Something remarkable has happened over the last few years. Age has emerged as the key dividing line in politics. Young people are much more likely to vote Left and hold left-wing views, while older generations are more likely to vote Right and hold conservative social, and increasingly political, views. This pattern isn’t universal, but it holds true across the US, the UK and much of Western Europe. The scale of the divide is unprecedented, and although it’s begun to attract attention, its political significance has been overlooked Much existing analysis has simply accepted existing conceptions of what political generations are and how they are formed. Those ideas might have suited the generation gap of the 1960s and 1970s, when they were developed, but they don’t fit the current situation. Our generation gap has its own characteristics and so needs a new concept of political generations to capture them. We need to understand how the young are reshaping the Left to accord with their experiences and desires. A generation moving left are producing a new generation of Left ideas and practices. It’s a phenomenon that’s currently among the most important in the world to grasp.
My book traces the emergence of Generation Left though two international waves of development: the protest wave of 2011 and the electoral turn in the years that followed. At first glance, these waves seem contradictory, but the continuities show a generation in continuing development. The economic crisis of 2008 is the key event of our time. It has crystallized and accelerated the ongoing generational divide in life chances. As young people, among others, found their conditions of life increasingly intolerable, they began a process of identifying and rejecting the structural constraints placed upon them. Generational dynamics of political inheritance and supersession are determining this process. We find ourselves living in one of those rare moments when history opens up. We face exhilarating possibilities but also terrifying threats. The rise of the Far Right and the consequences of climate change loom over our time like a nightmare. Yet the potential for a decisive move towards equality and freedom is greater than at any time in the past 40 years. The outcome of the political battles fought now will likely set the direction for the decades to come. The stakes for Generation Left really couldn’t be higher.
Keir Milburn is a longtime political activist and academic. His new book, Generation Left, is now available from Polity.