With inflation soaring, trust in governments plummeting, and the global economy teetering on the brink of collapse, one might expect to see the masses out in the streets, calling for the heads of their rulers. But instead of rage and rebellion, we mostly see apathy. Rather than getting radicalised, people are dropping out.
Political alienation is at a high. As headlines proclaim disaster after disaster, from the pandemic to recession to the climate “apocalypse”, people are losing their faith in the future. In the US, public trust in government is lower today than it was after Watergate, and Americans are disengaging massively from politics on social media and cable news. In the world’s democracies, voter turnout has dropped from an average 80% in the Eighties to closer to 60% today. More than half of that decline reflects generational change. In the US, for instance, citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 typically turn out at a rate more than 10 points lower than those over the age of 30.
Lower turnout, particularly among the young, has skewed politics towards the extremes. In France, barely 40% of the electorate voted in the recent election, part of what Le Monde described as “political de-socialisation”. Those under 35 who did bother favoured Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the aged Trotskyite, or Marine Le Pen, the doyenne of French fascism, over President Emmanuel Macron, who embodies the technocratic centre.
A similar pattern is playing out in the United States. As apathy rises, young voters have tended to favour more ideologically extreme candidates such as Bernie Sanders, who, in the 2016 primaries, won more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. But for the most part, young Americans are rejecting the system altogether. According to the political scientist Yascha Mounk, while more than two-thirds of older Americans still embrace democracy, only one in three millennials do.
It would be one thing if people were merely tuning out of politics, but they are increasingly dropping out of the economy as well. In Japan, the historical heartland of workaholics, observers in the Eighties began to note the rise of the “shinjinrui”, or the “new race”. These were young people who rejected work for a life as “freetors”, often living with their parents and spending their time traveling, playing video games, and pursuing hobbies. Lately, a similar phenomenon has spread elsewhere in Asia, including China, where millennials have abandoned striving in favour of “lying flat.”
Even before the pandemic there were rising labour shortages in Europe, which are expected to become more severe in the future. But the problem isn’t limited to Europe. In the US, labour-force participation fell from its peak of 67.1% in 2000 to 61% today, according the St. Louis Fed. A 2021 report from the Chamber of Commerce noted that as recently as 2012, there were four available workers for every job. Today that number is barely 1.4, half the historic average. The decline is particularly marked among men, whose participation rate has dropped by 5% since 1980. Today, an estimated one-third of America’s working-age males are not working.
The answer to why so many are dropping out starts with economics. In the United States, social mobility has declined precipitously over the last four decades. A 2016 study found that since the early Eighties, the chance of middle-class earners moving up to the top rungs of the earnings ladder dropped by approximately 20%. According to projections from Deloitte, by 2030, millennials will be the largest adult generation by far but will own only 16% of the country’s wealth. Gen Xers will hold 31%, while Baby Boomers, who will be entering their eighties and nineties, will control 45%.
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Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.