Millennials, my generation, appear to be rather inconsistent: on the one hand, we are attributed with positive traits: open-mindedness; liberal outlook, and acceptance of others. On the other, we are a generation which at best rejects our views being challenged, and at worst takes offence at being questioned. This lack of resilience has resulted in us being dubbed with the rather derogatory label ‘snowflakes’.
So, in true Millennial style, I used to feel affronted by this assessment. Increasingly, however, I believe that there is some merit in it, particularly when considering the way in which many Millennials deal with political differences in the diverse political spectrum.
Two key moments illuminated and confirmed this for me. First, while chatting to my friend Emma, she ‘admitted’ she votes Conservative but would never, for fear of judgement, disclose her political leaning at work. Then, I read an article in The Economist which focused on the crisis in global conservatism, where one alarming sentence stood out: ‘Universities are a right-wing free zone’. Debate and discussion are part of the very ethos of universities and it is there where political views of all kinds should be debated without fear. If that freedom is denied at university, what hope is there for freedom of political expression in wider society?
I probed Emma further as to why she does not disclose her political leanings. Socially, she finds that friends are non-committal, or mildly tease her. Work is a different matter. Her first job was working for a PR company in Hackney. She was given the clear sign not to disclose her political leanings, given the ‘level of vitriol directed at the Tories’. She was in charge of the company’s social media posts and was required to post anti-Tory articles and share petitions diametrically opposed to Conservative policies. ‘I didn’t ever really talk about politics because I didn’t want them to judge me […] My boss, especially, was one of those fanatical left-wing people who thought the Tories are ruining the world and are horrible […] bastards’. She now works for a profit-driven global firm and, again, she does not disclose her politics. Her team is predominantly under-35 but their banter includes a lot of ‘low-level Tory bashing’. She surmises that her team consists predominantly of New Labour and Remain.
And this leads me on to Emma’s second ‘admission’ — that she voted to Leave in the Brexit referendum, mainly on the grounds of sovereignty. She did not disclose this socially or professionally, although now, a number of her friends have admitted to being ‘closet Brexiteers’. What would the consequences have been if she admitted at work to voting for Leave? Without hesitation, she stated: ‘… if I had I admitted I voted for Brexit, I had a feeling I would have been fired [from my former job]’.
Why, then, are the Tories in power if they are seemingly so unpopular amongst such a large and vocal section of the voting population? It is because of the older generation to which they appeal. The average Tory voting age is 57 with 40 per cent being over 65. Compare this to 17 per cent of Tory voters being under 35 and a meagre 4 per cent being under 25 — a clear generational divide.
The generational divide was also evident in the Brexit referendum: 62 per cent of 50+ voted to Leave, whereas 70 per cent of 18-30-year-olds voted to Remain.
Curtailing freedom of speech
Emma, therefore, is unusual amongst Millennials for voting Conservative and Leave. Given her and her friends’ reluctance to speak out at voting Leave, it serves to confirm that there is a worry or fear that by admitting to something deemed to be an opposing view, it will have repercussions socially and professionally.
Traditionally, the majority of students and young people tend to lean to the left but it is seemingly becoming more and more unacceptable to say you vote for, or support anything, other than left-leaning politics. In the last couple of years, university students and societies have been criticised for banning topics or issues that may cause offence, one of which is right versus left debates. Last year, Harriet Harman warned of the increasing ‘inhibition of free speech at university’.
This curtailing of freedom of political expression is further exacerbated by social media. Social media is the medium of choice for many Millennials to gain information and news. It is also a place where many important issues gain attention. Many protest organisations, however, portray themselves as holding a monopoly for what they consider to be right, excluding the possibility of considering an alternative standpoint. They lay claim to owning the exclusive moral standpoint as to how to remedy the world’s problems, which they place at the door of right-wing capitalism and individualism going unchecked.
Emma spoke of Extinction Rebellion and how ‘some of the narrative from [that] movement [is] anti-Tory, anti-Government’. And she has a point. The Guardian, earlier this year, published an article focusing on the language used by such movements, noting that, ‘Climate activists talk about saving the natural world from “harm”, “caring” for the planet and working towards climate “justice”. Such language appeals to the left but antagonises the right’. And ‘such language’, whether consciously or subconsciously, seeps into the minds of Millennials, shifting mindsets further to the left.
That in itself isn’t an issue, but what is is that there seems to be little to no counterbalance or willingness to accept or hear alternatives. Millennials may deem themselves to be ‘woke’ but their political interest and awareness lags poorly behind that of others. If they continue to reject the discussion of other political views, then they are not opening themselves to other intelligent alternatives; they are neither broadening their minds nor being tolerant. In short. they run the risk of creating a political mono-culture which, consequently, only perpetuates the lack of political awareness.
Opposition to values
The Tories are not popular amongst Millennials. In Emma’s opinion, it is becoming ‘more and more unacceptable’ to admit voting for the Conservatives and attributes this to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s shift even further to the Left.
There are also historical reasons as to why the Tories are unpopular amongst many in my generation. Margaret Thatcher was a controversial Prime Minister, reducing the power of the unions and increasing privatisation of a number of key public services. John Major’s premiership was riddled with scandal. Both contributed to the Conservatives’ political wilderness in the late ’90s and ’00s. The party then came to power in 2010, implementing a series of cuts known as ‘austerity’, as a way to tackle the country’s debt after the 2008 financial crash. And now Brexit, the referendum having been called by the party, has ripped apart the very social, economic and political fabric of our society. And, amongst all this, they have also been branded ‘toffs’ and ‘posh’ for the party’s predilection to placing Etonians and Oxford-educated members into high positions in government. They are viewed as the party for the wealthy, traditional and middle-aged — not as the party for the socially-conscious liberal youth.
Brexit, however, has amplified this and compounded further my generation’s aversion to Conservatism. In the minds of many Millennials, Conservative equates to Leave. It is an assumption one can make: 61 per cent of Conservatives voted Leave, compared to 35 per cent of Labour supporters voting to leave the EU. People voted Leave for various reasons but the prevailing belief for voting Leave was due to a fear of immigration, lack of inclusivity, and a nationalistic, parochial outlook — values diametrically opposed to many Millennials’. And while Emma doesn’t make the direct link between Brexit and intolerance towards Conservatism, given how much Brexit recurred throughout our conversation, and the fact that she hid her Leave tendencies from others socially and at work because ‘Brexit … was so divisive’ and she feared people would assume certain things about her; given all this, I sense that she is aware of the detrimental impact it has had on the image of conservatism as a whole.
An enlightened generation
Originally, I wanted to question if it is unacceptable for a Millennial to admit voting for the Conservatives. As the conversation with Emma evolved, however, it became clear that admitting to vote for Brexit is deemed highly unacceptable amongst our generation. The link between Leave and Conservatism and Remain and Labour, thus, has now made voting Tory more unacceptable amongst Millennials. And, living up to Millennial ‘type’, anything that is deemed unacceptable, is not tolerated or entertained, leading to a lack of discussion and debate.
There is so much value to be had in freedom of speech and expression — fundamental tenets of liberal western democracies. Drawing upon history, the rise of the 17th and 18th century coffee houses, where open debate and discussion were actively encouraged, in part, led to the Enlightenment where a number of intellectual, political, economic and social advancements were made for the good of the country.
Let us be an enlightened generation and not reject alternative viewpoints because we disagree. By giving people the freedom to be open, we are allowing debate and discussion to ensue, aiding and shaping political thought. Only then can we truly claim to uphold the Millennial values of being open-minded, liberal and accepting and ensure we begin to move away from the ‘snowflake’ stereotype.