Millennials are more dissatisfied with democracy than any previous generation at the same stage in life with young people in southern Europe particularly disillusioned, a major new survey has found.
The report from Cambridge University's Centre for the Future of Democracy — which combined data from over 4.8 million respondents from 160 countries between 1973 and 2020 — found that globally younger generations are less satisfied with democracy than previous cohorts at the same age.
"This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties," Dr Roberto Foa, the report's lead author, said in a statement.
"By their mid-thirties, 55 per cent of global millennials say they are dissatisfied with democracy, whereas under half of Generation X [born 1960s to late 1970s] felt the same way at that age. The majority of baby boomers [post-WWII] — now in their sixties and seventies — continue to report satisfaction, as did the interwar generation," he added.
Southern Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Anglo-Saxon democracies including the UK and the US are the four regions driving the trend.
Southern Europe's decline
Europe in general is divided. Contentment with democracy among young people is improving in northern and eastern Europe but declining in Western and southern Europe.
The growing intergenerational divide is blamed in part on economic exclusion.
"Higher debt burdens, lower odds of owning a home, greater challenges in starting a family, and reliance upon inherited wealth rather than hard work and talent to succeed are all contributors to youth discontent," Dr Foa said.
Southern Europe countries including Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain were the hardest hit by the eurozone crisis and researchers found that in years where the disparity between youth and overall unemployment was low, a majority of youth still reported being "satisfied" with democracy. However, when the youth unemployment rate was much higher than for the overall population, youth assessments of democratic performance soured.
So-called "transition fatigue" may also be a factor for southern Europe as these four countries put an end to autocratic regimes in the 1970s. Younger people, who may not remember the struggle for democracy, are thus less concerned with the ideal of democracy and more about its performance to face mounting social challenges.
France and the UK are also among the western European countries in which younger people are increasingly disillusioned by democracy.
In Britain, less than half of millennials who turned 30 during the last decade felt satisfied with democracy on reaching that birthday, compared to 54 per cent from the interwar generation and 57 per cent of baby boomers when they reached that same milestone.
Eastern Europe's 'double-positive trajectory'
In contrast, eastern Europe is one of the regions exhibiting a clear "double positive trajectory", the report noted, as each generation has higher levels of satisfaction than the last and satisfaction within cohorts has risen over time.
Millennials in eastern Europe came of age after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic disruption of the 1990s and accession to the EU, the latter of which usually yields a "youth satisfaction dividend".
Furthermore, while income inequality has risen dramatically in post-communist European societies, the distribution of wealth remains "relatively egalitarian" which "may explain why younger generations remain more contented than older age groups".
Germany, meanwhile, stands out among large democracies where intergenerational satisfaction has increased.
Polarisation of politics
One factor seen as significantly boosting satisfaction with democracy among young people in EU member states is the populist wave of the past five years, the report flagged.
"Countries electing populist leaders see sharp turnarounds in disenchantment, to the point where young people appear more satisfied with democracy under populists than under moderates, Danielle Wenger, who co-wrote the report, said.
Satisfaction with democracy among voters under 35 rose by an average of 16 percentage points during the first two years of populist leaders while no comparable swell was observed when moderate politicians narrowly beat populists.
Millennials are also increasingly likely to judge someone by their politics. with 41 per cent of them in western democracies agreeing that you can "tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics" compared to 30 per cent for those over the age of 35.
"The prevalence of polarising attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics," Dr Foa highlighted.
"The populist challenge must shock moderate parties and leaders into action beyond cosmetic rebrand. If it does so, populism may still prompt democracy's rebirth, rather than the onset of its gradual decay," he added.