Research in recent years – and indeed in decades – has shown a worrying trend across the Northern Hemisphere: people’s satisfaction with democracy is declining. Compared to 2005, almost a fifth of all respondents have been dissatisfied worldwide1, and it has raised the number of dissatisfied people from forty percent to sixty. It is worth clarifying here that dissatisfaction does not necessarily mean that people prefer some other type of social order – although there are undoubtedly those who do – but rather an assessment of how democratic institutions deal with citizens’ concerns and problems.
The present 50-year-olds (with whom I now also belong) can recall times from their own lives when the triumph of liberal democracy may have seemed final and inevitable. Whereas, the generation that could now in October go to the ballot boxes for the first time, has grown up in a world that has moved from one crisis to the next – and often worse. These young people aged 16 to 18 have seen many failures and very few successes of democracy. Young people born around 2005 were in kindergarten when the financial crisis broke out, in high school when Europe was hit by a wave of refugees from the Middle East, and entering university when the entire world shut down due to the corona pandemic. They have grown up with increasingly polarized and populist policies and media, whose authority is rapidly shattering, and against the background of all this, a large-scale environmental catastrophe is unfolding.
Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who passed away a few years ago, formulated an important principle in his well-known book Risk Society: we are used to measuring the fairness of a social system primarily on the basis of how goods are distributed (distribution of goods). This is something that is largely uniform in today’s welfare societies. However, things are much more complex when we look at how risks are distributed (distribution of bads). Viewed from this angle, it becomes clear that the positions of young and elderly people are very different. Whereas, before the financial crisis in 2008, the risk of poverty for young people in the European Union was the same as for those over 64, now, a little over ten years later, it is ten percentage points higher for young people. Social mobility, which was problematic already in the past, has further decreased. The unemployment rate of young people is high, their coverage with social protection is more fragile.
Restrictions imposed by the pandemic that hit the world and Europe last year affected the younger generation disproportionately too – and at the same time, their own health risk was the lowest. The longer-term effects of quarantine and the closure of society, for example, on learning outcomes, will only become apparent in the future, but it is already clear that these effects will be significant. Travel restrictions essentially halted academic mobility (e.g., the Erasmus+ program) and, as young people were among the last to be vaccinated, the restrictions applied to their generation for the longest time. Young people’s entry into the labor market was hit hard by restrictions, while their existing jobs proved to be the most vulnerable on average, and access to support measures proved to be the worst. Therefore, keeping in mind today’s young people across Europe, there is perhaps indeed a reason to talk about a sacrificed generation.
From the viewpoint of today’s young people, it is difficult to find a way out of this situation. Demography dictates that young people have little hope of objecting to the will of the middle-aged and older generations at the ballot box. Democratic institutions, such as governments and parliaments, are sensitive to majority pressure, but young people are a minority and will remain so for a very long time. At the same time, the climate crisis is a good example of a situation where there is much more at stake for the younger generation. They, not the middle-aged majority of the current electorate, have to live with the long-term consequences of the decisions made today, and they have no time to wait.
There is no reason, therefore, to wonder that young people have the least trust in democratic institutions and the greatest dissatisfaction with democracy. Once again, it cannot be concluded that the younger generation wants to live in a fundamentally different kind of social order, but rather that they want a smoother playing field than provided by today’s democracy, which is largely based on the will of the majority.
How exactly to achieve this is, of course, a difficult question to which there is no easy answer. However, leaving aside some more fanciful ideas (such as giving voters’ votes different weights depending on age), the implementation of which would require a more fundamental transformation in our political systems today, it is possible to point out some possible directions. Certainly one of these would be greater political activism among young people, combined with various thematic and sectoral networks, which would essentially mean seeking allies within the framework of today’s majority democracy. Another option would be to rely more on the various instruments of participatory democracy, which naturally give more weight to the interests and needs of smaller and more marginalized groups. And a third principal direction could be to emphasize the equal rights of young people and to protect them not through political but legal means. The latter is something that has been implemented in many parts of the world, for example, regarding the climate crisis, and for which we too, here in Estonia, have the first brief experience of recent success, when in May the Tartu Circuit Court temporarily suspended the building permit of Enefit280 oil shale plant on the basis of an action of MTÜ Loodusvõlu (true, it was restored by a decision of the administrative court a month later).
However, all these opportunities and choices (as well as many others that have not been mentioned) presuppose that young people themselves have the will to stand up for and have a say about their future. No one else can do it for them.
- Foa, R. S., Klassen, A., Slade, M., Rand, A. and Collins, R. (2020). The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Centre for the Future of Democracy, p 2. ↩︎
The cover image was designed by young Estonian artist Margaret Pütsepp.