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28 February 2017

Edelman Trust Barometer: Generation Angst

Written by: Ed Williams, Chief Executive Officer, Vice Chairman Europe at Edelman


They are a generation who feel the world is turning too fast. Social media, technology, the whirl of fashion and entertainment, are all changing more rapidly than they feel comfortable with.

They’re anxious about the future too, particularly about the effect Donald Trump will have on the world. They are no fans of populism. They prefer the old fashioned ways of logical argument and the opinions of experts to the rantings of demagogues.

They are a generation that worries burgeoning automation will produce a smaller future workforce. In their trepidation, they gather their family and friends around them and turn their back on the world, because they have simply had enough of their political representatives.

Who am I describing? The troubled Baby Boomers? Baffled silver surfers? Or their children, the Millennials, who have lived through house price inflation and a digital revolution that turned life in modern Britain on its head?

None of the above. The generation I am describing, revealed in a special survey Edelman has conducted in the past couple of weeks, are the children of Generation X, the grandchildren of the Baby Boom. They are in fact 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, Britain’s next cohort of voters; they are young people with worry in their hearts, and a driving urge to find some hope from their elders.

They are Generation Angst.

Forget Theresa May’s “JAMs” or Trump’s “struggling American families”, who have next to no faith in the system.

Britain’s older teenagers are the demographic that feels most disenfranchised and disconnected, even more worried about the turbulent change of the world and, to boot, they never even wanted their parents and grandparents to take them out of the EU.

Disillusion with politics among the young is hardly new, but what has changed now is a political disengagement unique to our age: despair about, even fear of, the future. It is driven by the impact of technological disruption and fuelled by a sense that politicians have no answers.

Young voters who could be getting politically active ahead of voting for the first time in the 2020 General Election are instead resigned to sit on their hands. On the political mainstage, there is not one current leader that young people would choose as Prime Minister. We found that only one in five teenagers thought the government understood them or the issues they faced.

We face an age-old problem: a complete misunderstanding of young people. The truth is much more complex and nuanced. Youth has become a drawn-out process – young people are taking longer to settle down, buy a house and have children, but they’ll also be working far later in life than their parents’ generation.

We’re quick to dismiss the gig economy as evidence of young people flitting from job to job because they’re fickle, have short attention spans and unrealistic ideals about what work ought to look like. The truth is that job security is no longer a guarantee.

It’s no wonder the majority of teenagers do not see the future as a place jewelled with opportunities. Instead, most think they will be worse off or the same as their parents’ generation.

They are, amazingly, more concerned about the pace of change in life than older citizens. Almost 60% think social media is changing too fast and not in a good way. The crucible of their anxiety is the prospect of automation and AI, underpinned by the sense that education has not equipped them to prosper in that future.

The World Economic Forum says 65% of children entering primary school in 2017 will work in jobs that don’t exist today; 7m jobs will vanish in the next five years due to automation. So what does this mean for our politics?

For politicians seeking to change the tide of turnout in 2020 and engage with new voters the challenge is three-fold. The first criterion is the biggest challenge: credible responses to the issue of technological disruption.

Automation is a big public policy issue that affects everyone, but somehow we assumed that young people were comfortable in the new digital era and we overlooked their fears.

Our young people don’t want or expect the waving of magic policy wands, but at the very least they want politicians to acknowledge their concerns and listen. They know the problem is complex, but they need reassurance that the downsides of disruption are being anticipated as much as the upsides – that we’re not just waiting for robots to rule the roost.

The second challenge is: Brexit. These young people couldn’t vote in the referendum and overwhelmingly (69%) would have chosen Remain. They are not Remoaners; they are Resenters. They believe their parents left them a poisoned legacy.

A government hell bent on delivering Brexit, come what may, is not, in its current form, addressing or salving their concerns. If the Conservatives want young people to vote for them, they have their work cut out to convince this new cohort of 2020 voters that a Brexited Britain bodes well for young people.

But could this group, as Tony Blair claims, “rise up”? It’s unlikely. Only 1 in 10 think it’s important to participate actively in political debate or public life.

The third issue at the heart of reengaging young people in politics is leadership, or rather, lack thereof. Asked to choose who they would vote as Prime Minister, among 17 names of current political leaders, the clear winner was: None of the Above.

Generation Angst are lucky to have been born into a world where technology means their lives may last into the 22nd century. But they are far from certain that it will be a fun, or even safe, journey.

To prevent them falling into deeper cynicism and either checking out completely or looking for populist answers, we need mainstream politicians to emerge who will cherish, nurture and protect the voters of the next eight decades. Even understanding them would be a start.

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