Britain has been an aging country for so long that we’ve probably almost forgotten what it’s like to be something else. Keeping older voters happy, while banking on the young and restless not voting, has been the secret sauce to so many Conservative victories that it has come to feel like an immutable election law. Yet a surprisingly good showing for Democrats in last week’s midterm elections, after the defeat for the right in Australia, sheds light on what can happen in countries where frustrated progressive millennials are beginning to more than baby boomers – the same transition that Britain is now quietly undergoing.
Millennials, of course, are no longer pesky middle-aged children of the imagination, but increasingly solid citizens in their 30s and early 40s. They already have outnumber baby boomers in the global labor force and are old enough to move into increasingly senior positions, from which they can begin to define the culture of the office. In private life, they are no longer mobile and without fantasy; plenty of parents now, grimacing at skyrocketing nursery bills and anxiously poring over reports from Ofsted. Some are homeowners worried about their mortgage collapsing, while others are renters desperate to buy. Above all, the next election will be the first in which British millennials are likely to form a largest share of the population than baby boomers.
It will remain an aging country for years to come as members of the post-war generation move from retirement into their 80s and 90s, but it is the millennials who will increasingly hold the balance of cultural power. and politics. Not so much a “tremor of youth”, perhaps, as young people reaching the age when they begin to vote reliably in large numbers – just as it is becoming increasingly clear that the politics of nostalgia and Resistance to change has dragged Britain into a pro-Brexit, anti-dead end economic growth. Could the so-called snowflake generation be about to trigger an avalanche?
The fact that Rishi Sunak, 42, is Britain’s first borderline prime minister of the millennium is a reminder not to make instinctive assumptions about anyone’s politics based on their age. Many baby boomers who grew up in their 60s remained radical until retirement, and many Americans under 30 still vote Republican. Nonetheless, former Biden campaign adviser John Della Volpe calculated over the weekend that Gen Z and young millennials between them “canceled” the impact of baby boomers who otherwise would have swung the midterm races against the Democrats. In Australia, where millennials and Gen Z between them were expected to outnumber baby boomers on the electoral rolls for the first time this year, the attraction of young voters to independent and green candidates has helped push parties away from traditional ways that ultimately benefited Labour.
Whether they lean ideologically left, right, or somewhere more unexpected, this is a diverse and highly educated generation comfortable with identity politics and prone to rolling their eyes at crude culture wars. They are campaigners for building homes in their backyards and increasingly for wealth taxes targeting the luxuries they never see themselves being able to afford – second homes, rental empires, portfolios of homes. stocks and generous pension pots – on higher taxes on their stagnant wages. Even British millennials in good jobs, those who might have become more conservative as they got older, feel more financially insecure than they might have imagined at their age. If they are graduates repay their student loansthey already face marginal tax rates of up to 50%, and Jeremy Hunt’s emergency tax package could make them feel even more in a hurry. While waiting if real estate prices fallas now seems inevitable, it is millennials who have only recently moved up the homeownership ladder who are most at risk of becoming trapped in negative equity.
Boris Johnson did surprisingly well among older millennials in 2019; the average age at which people become more likely to vote Conservative than Labour, which had reached 47 under Theresa May, has fallen to 39 last general elections. But it exploded again amid the economic fallout from Liz Truss’ disastrous six weeks in charge, and now the only age group in which the Tories have a narrow lead are those over 65. The choices Hunt and Sunak will be forced to make this week between spending on retirees or those of working age, taxing assets or taxing income, playing the nimby gallery or advancing home building and onshore wind farms, may well help determine whether 2024 is finally Britain’s millennial moment too.