Maybe young people aren’t politically apathetic snowflakes. Maybe they are cleverer than the rest of us?


When I say the rest of us, I mean older people.  I am 49, which is well beyond the cut off for being young.

I had 2 experiences this week which were in such stark contrast that I found it hard to reconcile them.

The first was the announcement by Theresa May that we would have another general election.  Psephologists were quick to assure us that this election, just like the last one, and the Brexit vote, would be decided by older voters.  Young people don’t turn out to vote in the same numbers as older people and as a consequence would be largely ignored by political parties. 

Political influence in the UK is firmly in the hands of older voters, a Gerontocracy.

At the same time as the media were working themselves up into yet another election frenzy my company was doing the final round of interviews for a new PR and Advertising Agency.   The Gin market is getting very crowded, with lots of flashy brands who buy in their products mass produced, and try and pass it off as small batch craft make. We needed a new approach to help differentiate us from the fake craft Gins jumping on the band wagon.

Each agency who pitched to us included a special section on younger consumers, who they called Millennials or Generation Y.   This group of consumers are particularly influential, very loyal to brands who they perceive as sharing their values, and willing to pay a premium for high quality products that matched their aspirations.  No-one included a special section on older consumers – they tend to be less willing to switch to new brands, and prefer established mass market products like Gordons.  While older people are richer younger customers were prepared to spend more on products like craft Gin.  We were frequently advised to leverage our brand values.  If anyone has a large brand lever I could borrow I would be grateful.

Economic influence is firmly in the hands of younger consumers

The apathetic younger voters that the psephologists were talking about aren’t exactly the same group as the young consumers the Agencies were targeting – we don’t target 18 year olds for example, for reasons of corporate responsibility.   There was, however, a big enough cross over between the 2 groups to make it a real clash – the people who were being written off as irrelevant in the political arena, were the same ones who our advertising and PR agencies were telling us were economically hugely influential.  Taste makers.

One of the key principles of free market economics is that Governments don’t have to regulate markets in order to produce moral or ethical outcomes.  Markets can do this by themselves.  Consumers will choose to buy from producers who share their values, and will shun companies who do things they find ethically undesirable. 

This is David Cameron a few years ago making exactly this point:

Promoting deregulated free markets has been very popular with Conservative politicians, who, I think, expected that the moral and ethical framework that they would promote would match with their own Conservative world view.

Instead it has become a tool for younger voters to express their own, more Liberal worldview.   Once Trump took power businesses who were seen as pro-Trump, or who stocked Trump products, were targeted for boycotts, as were companies who advertised on websites like Breitbart.   

Businesses who want to sell to younger consumers need to demonstrate that they share their values, which are pretty much exclusively Liberal.  That is why Pepsi decided it was a good idea to make that terrible commercial trying to align itself with protestors. 

This has led to the odd phenomena recently of Conservative politicians arguing for deregulated free markets while simultaneously criticising younger liberal customers for exercising their free market economic power by boycotting businesses aligned with Trump.   

I am picking on the US for examples because the culture wars between Liberal and Conservative values are more in your face than in the UK.  This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen here too.

High Tech economies like the UK and US have an increasing demand for graduate and skilled technical employees, and a declining demand for manual labour.   As a logical consequence their wages go up, and they become more influential economically and culturally.  A glance at cinema listings reveals how influential the tastes of this group have become. When right wingers portray themselves as a counter culture fighting the established order there is a degree of truth in it.  The dominant culture in the UK and the US reflects the values of college graduates, Liberal and progressive.   One of the biggest complaints of Conservative older voters is that the world has changed, and that no-one asked them.  The Brexiters slogan – Take Back Control – was so powerful for exactly that reason.  Governments have indeed given up power, but not to Brussels.  They have given it up to companies, big and small, and by extension to those companies customers.   

It seems unlikely that this situation will change any time soon, regardless of how Conservative the next Government is. 

I have never heard a millennial or a Generation Yer articulate the view that it is easier to wield economic power than it is to wield political power.  Rather than a conscious ideology I think that it is the consequence of a generation who grew up being told that there is no alternative to free market economics.  They see the world in those terms, and when they want to change the world they use the exact same tools of free market capitalism to do it.

Clearly this approach has it’s limitations – you can’t boycott Brexit for example.  But in a free market capitalist economy economic power beats political power 9 times out of 10. 

The idea that younger voters are apathetic is wrong. They are wielding power and changing how the world works – just not by the ballot box.  Often they are doing so much more effectively than any politician.  This is why the US and the UK continue to become increasingly Liberal and tolerant societies despite the noisy prevalence of politicians who promote Illberal and intolerant politics.

Maybe the meek will inherit the earth after all….?

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