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Around the world, young voters have shown pretty clearly what they don’t want: the status quo

Is the political mobilization of young people in the U.S. and Slovakia just two isolated events? Or does it represent something bigger?

Demonstrators attending a protest rally in Bratislava, Slovakia, on March 16.
REUTERS/David W. Cerny

A pair of recent stories that no one saw coming: In the U.S., high school students pressure lawmakers about gun violence and organize a march on Washington. In a quiet European capital, young people galvanized by a hit on an investigative reporter launch protests that bring down the prime minister.

It’s a journalistic axiom that you need three related events before you start talking trends. But half a century after what Time magazine declared “the year of student power,” the Western world and at least some of its youth are in tumult again. So are these just two isolated events? Or do they represent something bigger? 

Young Americans taking the lead in the March for Our Lives protests on Saturday, and those at the forefront of Friday protests in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, are both reacting to violent deaths of other young people. In the U.S., it was the Parkland school massacre. In Slovakia, it was an attack on 27-year-old Jan Kuciak, who was digging into connections between officials, prominent business figures and the Italian mafia.

Whoever broke into Kuciak’s bungalow last month shot him in the chest, and killed his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, with a bullet to the head. Colleagues fact-checked and edited Kuciak’s unfinished story and published it worldwide. You can read it here.

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These protests are exceptions so far; there is nothing like the student movement that shook the U.S., France and Germany in 1968. But they also reflect a broad frustration with business as usual. Voting patterns indicate that many young people regard their parents’ candidates and parties as a collection of bums who need to be thrown out. In some cases, the young have drifted left; in others, to the right.

In the U.S. and Britain, non-traditional candidates working within the traditional party structure have benefited. The U.S. had its Bernie Sanders moment in 2016, and is gearing up for hotly contested elections this year.

In Britain, young people stung by the Brexit vote helped carry Labor’s Jeremy Corbyn to a surprisingly strong result in parliamentary elections last year. While Corbyn leads one of Britain’s two main parties, he is not a creature of Tony Blair’s cautious, centrist version of the Labor party. At a time when polls show young Brits leaning strongly to the left, Corbyn is an unapologetic leftist who comes across as a more genuine figure than generations of calculating politicians on both sides.

In Italy and France, it has been harder for traditional parties to hold onto young people. Much has been made of young people’s support for the populist Five-Star Movement in Italy’s elections earlier this month. Traditional movements of the center-left and center-right (the latter includes the eternal Silvio Berlusconi) have done little to solve a huge youth unemployment problem or assuage fears about immigration. About a third of Italy’s young are jobless, and young people are moving abroad in search of opportunities. Italy also is the place where many migrants seeking to reach Europe come ashore. Five Star bills itself as neither left nor right, leaving its identity in the eye of the beholder. Some of its leaders have spoken out strongly against immigration; it comes across as being somewhat pro-Russian.

The issue is jobs in France, as well.  As this Bloomberg analysis shows, despite his youth and outsider status, President Emmanuel Macron didn’t do very well among young people in last year’s election. In the first round of voting, candidates who were even bigger outsiders, Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left and Marine LePen on the far right, both got more votes from 18-to-24 year olds than Macron. Macron did slightly better than either of them among 25-to-34 year olds. In the second round, young people chose Macron over LePen, but by a smaller margin than voters over 60.

Farther east, young Poles appear to be deserting the conservative Law and Justice party since it won elections three years ago. Surveys have indicated they are down on most political parties — but relatively less so regarding one founded by a former rock musician, and one led by an anti-EU figure who famously declared women should earn less than men “because they are weaker, smaller and less intelligent.”

The April 8 election in Hungary will be another test. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been at the forefront of the populist and nationalist wave in Central Europe. There is anecdotal evidence and some data to suggest young people regard Orban and his party as another bunch of bums who need to be tossed out.

At a minimum, any youth movement requires that young people actually get out and vote, historically far from a certainty. Institutional resistance also is strong. U.S. students demanding tighter gun laws largely have been frustrated so far. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico simply handed power to his deputy; when he resigned, he told the country’s president: “I’m not going anywhere.”

Young people have shown pretty clearly what they don’t want: the status quo, in nearly any manifestation. Defining what they do want, and figuring out how to get it, is much trickier.