OPINION

Messages from Millennials and Gen Z

Growing influence: These young voters in Warringah are worried about climate change and helped oust Tony Abbott. Millennials and Gen Z will have a bigger influence in coming elections. From left: Izzy Williams, Sita Paling, Clio Doughty and Madison Lawrence. Photo: Peter Braig.

Growing influence: These young voters in Warringah are worried about climate change and helped oust Tony Abbott. Millennials and Gen Z will have a bigger influence in coming elections. From left: Izzy Williams, Sita Paling, Clio Doughty and Madison Lawrence. Photo: Peter Braig.

They say that our future is our youth. In politics, the youth vote is certainly becoming increasingly important. In the recent federal election, many more young people voted for the first time, many as a result of having signed up for the same-sex marriage postal survey. Be ready, the youth vote is going to have a significant impact on the policy agenda of governments, and therefore on the substance and direction of political campaigns.

This week saw the release of the Deloitte 2019 global survey of youth opinion and interests. The survey covered 13,416 Millennials (born 1983 -94) across 42 countries, and 3,009 Gen Zs (born 1995-2004) for 10 countries. It should be noted that 31 per cent of respondents did not have full-time employment status, and 34 per cent did not have a college or university degree.

The results were surprising and concerning. Normally you would look to youth for optimism and confidence. Overall, they expressed uneasiness and pessimism, about their careers, their lives in general, and the world around them.

Their economic and social/political optimism is at record lows.

Their economic and social/political optimism is at record lows. They expressed a strong lack of faith in traditional societal institutions, including mass media, and are pessimistic about social progress. They are disillusioned and not particularly satisfied with their lives, their financial situations, their jobs, government and business leaders, social media, or the way data is used. They do not think highly of leaders' impact on society, their commitment to improving the world, or their trustworthiness.

The report suggests that their lack of trust and optimism is perhaps "because they are perpetually caught in the cross-fire of social, political and economic commotion". In terms of economics, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, its recession and the slow growth that followed, seem to have been determinant. The Millennials who entered the labour market around this time in (say) the US, experienced lower economic growth in their first decade of work than any other generation. So, they have lower real incomes, and fewer assets then previous generations at comparable ages, as well as higher levels of debt.

It's not just about economic circumstances. As the report says, "Unlike the postwar 1950s - which were characterised by international co-operation, a baby boom, and economic expansion that benefited most - the past decade has been marked by a steep rise in inequality, a reduction in societal safety nets, insular and dysfunctional governments, increased tribalism fuelled by social media, radical changes in the contract between employers and employees, industry 4.0 technologies that are redefining the workplace, and personal technologies that make people both more connected and more isolated".

This population of Millennials and Gen Zs is fundamentally different "at its core", where myriad changes have hit them hard - economically, socially and perhaps psychologically. This has not only been a challenge to parents, families, teachers, employers, and so on, but to governments, who I doubt have really understood and "kept up with" these generations.

In our recent federal election some 27 per cent of voters were aged under 40 and 18 per cent were aged under 35 - their electoral significance is growing rapidly. However, you could hardly say that their needs and aspirations were fully reflected in the "policy offerings", or messaging, of the two major parties, and even the Greens. Moreover, there is also an increasing recognition by some of the older, Baby Boomer, voters that despite their best efforts, they haven't made life easier, nor guaranteed a better standard of living for their children, and their children.

In the Deloitte survey, Millennials were asked about global societal challenges and their personal concerns. Among the 20 challenges identified, climate change/protecting the environment/natural disasters topped the list, and it wasn't close - 29 per cent cited it as a worry, 7 points more than income inequality/distribution of wealth.

While climate wasn't definitive across the whole electorate in our recent election, it did significantly influence the outcome in many seats. Expect climate activism among our youth, supported by an expanding older constituency, to continue to grow rapidly, and be perhaps the dominant issue in future elections. The messages from Millennials and Gen Z to our governments are clear, but are they really listening?

  • John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.
This story Messages from Millennial and Gen Z voters first appeared on The Canberra Times.