To understand people, Napoleon once said, you have to know what was happening in the world when they were twenty. For today’s early twenty-somethings – known as ‘Zoomers’, so-named as the first generation that has never known anything other than a world with the internet and born between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s – the world is a highly unstable, volatile and threatening place. Take my university students who graduate this summer as an example. They have already lived through not one but two financial crises, considerable political turbulence and now, in their most formative years, a major global pandemic.
Amid the extreme turbulence of 2020 it has become almost a cliché to quote Lenin’s observation that there are decades where nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. The sheer chaos and volatility also recall the more amusing observation that when future historians claim to be experts in the year 2020 they will have to state which quarter they have specialised in. Both quotes come to mind when thinking through the long list of formative experiences that Zoomers have witnessed in an incredibly short period of time – the Great Recession, a sovereign debt crisis in Europe, austerity, Islamist and far-right terrorism, a refugee crisis, a discussion about Greece possibly leaving the European Union and then the United Kingdom actually doing it, the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, the rise of populists in many democracies, the sharp decline of more moderate social democratic parties but also the emergence of a more radical Green and radical left politics that is reflected in Greta Thunberg, Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This is a generation raised on polarization, fragmentation and challengers.
Zoomers might be the first generation to have lived their entire lives online, and the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in history, but they will also be defined more than most by coming of age and trying to get ahead in a post-pandemic world. As we know from psychology, seismic ‘shocks’ like pandemics tend to produce feelings of uncertainty and fear, stoke perceptions of threat and alter the calculations that people make about risks and rewards. Attempting to enter the labour market during moments of crisis leaves deep scars.
There are three salient effects that we should be aware of: life-cycle effects that concern differences between people based on their point in the life cycle (e.g. becoming more conservative as we age); period effects that follow a specific event that impacts on entire populations at the same time (e.g. the effects of living through the Second World War); and cohort effects which take place when these shocks have different effects on different generations (e.g. a particular crisis having a particularly strong impact on a particular generation because of where it is in the life-cycle). It is, for many reasons, too early to know exactly how this crisis will impact on Zoomers but that should not stop us from offering a few hypotheses about how it might produce some of these period and cohort effects (one basic problem is a lack of reliable, longitudinal data and so much of what I say below is drawn from a range of cross-sectional surveys, secondary data and reports).
I have argued that Covid-19 looks set to have four major effects on geopolitics, all of which will also impact on Zoomers. First, the crisis is already fundamentally and perhaps permanently transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state. Some argue that while the Wall Street Crash of 1929 represented the failure of financial markets and paved the way for the return of the state, via the New Deal in America and welfare states in Europe, it was then the end of the postwar boom and a period of stagnation in the 1970s that represented the exhaustion of the state and paved the way for the return of the markets, via Thatcherism and Reaganism. Fast forward to the post-2008 Great Recession and it was time for the markets to overreach and open the door to the state which, combined with the current crisis, now looks set to become much bigger and far more interventionist.
Zoomers in particular have watched the state intervene on not one but two occasions in little more than a decade – propping up financial markets after the Great Recession and then propping up entire societies amid the Great Lockdown. For these reasons, this is a generation that is instinctively sceptical of the argument that markets can ‘go it alone’ and can be relied upon to work for the common good. After all, this is a generation that really has no memory of the pre-2008 era. All it has known is market failure and economic crises. Zoomers are also coming of age at a time when their leaders and governments are fairly relaxed about a new era of mega debt.
Even before governments became bigger and more interventionist Zoomers were already predisposed to hold pro-government views. In 2018, for example, 70 per cent of Zoomers said that ‘government should do more to solve problems’ while 29 per cent felt ‘government is doing too many things that are better left to businesses and individuals’. Compare these views to Boomers (split evenly 49 per cent versus 49 per cent) and the even older Silent Generation (split 39 per cent for government and 60 per cent for individual responsibility). Clearly, these views might evolve over time but so far there is scant evidence that Zoomers would relate to Ronald Reagan’s argument that ‘government is not the solution to our problem – government is the problem’.
Second, there are good reasons to expect this crisis and the surrounding environment to have a profound impact on the values that will drive Zoomers in the future. As scholars like Ronald Inglehart have demonstrated, it was the economic security and rapid expansion of higher education in the postwar decades that had a strong impact on the earlier Baby Boomer generation – driving a ‘silent revolution’ that led to the rise in more lifestyle-oriented and expressive liberal values. Unlike the earlier ‘Greatest Generation’, which had come of age amid economic depression and global war, Baby Boomers did not need to worry about the ‘basic needs’ of physical and economic security and so were free to move up Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, to pursue things like social status, esteem and recognition.
This also had negative effects. As scholars such as Christopher Lasch and Michael Lind argued, the liberal revolution also paved the way for a new global ‘meritocratic’ elite that was more narcissistic, increasingly global in outlook, and less attached to nation and place. It became increasingly detached, isolated in homogenous networks and appeared to show little interest in the virtues of community, responsibility and obligation to fellow citizens. Alongside the wider ‘liberal drift’ in values, this more insular elite provoked a strong backlash. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, a ‘silent counter-revolution’ took place as an alliance of blue-collar workers and affluent social conservatives rallied together around a new wave of conservative and national populist movements, from Brexit and Boris Johnson to Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Donald Trump in the United States. These were quite distinct movements and should not be lumped together but all shared a general desire to uphold the nation state.
Zoomers, however, are moving in a very different direction and look set to deliver a revolution of their own in the years ahead.
Recent research on their values and priorities suggests that across a range of social and identity issues they do not simply look like the more liberal millennials but are, in fact, even more liberal. They are incredibly progressive and pro-government, view rapidly rising rates of racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing and, in America, are less likely to view their country as superior to other nations. They are also notably harder on Trump than Millennials – only 22 percent approve – although they are also less likely to turnout to vote than their older relatives.
This liberal outlook flows from several characteristics that have made Zoomers rather unique. They are more likely to have been born and raised by degree-holding, liberal Baby Boomer and Gen Xer parents. Recently, the Pew Research Center found that whereas nearly half of Zoomers were living with parents who held at least a bachelor’s degree, only around one in three Millennials could say the same. Meanwhile, Zoomers have lived through a series of formative experiences that have likely cemented their progressive outlook – the backlash against Trump, the rise of an even more adversarial campus culture, the increased salience of climate change as an issue and, more recently, the protests over George Floyd’s death. It seems likely that these formative experiences are encouraging the adoption of a more ‘woke’ brand of identity liberalism, much in the same way that the civil rights campaign, the sexual revolution and protests against Vietnam proved highly influential for the Boomers.
This looks set to open the door to what John Gray has called ‘hyper-liberalism’. Focused far more heavily on identity than economics, and less interested in traditional drivers like social class, hyper-liberalism is characterised by a more radical individualism, a strong interest in tackling both present and past ‘social injustices’, a willingness to repudiate aspects of national culture and tradition that do not conform to this outlook and, more generally, advocates ideas that flow through ‘critical race theory’ – ideas like ‘white privilege’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘patriarchy’. Many of these, as we have seen in recent months, have moved from the margins to the mainstream and it has often been Zoomers who have been their most passionate advocates. The image of a Zoomer graduate in New York criticizing a member of the police for lacking the same level of education is highly symbolic.
It is important not to exaggerate the pace of change, however. For one thing, several reports on Zoomers suggest they are more financially risk-averse than other generations. New data in the United Kingdom also suggests that Zoomers are a little more conservative than the slightly older Millennials (though they still accept many of the central pillars of the liberal drift). For example, one recent study found that Zoomers are diverging from Millennials by appearing just as right-wing as today’s 40-year-olds. This too should be kept in perspective, not least because the Conservative Party in Britain recently only attracted 21 per cent of 18-24-year-olds. But such findings do provide reasons to be cautious about the claim that all Zoomers are drunk on ‘woke’ politics. Indeed, even before the crisis a major report by Ipsos-MORI concluded that, contrary to clichés, Zoomers are ‘better behaved, more trusting, socially-minded and less materialistic’. They were notably more trusting of others than Millennials, more likely to be active in their community, more likely to say they would avoid buying products for political reasons and less likely to feel that things they own say a lot about how well they are doing in life (a finding reflected in work in Brazil where Zoomers were also less oriented around the ‘self’ than Millennials).
It should also be remembered that whereas Zoomers are on track to be the most highly-educated generation they are also on track to be the least experienced; only one in five were working in paid employment in their teenage years in 2018, compared to more than one in four Millennials and more than four in ten Gen Xers at the same point in their lives. Zoomers might have higher levels of education but this is not necessarily matched by strong life experiences. Their passionate promotion of more obscure political ideas that circulate on campus might not always resonate with their counterparts who have avoided university, or members of older generations who view such theories as a threat to their established traditions, institutions and ways of life.
Nonetheless, Zoomers do look set to not only sustain but accelerate the ‘liberal drift’. Ideas that were once pushed by the older Baby Boomers and which divided society, such as same-sex marriage, enjoy widespread support among Zoomers – 84 per cent say this is a good thing or ‘doesn’t make a difference’. Only 15 per cent oppose it (versus 32 per cent of Boomers). Similarly, more than one in three Zoomers (in the United States) say they personally know someone who is referred to using gender-neutral pronouns (versus one-in-ten Boomers). Meanwhile, when asked whether forms that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than ‘man’ and ‘woman’ nearly 60 per cent of Zoomers say they should – leaving them 10-points ahead of Millennials, 19-points ahead of Gen-Xers, 22-points ahead of Boomers and 27-points ahead of the Silent Generation. Another factor that might come to separate Zoomers from their older counterparts is the growing politicization of business, with corporates today – from Nike to Ben and Jerry’s and Uber – being far more willing to take the (liberal) side in the identity wars. As the liberal conservative writer Andrew Sullivan observed: ‘We are all on campus now’.
While Zoomers might press the case for more radical social change it also looks likely, in my view at least, that they will simultaneously demand more radical economic change, too. Covid-19, as we know from a string of reports, is leaving the left behind even further behind. It has hit low-skilled service-sector workers hard and that includes many Zoomers. Three months ago, America’s Pew Research Center pointed out that half of the oldest Zoomers had either lost a job themselves or knew somebody in their own household who had – which was a significantly higher proportion than for Millennials, Gen Xers and Boomers. Zoomers thus find themselves in a strange position – on the one hand, they are on track to be the most well-educated generation in history but, on the other, they are entering the labour market amid one of the most challenging periods in history.
Unlike Millennials, who entered the labour market amid the ‘double crisis’ of the Great Recession, which was both economic and political, Zoomers are now trying to enter the labour market amid a ‘triple crisis’, which cuts across health, economics and politics. Recent research suggests that it will cast a long shadow. Rather than being a ‘great leveller’, pandemics tend to lead to a statistically significant increase in the Gini coefficient – a key measure of inequality. Five years after a pandemic hits, working-class and less well-educated citizens are still likely to suffer disproportionately. Recent studies find that more than half of Americans under 45-years-old have lost their jobs, been put on furlough or had their hours reduced.
Furthermore, we know that people entering the labour market during a period of crisis tend to suffer throughout their lives – they tend to remain on lower earnings trajectories for decades to come. Lots of research in countries like the UK makes clear how Millennials and Zoomers were already lagging behind where older generations were at the same point in the life-cycle – they were more likely to suffer low wage growth, leaving them with similar earnings to cohorts born 15 years earlier, are more likely than their predecessors to work part-time, to work in low-pay jobs, to be less likely to move jobs and so less likely to achieve pay rises, to have lower rates of home ownership, harder commutes, spend more of their incomes on housing and, at least for Millennials, to live on disposable incomes no higher than they were for Gen-X’ers at the same age.
This appears especially salient in southern Europe where Zoomers are coming of age in more impoverished and indebted economies. They have had very different experiences from their counterparts further north. Even before the crisis, Millennials and Zoomers were grappling with unemployment rates of around 6 per cent in Germany and the Netherlands but 29 per cent in Italy, 31 per cent in Spain and 36 per cent in Greece. Such figures no doubt contributed to The Economist’s description of these voters as the ‘pyrrhic victors’ of globalization – generations that played by the rules, did what they were supposed to do but today ‘have singularly failed to reap the expected benefits’. Thus, one recent study found that younger voters in debtor states are notably more sceptical of the EU than their counterparts in creditor states while other political scientists show how sharp, sudden crises are often followed by a significant decline in political trust, confidence in democracy and increased pessimism.
Much of this will heap further pressure on an already fraying intergenerational contract. The slightly older Millennials, who recently overtook Boomers to become the largest generation in America, according to the 2019 census, were also the first generation on record to say, overall, that they would rather have grown up when their parents were children. Millennials were hit hard by the Great Recession, got back on their feet during the recovery and are now getting hit again by the Great Lockdown. But the far more strained intergenerational contract – anchored in the idea that each generation should expect to be a little more secure and prosperous than the last – looks set to continue under Zoomers. This could easily translate into stronger demands for economic reform and redistribution.
It is telling, for example, that the vast majority of Zoomers flocked to Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and are clearly supportive of a more radical economic settlement. But it could also just as easily translate into apathy or alternative modes of participation. Zoomers may conclude that on a whole array of issues – climate change, intergenerational unfairness, economic and racial equality, student debt and more – the established politicians have simply failed. This is also a generation that has grown up looking to voices and figures outside of conventional party politics – to Vloggers, YouTubers and social media entrepreneurs that steer clear of legacy media channels but are highly active in alternative forms.
One of the key lessons of the crisis that was sparked more than a decade ago, the Great Recession, is that political churn tends to lie downstream from economic chaos. Had we tried to guess the political effects of the Great Recession amid the collapse of Lehman Brothers then I doubt that we would have been accurate. It was only years later when we were finally able to stand back and make sense of what our future historians will most likely brand the decade of volatility. Similarly, we will have to wait years until we can fully make sense of the effects of the current crisis on Zoomers. This period of turbulence, uncertainty and risk could push them to hunker down and seek shelter in apathy. Or, instead, we may be on the cusp of another major liberal revolution as a backlash to the revolts of Brexit, Trump and national populism. If that revolution comes it looks likely to be driven not just by demands for more radical economic change, long the cry of revolutionaries, but for even more radical cultural and social change, too.