Youth Disaffection with Politics: The US Case

AutorPeter Levine
Peter Levine
When I set out to write about «youth disaffection with politics» in the United
States, I presumed that I would be trying to interpret and explain the phenom-
enon expressed in that phrase. But the empirical method that I chose to employ
revealed a notable lack of evidence that disaffection with politics is a youth phe-
nomenon in the United States. In fact, by some measures, today’s young Ameri-
cans seem the least disaffected generation to emerge in some time. If youth disaf-
fection is viewed as a hypothesis rather than an assumption, the data disprove it
in the case of the United States.
To be sure, the US is a relatively neoliberal society, in which voters favor less
government than majorities in other advanced democracies do. Further, the US
has among the lowest rates of voter turnout among comparable countries. And,
like their peers in other democracies, Americans are hardly keen on politicians.
In those respects, all Americans might be considered disaffected from politics.
But again, these are not youth phenomena.
European data do provide some evidence of youth disaffection with politics.
In the European Social Survey (ESS) in 2012, almost 30% of younger respond-
ents (ages 14-29) said they had no interest in politics. Asked the same year how
much they trusted politicians, almost 80 percent of those younger Europeans
gave an answer between zero and five on a 10-point scale. Two thirds rated their
own national parliaments at five or below on the same scale 1.
It is important to distinguish between three possible explanations of these
results. A generational effect occurs when people born around the same time
1 ESS Rounds 1-6: European Social Survey Round 1-6 Data (2002-2012). Data file edition 2.1.
Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.
DESAFECCION.indb 45 10/11/15 17:37
share a formative experience that stays with them all their lives. As they enter and
then exit the national population, they change society by their presence alone.
The classic example is being young during World War I, which shaped both the
men who were enlisted and the women who were left behind. The Great War
influenced almost all Europeans born between 1885 and 1905, whether they
turned into modernists or reactionaries, Nazis or Stalinists, pacifists or warmon-
gers. They had a common frame of reference and shared an alienation from the
Victorian generations that had preceded them. That was a generational effect
if there has ever been one 2. An important feature of a generational effect is its
persistence. The trait that characterizes a generation is likely to predominate
when that group enters its period of maximum influence (which, for the World
War I generation, was around the time of World War II) and then fade when the
generation begins to die off.
A different phenomenon is an age effect. While people are young, they tend
to be relatively interested in sex and adventure. Once they are old, they are usu-
ally more concerned about health and grandchildren. This is a constant pattern
across generations. Unlike generational effects, age effects are not persistent for
a given group of contemporaries, although societies may encounter the same age
effects for each new group of youth.
A third phenomenon is a period or historical effect. Europeans became less
concerned about communism after the Soviet Union fell in 1989. In many Eu-
ropean countries, people became more concerned about terrorism after 2001.
These were not consequences of age or generation but responses to history. Peri-
od effects are unpredictable; they may change, and sometimes they can be inten-
tionally altered through shifts in policy and other major events.
The hypothesis of «youth disaffection» implies either a generational effect
(which would be troubling) or an age effect (which would be more benign, be-
cause current youth would grow out of their disaffection). To see whether either
theory applies, it is essential to follow trends over time. As I noted above, the
ESS asks respondents whether they trust politicians. Respondents are offered a
10-point scale, and after some experimentation, I have divided the subjects into
those who gave scores between 0-5 and those who said 6-10. The available data
come from even-numbered years between 2002 and 2012. Figure one shows the
trends by generation.
Note, first, that not many Europeans rate politicians six or higher on a
10-point scale. (That is not exactly startling news). Second, all age groups felt
more positive in 2002 than in 2010 and 2012. Finally, the four major age groups
show the same trends and are closely spaced. This graph suggests that there isn’t
really a phenomenon of European youth distrust in politicians. There has rather
been a period or historical effect involving all ages and generations.
The same can be said, by the way, of trust in national parliaments. On that
ESS question, in 2012, the least trusting age group were between the ages of
2 Karl mannHeim, «The Problem of Generations» in P. kecskemeTi (ed.), Essays on the Sociology
of Knowledge by Karl Mannheim (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952).
DESAFECCION.indb 46 10/11/15 17:37

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