Generation Lockdown

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 October 2021

Last Sunday’s election results in Germany were clear. The Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel’s party, lost heavily. The Social Democrats made big gains with Olaf Scholz as their leading candidate. What remains is a coalition building exercise.

Still, there is a major surprise hidden in the overall result. That surprise lies in the voting behaviour of first-time voters.

Since Greta Thunberg started the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement in 2016, it appeared young people worldwide favoured Green politics. Climate change, anticapitalism, and identity politics seemed to be their top concerns.

At least, that’s what young voters are often portrayed as. Perhaps the reality is slightly different.

The Greens and the libertarian FDP were by far the most popular parties with German first-time voters (ages 18 to 22). Each garnered 23 percent of the vote. Among that young age group, the German equivalent of Labour, the SPD, was on 15 percent. National’s counterpart, the CDU/CSU, scored only 10 percent.

German commentators are perplexed. In the past, media often turned to left-wing influencers or anti-capitalist YouTubers when presenting a voice of the young. The election results show that such stereotyping ignores the diversity of viewpoints among that generation.

An old saying goes that a person under 30 who is not a leftie has no heart, and a person over 30 who is not a right-winger has no brains. Voting patterns do indeed suggest that people move rightwards as they age.

The FDP’s strong showing is therefore even more puzzling. A party of free markets, small government, and civil rights, it does not lean left at all. But it is now, along with the Greens, the party of youth. Why?

Three explanations are plausible.

First, youth typically rebel against the older generations’ views, no matter what they are. Today’s older establishment often relies on government and state-driven solutions. That makes individual liberty the radical alternative.

Second, the FDP campaigned for policies related to climate change, too. But it called for a market-based, freedom-protecting strategy to reach net zero: the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Third, Covid lockdowns showed the value of freedom by denying it. School and university closures disproportionately affected young people.

The young generation’s views are diverse. They are not all green or statist. Next time we hear about what ‘the’ youth wants, let’s remember this.

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