and same sex relationships, and to a lesser extent race and ethnicity.

There were over twice as many post-material to materialist responses, and materialist answers – especially those that referred to class differences in any way – were most likely to come from young people in the UK. For example:

“There seems to be a greater divide between the classes, with the wealthy staying wealthy, but the people who are less well-off seem to be struggling more and more. People are now more likely to do something about feeling less equal now though, in order to try and change the situation, e.g., the student riots, teacher strikes.”  (Female, UK)

Importantly, materialist interpretations focused on levelling starting points to create equal opportunities for people to excel, dependent on individualised skills and talents. That is, equality was not imagined as everyone having the same economic outcomes.

Postmaterialist and identity-based understandings of inequality were more homogenous across countries but young women were more likely to interpret equality in terms of gender, ethnicity/race and sexuality. For example:

“When I think about equality the sort of things that come to mind are the ‘isms’ like, racism, sexism, etc. Anything that has to do with someone else not being ‘as good’ as another type of person and how we are trying to diminish the line through equality” (Female, USA)

Many suggested equality was created by everyday equal treatment in society, regardless of background and identity. Thus young people did not spontaneously suggest that it was up to to governments to address their grievances and redress the experience of identity based inequality.

When we asked young people to focus on economic based forms of advantage and disadvantage via a cartoon that suggested that there was determinacy in life chances – that is, poverty and wealth are directly inherited via family circumstances – many agreed that this was a true reflection of their society. However, two thirds strongly believed in exceptions: young people could lift themselves out of poverty through hard work and educational opportunities alone. For example, “it is possible to achieve greater if you work harder and focus on what is important (e.g. saving money and not going on as many holidays)” (Female, Australia).

cartoon

There was very little critical engagement with inherited privilege of the rich, and a limited acknowledgement of structural disadvantage as most responses focused on how young people can choose to move out of poverty. For example:

“I do not agree with this picture. This image is conveying that rich people will remain rich and poor people will remain poor! and will always be misery. I do not agree with it, we are individuals that make different choices and believe me when I say, we can change this. I teach students every day and I always tell them, ‘if anyone can change your life it is you’, you are the one who is controlling your life” (Female, UK)

However, politicised young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to be critical of the status quo and to reflect on how both economic and political change is shaping and constraining young peoples’ everyday reality. For example:

“It [the cartoon] represents modern society. If you come from a well off family you will have more options in life, but if you don’t have much money you have to take what you can get generally. Under the current Government poor families are definitely being hit the hardest but there isn’t enough full time jobs out there for everyone and this impacts young people because young people will miss out. Employers wont employ young inexperienced people if they can get away with it and will also pay them less if they can get away with it. Apprenticeships for example are very unfair. How’s it right to pay young people less money for actually more work in most cases. Friends have told me they were treated like a workhorse while people sat on their computers on Facebook or whatever. Also £95 a week is ok-ish for a 16 year old but it’s a pittance to a 24 year old, but even 24 year olds are being treated like kids” (Male, UK)

Implications for political engagement

Our larger research project investigated whether young people are developing new forms of political engagement – beyond electoral engagement – based on the issues that arise in their everyday lives. What we have found is that it is important to understand the context for young people’s political engagement, including the scope they imagine for taking political action, as being shaped by dominant political discourses that prioritise ideas of opportunity, choice, responsibility, and rights. These discourses reflect the individualisation of the broader political context, while downplaying the options for taking collective action to address material grievances.

Disadvantaged young people were more likely to understand inequality based on their subjective experiences, yet it was still underpinned by a powerful understanding of personalised responsibility and choice. As equality is understood mainly in identity terms, this suggests that politics based on lifestyle issues remains strong in the politicisation of young people. We need to better understand the interdependence between materialist and postmaterialist issues as motivators for political engagement, rather than see them as in contradiction or opposition. We also need to move away from the temptation to make generalisations about what all young people think and how they act. Our research shows that diversity and national context matter, but that a language of class conflict and exploitation will not resonate among an audience who believe that they are enabled to make life choices. At the same time identity and post-materialist issue movements (such as environmentalism) that ignore fairness and social justice will be sidelining many young people’s everyday experiences of major economic and social change.

Ariadne Vromen is a Professor of Politics at The Univeristy of Sydney

Read more about this research here.

References

Marsh, David, Therese O’Toole and Su Jones 2007. Young People and Politics in the UK: Apathy or Alienation? Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Wyn, Johanna & Dan Woodman 2006. “Generation, Youth and Social Change in Australia”, Journal of Youth Studies, 9(5): 495-514.

This analysis is based on an article in the journal Policy Studies by Ariadne Vromen, Brian Loader and Michael XenosBeyond lifestyle politics in a time of crisis?: Comparing young peoples’ issue agendas and views on inequality’.