Smashed avocado.

3 ways millennials do politics differently

9 October 2017

Millennials’ political engagement is quite distinct from that of their baby boomer and Gen X predecessors. Professor Ariadne Vromen explains in this Open for Discussion episode.

There’s a growing appreciation of the unique challenges many millennials face, and not just when it comes to the price of a smashed avocado.

What impact does this have on young people’s politics? How do they use social media to engage? And are politicians paying attention?

Ariadne Vromen, Professor of Political Sociology, joined Dr Chris Neff for the University’s second season of the Open for Discussion podcast to discuss.

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Professor Ariadne Vromen
Producers: Rachel Fergus, Annika Dean
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Professor Ariadne Vromen
Ariadne Vromen is Professor of Political Sociology, and her research interests include: political participation, social movements, advocacy organisations, digital politics, and young people and politics.

Ariadne Vromen, Professor of Political Sociology, outlines three ways millennials engage with politics today.

1. Millennials are issue-driven

“It’s become a bit of an orthodoxy that young people are only really interested in post-material issues from climate change, to same-sex marriage, to gender identity issues,” she says.

“What we’re seeing is yes, they are concerned about those kinds of inequities, but they’re also increasingly concerned about their own economic experiences such as the smashed avocado and housing affordability debate showed.”

2. Millennials embrace a digital-first approach

Ariadne’s research reveals millennials’ take a digital-first approach to political engagement.

“When young people want to express themselves, be heard, organise other people, they always go to digital means first,” she says.

“Be it petitions, be it donating, be it joining discussion forums, digital is the first port of call for young people when it comes to politics.”

3. Individualisation can get millennials down

In the podcast, Ariadne outlines the complicated, and perhaps self-defeating, process of individualisation among many young people today.

“In the research we did with young people about responsibility and how change might get created, when they recognised there was inequality they tended to focus back on themselves,” she says.

“They believed if you just work harder and try harder, you can get ahead. That’s not really true, but that’s a kind of internalised, individualised logic that has become a lot more common in the societies we live in.

“It’s about also challenging power structures and getting people to think more about inequality and what, in the longer term, an unequal society does.”


Listen to Professor Ariadne Vromen in conversation with Dr Chris Neff on SoundCloud, subscribe on iTunes.

Join in the discussion on Twitter using @ariadne_syd@ChristopherNeff and #USYDPod.

Meet our host Dr Chris Neff

Full transcript

(music plays)

Chris Neff: Welcome to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast series where I explore research through a personal and critical lens. I’m your host Chris Neff.

They’ve been infamously described as the ‘me, me, me’ generation, but there’s a growing appreciation of the unique challenges many millennials face. And not just when it comes to the price of a smashed avocado. What impact does this have on young people’s politics and are politicians paying attention?

Joining me today on Open for Discussion is Professor Ariadne Vromen, a Professor of Political Sociology from the Department of Government and International Relations. Ariadne, thanks for joining us.

Professor Vromen: Thanks Chris. Happy to be here.

Chris Neff: And I should note that you were my Associate Supervisor for my Master’s degree in 2006 and my Associate Supervisor for my PhD in 2014 which makes us both 27.

Professor Vromen: (laughs) Of course it does.

Chris Neff: So, this is a very apt conversation for us as two young people having a conversation about young people.

Professor Vromen: (laughs)

Chris Neff: So then as we look at Gen Y, are they engaging in politics in a different way? What’s your research tell us about how Gen Y approaches political engagement?

Professor Vromen: So, if we wanted to think about how young people engage in politics differently from previous generations of young people or from older people, there are two main ways we can see that. The first way is that their engagement is issue driven. So, it’s based on the issues that matter to them, that mobilise them, that they believe that they can shape and create change on rather than political institutions such as traditional actors, parties, unions, community organisations.

The second way that’s fundamentally different is that it’s digital first. When young people want to express themselves, be heard, organise other people, they always go to digital means first. Be it petitions, be it donating, be it joining discussion forums, digital is sort of the first port of call for politics.

Chris Neff: That’s fascinating. How does it differ though with older generations? Is there a difference in the way that older generations mobilise than the way youth do. You know someone was saying we all start out as liberal and then we become more conservative as we get older. Is that, is that always true?

Professor Vromen: It’s not always true and one of the classic debates in the study of young people in politics is whether or not what we’re seeing is a cohort effect or a generational effect and that debate is unresolved. So, if it’s a generational effect then you kind of… the particular times that you live in are going to shape your experiences, your whole life and there is this kind of coherent generation.

If it’s just a cohort effect then it is just you were young once and that’s what you think and then you grow out of it. I tend to see more evidence of generational effects because of the importance of context shaping the way people understand politics, but there are clearly differences between younger people and older people in society and the political issues that they prioritise.

One very interesting difference that I noted recently in some of the post polling done of the UK election, was looking at the different issue agendas that different generations had. So, young people were clearly more progressive on post-material issues and identity based issues than older people. That’s been consistent across a lot of advanced democracies for quite a while now. They’re often much more sympathetic to refugees, to much more engaged in issues around equality, around same sex marriage and so on than older generations are.

But then when we looked at the economic indicators, there weren’t that many differences in the way younger and older people were perceiving it. With the exception of some really interesting conceptual work in that older people were much more concerned about globalisation, they clearly saw globalisation as a threat to their way of life. Which suggests to me that globalisation means a whole lot of different things for them. It probably means the rapid escalation of the use of technology that they might not understand. Globalisation might also relate to sort of global flows around immigration.

So, young people were not threatened by globalisation but older people were. But in the same study they also asked about their feelings about capitalism and young people were incredibly concerned about capitalism. Older people were not. They clearly were positive and thought capitalism was a force for good. But this was a very striking kind of scissor chart that you can see in those differences between younger and older people. And young people’s sort of growing concern about capitalism is really interesting to me and what it might suggest about new forms of collective action into the future.

Chris Neff: And how do they engage differently? Cause we often talk about millennials, Gen Y in a sort of broad, one dimensional term. But really, it sounds like there’s a lot of different things going on, whether it’s on the basis of class or on the basis of gender or any of the other factors.

Professor Vromen: No, I think that is right. We need to sort of step away from thinking about young people as a sort of a homogenous entity that have the same experiences and the same practices. So, if we sort of see politics as being issue driven, then there are going to be different kinds of issues that appeal to different young people based on their life experiences or what they prioritise. So, we could even think about it that if young people who are experiencing housing distress or renting insecurity are probably more likely to be passionate about those issues than the young people who are still living at home and are in a secure housing environment.

But also, identity and the expression and celebration of different identities is very important to young people in general.

So, it’s like in a way, digital and issue driven politics has created spaces for young people to prioritise different kinds of issues, create different kinds of communities rather than them having to be channeled through traditional, political institutions such as parties. Of course, that still goes on. Some young people still join parties but those numbers are very, very small.

(music plays)

Chris Neff: You’re listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast that discusses research through a personal and critical lens. I’m your host Chris Neff, a lecturer in Public Policy with a particular interest in the role of emotions, policy making and shark bites.

Today I’m talking with Ariadne Vromen, a Professor of Political Sociology from the Department of Government and International Relations. She’s undertaken extensive research on young people’s political engagements as well as social movements, advocacy organisations and the growing influence of social media on politics.

You looked at in your research, it was a comparison of a number of different countries. Do young people highlight the same kinds of issues?

Professor Vromen: What was interesting is that I expected in some ways there to be more differences than we found. Particularly in the use of social media I thought maybe context mattered more. In general, the US political context and mobilising and organising has always been ahead of Australia and the UK in the sort of integration into political campaigns. So, digital was much more advanced in that context but we didn’t find many differences at all in terms of the levels of political engagement or the use of social media for political engagement across the three countries. Roughly US first, Australia in the middle and the UK third but it was very tightly knit.

Where we did find some differences was when we asked the young people in those countries what issues mattered to them and what issues they thought needed some kind of political resolution. And what we saw there was in the UK and the US young people were much more likely to spontaneously mention economic based issues and that makes sense because the economic crisis hit young people in those places much more significantly at that time. From 2008 onwards there’ve been record levels of unemployment and under employment and increasing precarity in work, in housing. Education has become more expensive in those contexts as well.

I think that those issues are becoming more important to young Australians. I think we’ve been on a bit more of a slow burn but we see that precarity and under employment are issues in Australia now too. But the young Australians were distinct in that there was no majority issue. So, the economy was the majority issue in the UK and close to the majority in the US whereas in Australia they were pretty evenly split around four different issues of concern which were education, health, immigration and climate change.

Chris Neff: Wow…

Professor Vromen: Yep.

Chris Neff: So, housing affordability didn’t make the list.

Professor Vromen: Not, not…this was…so we were doing this work three, four years ago and housing affordability is a very interesting issue that has much more recently come onto the agenda as it’s become much more of a middle-class experience about both renting insecurity but also the long-term problems of being able to save for a mortgage and purchase a house in two of the most expensive markets in the world now, Sydney and Melbourne.

Chris Neff: So, what do you do if you’re a young person who’s growing up in this society and they are in this position where there is under employment, there’s high rents, you know the odds of buying a house might be out of their reach, college affordability is going up, health care is going up. Who do they look at as responsible for this?

Professor Vromen: This is really interesting and this is where we can see that the political discourse around these issues is changing. I would even sort of argue that it’s been around the last nine months or so that we’ve seen a shift in political discourse that’s become a little bit more sympathetic and cognisant of the real lived experiences of young people.

Social researchers and economists have been plotting out these problems for a while. But in broader political discourse, young people are still quite a small proportion of the population and their issues were rarely taken seriously or taken up in election debate or in political debate more broadly.

And it tends to be a bit of a blame the individual approach taken in a lot of the analysis. Even if we think about that starting point of smashed avocado. So, smashed avocado started from an opinion piece by Bernard Salt in The Australian late last… October last year, writing a column saying well if young people would stop spending so much money or spending money on smashed avocado breakfasts, maybe they would be able to save a deposit for a house.

And patently that’s not true. It’s very… if you want to save in markets that are a million-dollar average housing now, to save a deposit, saving a bit of money here and there on coffee or breakfast isn’t going to get you that deposit. So, what that moment did was it shifted the discussion to a more realistic one.

We still see a lot of that baby boomers pitched against young people. Baby boomers saying young people just need to work hard, they need to lower their expectations and so on. But young people’s voices and the reality of their experience is stronger in the debate now. But we need to move beyond that kind of generational debate. Part of the research I’ve been doing recently has really shown that when we focus, when the media focus and political discussion on Facebook and on social media focuses purely on millennials versus baby boomers, it really obscures state responsibility or government responsibility. It’s rare when the discussion is at that level that policy is actually discussed.

What kind of policies need to be implemented that might benefit younger people in the longer term? We’re at a point now where over 85 percent of people… an ANU study recently found… over 85 percent of people are genuinely concerned about the future for housing affordability for future generations. They see this as a really important issue.

Chris Neff: To what degree do young people mobilise politically? You know… because we’ve sort of seen the Jeremy Corbyn mobilisation…

Professor Vromen: Mmm.

Chris Neff: There’s a you know… there was sort of Kevin 07 or at least…

Professor Vromen: Yes.

Chris Neff: …there was a perception that there was a youth mobilisation there.

Professor Vromen: Yep.

Chris Neff: And then you had the Obama mobilisation, so…

Professor Vromen: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … are these aberrations or are young people getting more involved in politics?

Professor Vromen: I think they are really, really interesting examples of how it’s possible to mobilise young people into formal party-based politics. A lot of people think well you just can’t because they’re not interested but clearly that’s not true based on those examples that you’ve talked about, from Obama to Sanders to Corbyn.

And what is really similar across those campaigns is young people’s voices were prioritised. Young people were also given space to name the issues that really mattered to them. They were given the resources and the skills to mobilise other like-minded young people in their areas. So, they felt like they had a part in the campaign. They weren’t just joining something bigger, they had genuine voice and they felt that they were listened to.

Chris Neff: What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about young people’s engagement? Whether it’s in politics or… from your research, is there something that sort of stood out to you and you’re like ok, this is really quite different from the way we usually consider young people.

Professor Vromen: One of the things is that there’s become a bit of an orthodoxy that young people are only really interested in post-material issues from climate, to same sex marriage, to I guess gender identity issues and so on. And what we’re seeing is young people yes, they are concerned about those kinds of inequities and those kinds of issues and problems, but they’re also increasingly concerned about their own economic experiences.

And even if we think about debates recently about university education. One of the most successful campaigns in the last few years has been the campaign against $100,000 degrees. The previous federal government wanted to give universities the scope to deregulate their fee structure which would’ve led to very expensive degrees. But that campaign was actually huge and what was interesting about it was it wasn’t just young people that were mobilised, it was the parents of young people as well who were very concerned about their future.

So, I think what we’ll increasingly see and what is going to be successful is these cross-generational campaigns around inequality because young people are numerically a small part of the population and until older people actually recognise that there are these structured inequalities going on for the future of young people, then we might see some broader social and economic change.

Chris Neff: Is there an opposite to that question? Like… you know I asked you about misconceptions. Are there conceptions of millennials or young people that are right on and that we talk about…

Professor Vromen: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … that are accurate?

Professor Vromen: … Yeah, I think… one of the issues that is a really complicated and difficult one to think through is the processes of individualisation. Even that kind of idea that young people are all self-centred, the sort of ‘me’ generation, I think that that’s overstated and a caricature but it does actually reveal some broader patterns around individualisation and individualised approaches to politics as we’ve seen the decline in collective ways of thinking.

So, there is a tension there. Even in the research that we did talking with young people about responsibility and how change might get created when they recognised there was inequality, they tended to focus then back on themselves. They believed in this meritocratic idea that if you did just work harder and try harder, that’s how you could get ahead. That’s not really true but that’s kind of an internalised, individualised logic that has become a lot more common in the societies we live in. The success of long term, neo-liberal economic approaches.

Chris Neff: So, do you think Gen Y is right to be concerned about these things or do you think that the structures will auto-correct and so you end up with a situation where they’ll be better off you know… by the time they’re 30 or by the time they’re 35?

Professor Vromen: I don’t think it’s a temporary situation. I don’t think they’re going to sort of grow out of it and have more economic opportunity. We’ve seen fundamental changes in the workforce. But I’m even more concerned about what work looks like for the future for young people. Currently nearly 50 percent of young people are employed on casual contracts which they have no job security, they have no benefits such as sick leave, paid leave, secure long-term work. And this is the nature of work for a lot of people, it’s their experience of what work looks like.

While some young people are able to capitalise on that and make flexibility an asset for them and they can pick and choose the kind of jobs that they want, that tends to be a particular group of well educated, privileged young people. But for a lot of young people, they’re in this precarious situation where it’s very difficult for them to have a voice within the workplace, it’s very hard to complain about the conditions that you’re experiencing when you’re casual and when you’re insecure.

So, this… we’ve not seen a lot of evidence of a turn-around of this and I think that’s going to be the big issue into the future is that real restructuring of work. And more broadly we need to think you know…the old fashioned, social democrat within me means we need to think much more about collective organisations and long-term sustainable organisations that can advocate on these issues.

It is about redirecting power. At the moment maintaining a situation particularly in an area such as housing where there are a small section of the population who do benefit from negative gearing or benefit from that they own their places outright and their property prices are increasing. So, it’s about also challenging those power structures and getting people to sort of think more about inequality and what in the longer term, what an unequal society does.

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Chris Neff: Well I just want to thank you Professor Ariadne Vromen for joining us on Open for Discussion and having such a lively conversation about young people, political engagements, social media and the way they’re going to work in future.

Professor Vromen: Thanks Chris. Pleasure to be here.

Chris Neff: Thanks for joining us on Open for Discussion. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud and you can find me on Twitter @christopherneff. If you’d like to know more about our research, be sure and visit our website

About Professor Ariadne Vromen

Ariadne Vromen is a professor of political sociology from the University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations. She has undertaken extensive research on young people’s political engagement as well as social movements, advocacy organisations and the growing influence of social media on politics.

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