Study pinpoints why millennials are exceptionally disillusioned with democracy

Here's how scientists think this will affect this year's election.

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On the eve of a historic election in the United States, Cambridge University researchers have sobering news on the state of democracies around the world. More than ever before, millennials are disappointed with the process.

Millennials the most disillusioned with democracy of any generation to come before them – even when people of that generation were the same age millennials are now. This finding was published Monday in a report released by the university's Center for the Future of Democracy.

By the time they reach their mid-30s, 55 percent of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are dissatisfied with democracy, per the report. By comparison, when members of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) were the same age, less than 50 percent were unhappy with democracy, worldwide.

It's a trend connected to changes in age. For example, in the US specifically, 63 percent of millennials were satisfied with US democracy in their early twenties. By their mid-thirties, that had fallen to 50 percent.

Those statistics were compiled from a survey of 4.8 million people from 160 countries worldwide, between 1973 and 2020. It's the largest dataset on satisfaction with democracy around the world, per the report.

The report illustrates that younger citizens are "losing faith in the ability of democracy to deliver," the authors state.

Roberto Foa is the study's lead author and a lecturer in politics and public policy at the University of Cambridge. He tells Inverse that his report isn't necessarily bad news for the election. Disillusionment doesn't have to mean that millennials won't turn out to vote.

Instead, it may actually signal the opposite.

Millennials feel more disillusioned with democracy than any other generation, the report suggests.

Mario Tama / Staff/ Getty Images

Millennials and the 2020 US election

Foa points to rising voter registration in key states (a good sign, but not a sign that people will actually vote) and an influx of votes by mail or early voting as signs that disillusionment isn't translating to apathy in the US.

The report does note there tend to be bumps in millennial satisfaction with democracy when populist candidates are on the ballot. A populist candidate claims they are representing "the people" rather than "the elite."

On average, when a populist leader is elected, there is about a 16 percentage point increase in satisfaction with democracy among people between 18 and 34, according to the report.

Foa says that populist candidates, in general, tend to spur participation among younger age groups, on both the right and the left. On the left, he found that youth satisfaction increased in every case when a left-wing populist was elected, especially during the first two years in office. The same was true of right-wing populists: In all but one case, youth satisfaction with democracy increased after one full term in office.

Donald Trump's election in the US proved to be the only exception to that rule, the report points out. Satisfaction with democracy initially went down among millennials.

Top: change in youth satisfaction with democracy when left wing populist candidates are elected. Bottom: change in youth satisfaction with democracy when right wing populist candidates are elected.

The power of populism — Populist candidates may engage younger voters who are "disengaged" from moderate politics, the report suggests. Their polarized viewpoints, in turn, give people an incentive to participate in democracy, Foa explains.

"When you have populists elected, and populists, are by nature, polarizing, in that sense it creates incentives to engage in politics — both in favor and against their continuation in office," he says.

"My baseline hypothesis is that's what we're going to see during the US election."

That said, there isn't a great historical precedent. Voter turnout among millennials has been low compared to older age groups. In 2016, 70.9 percent of Americans 65 and older turned out to vote compared to just 46.1 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds. Though there are signs that this year might be different, even Foa says that it's still too soon to predict exactly how things will play out.

For now, the report can at least help explain why some millennials feel frustrated with the process to start with.

Why are millennials frustrated? – In the 1990s and early 2000s, millennial satisfaction was actually higher than that of their parents' generation, according to the report.

It began to waver during the early 2000s recession and plummeted even further during the 2008 financial crisis, the report indicates.

Those events underscore the major factor that seems to be driving millennial disillusionment: a discrepancy in life opportunities, especially the ones driven by income or location.

"When you have inequality and wealth inequality, in particular, you have individuals whose success in life isn't determined by their talent or their effort," Foa says. "Their chance of success in life is determined by some form of privilege."

Of all G7 countries, the United States has the highest level of income inequality, according to the Pew Research Center. A February 2020 report from the Pew Center also found that the wealthiest 20 percent of US households (making over $130,000) made more than half all US income in 2018.

"Their chance of success in life is determined by some form of privilege."

Foa's analysis showed that the gaps between millennial satisfaction with democracy and the feelings of older generations could be explained by current income inequality. But it was even better explained by past income inequality, the paper notes.

When the study team examined income inequality over the past 25 years, they found that it could better predict the current gap between how millennials feel about democracy and how older generations feel.Foa argues that this is because it takes time for income inequality to translate into a true discrepancy in wealth, such as:

"Not since the gilded age of the 1920s have you had a situation to the same degree as today," he says.

Taken together, that might be enough to drive disillusionment with democracy, the report suggests. But, on the flip side, it can also breed intense feelings that can be "mobilized politically."

Ultimately, Foa's work points out that disillusionment with democracy doesn't mean that millennials can't become impassioned to participate. It does suggest that feeling frustrated about elections or debates isn't a problem that's isolated to an election year.

This disillusionment is becoming one of many traits that define a generation.

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