“Youth – Voice On” is a follow up on Eteron’s “Gen Z – Voice On” project, in which we broaden the field of our research and initiatives to a wider age range of young people aged 17-34 years old.
The project’s aim is to outline the profile of the young generation by recording, analysing and discussing young people’s views on a range of political, value and ideological issues, such as: the institutions, democracy, the economy, immigration, gender issues and expectations for the future.
Through research, networking and participatory initiatives, our intention is to empower the voices of the younger generation and understand their characteristic traits, their perceptions as well as their feelings and attitudes towards political participation.
The project started in May 2023. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Researcher and PhD candidate in Social Sciences
Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens
Recently, youth and generation as an analytical category have re-emerged in -both academic and non-academic- public discourse, with the publication of numerous papers and empirical material. This development was also fuelled by the mass mobilisations (the biggest in the last 12 years according to Public Issue’s data) that followed the fatal train accident in Tempi, in which young people took the lead, according to relevant research findings. This paper attempts to interpret the findings of Eteron’s research on young people aged 17-34 in light of the election results of the 21st of May 2023.
However, before we can outline the political profile of today’s Greek youth, we must make a necessary remark: the segmentation of society, and young people in particular, into generations, requires caution. A major event is not in itself enough, even if it is received as a blow with tragic consequences primarily against the youth. The dispersal of blame (all governments are to blame), as well as the opposite (it was the stationmaster’s fault), combined with a reasoning of incredible/unprecedented human error rather than a natural disaster, confine the socialising impact of said event to the realm of the “exceptional”. Therefore, we can’t really talk of a “Tempi generation”, since to do so would promote an invalidating perception of generations that succeed each other rapidly, on the basis of very heterogeneous socialising influences. A succession that would therefore explain nothing.
Although we are still in the midst of a prolonged election period, the elections of the May 21 already seem to acquire a particular significance, both because of the -almost unprecedented and largely unexpected- difference between the two first parties, as well as the reversal of trends that seemed to be consolidating in the fluid but stabilising party system of the last ten years. The sweeping victory of Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy or ND), with 40.79% and SYRIZA’s concurrent electoral crush (20.07%) are clearly reflected in the unprecedented predominance of Nea Dimokratia in all the country’s electoral districts, with the sole exception of Rhodope, as well as in all socio-demographic categories (gender, age, employment status). 1
More specifically, this was the first time since the double electoral shock of 2012 that ND gained the vote of the majority of young people, especially the youngest among them, although with percentages significantly lower than the national average, something that ought to be acknowledged. According to the joint exit poll data, 2 33.1% of young people aged 17-24 and 31% of those aged 25-34 voted for ND – percentages that were the same or very close to those gained in the same age groups in 2019 3. SYRIZA, the party which used to come first amongst the young generation by quite a margin from the party that came second in all parliamentary elections from 2012 to 2019, suffered a significant decline in terms of the youth vote, one that arguably reflects its overall plunge: it drew 24.1% in the 17-24 age group and 22.9% amongst the 25–34-year-olds. By that it is abundantly clear that young people have not been unaffected by ND’s predominance in all socio-demographic categories and the overall reinforcement of the Right and Centre-Right elements of the party system.
However, it should not escape our attention that the age pyramid of the (much fewer) SYRIZA voters in 2023, compared to 2019, does not reveal any changes regarding the youth’s position compared to 2019. Theythey still constitute the largest age group within SYRIZA, which is voted for with percentages above the national average. Moreover, the overall vote in favour of left-wing parties amounts to 36.5% for 17–24-year-olds and 37.4% for 25-34-year-olds (sum of SYRIZA, KKE, and MeRA25 percentages), down by about ten points compared to the 2019 elections, but well above their sum amongst the general population, which does not exceed 30%. Indeed, if we add the percentages of the other non-right-wing forces to the above (including PASOK and the – largely unclassified based on traditional divisions – Plefsi Eleftherias), then this figure rises to 52.1% for the 17-34 age group.
As for the vote of young people for the remaining parliamentary political parties (PASOK – Kinima Allagis, KKE, and Elliniki Lisi), there are no major deviations from the national average. However, all three parties have higher percentages among voters aged 17-34 than they did in the 2019 elections, based on the exit polls comparison, especially PASOK, which almost doubled its percentages. The only significant difference appears to be in the appeal of smaller parties that did not manage to cross the electoral threshold of 3%, namely Plefsi Eleftherias and MeRA 25, which, in the 17-34 age group gatheredpercentages even more than double their national average. The above is also indicative of a share of the youth vote shift, although there is no data on the age segmentation of voter migration.
Similarly, when it comes to the student vote, ND (31.1%) has a lead over SYRIZA (26.9%). In any case, both political parties saw a drop in their percentages in this particular category, especially SYRIZA (in the 2019 parliamentary elections 39% of students voted for SYRIZA and 35% for ND), while PASOK, KKE and Elliniki Lysi recorded a significant increase.
It is also quite interesting to observe the gender dimension of the vote, as the overall female vote is slightly more left-wing than the male one, including a higher support for SYRIZA. Although the 2023 exit poll data do not (yet?) allow for the cross-tabulation of gender with age and, therefore, the comparative study of the vote of young women and men, the more left-leaning vote of young women has been documented multiple times, in the double elections of 2012, as well as in January and September 2015. It is a fact that seems to have become a constant within Greek political culture in recent years. 4 At the same time, less women cast their vote for far-right parties, a fact that has been observed in the past as well, when looking into the vote for the far-right Golden Dawn, especially by young men.
It is therefore obvious that the elections of the 21st of May 2023 overturned certainties that, until then, seemed to be constant in the political party system of the post-recession period, such as the left-wing youth vote and especially the mass vote for SYRIZA. Are these changes that (should) surprise us? And how do they converse with the findings of previous surveys that documented on the one hand the – gradual and conditional – return of young people to politics and on the other hand their shift towards the Left?
In order to address the questions above, we must incorporate them in a more comprehensive analysis of the political profile of young people in Greece over at least the last decade, focusing on their values, positions and general ideological traits. Young people’s rekindled involvement in politics was already foreshadowed by the events of December 2008 and intensified during the economic crisis, with their massive participation in the mobilisations of 2010-11, where they took the lead. 5The double elections of 2012 and then the referendum of 2015 intensified and completed their return trajectory, which was taking place through both institutional and non-institutional participatory channels, as well as the clear electoral shift of young people towards the Left. 6
However, it is worth bearing in mind that the estimate of young people’s electoral turnout cannot be done in the immediate future, on the one hand because of the unverified electoral rolls that lead to the usual problems of overestimating abstention, 7 and on the other hand because of the lack of specific data regarding the age profile, and other demographics of the citizens who abstain from voting. In the May 2023 elections, the overall participation increased compared to 2019, both in terms of percentage and absolute numbers: 60.9% versus 57.8% and 6,061,098 voters versus 5,769,644, although we do not have information regarding the voters’ age breakdown.
Nevertheless, both in Eteron’s research and in other surveys conducted during the same period, 8 it is multiply documented that young people vote in elections in very high percentages, and according to their own responses, they intended to do the same in the June 25 election (77.5% replied they would vote in June). At the same time, there is significant participation of young people in rallies, demonstrations, protests (as many as 52%), online activism (31%) and strikes or work stoppages (24%). It should also be noted that more than 1 in 3 respondents participated in protest events after the Tempi accident, while for 13.6% it was the first time participating in movement actions.
As for young people’s left turn and their potential radicalism, Eteron research findings confirm some previous hypotheses that challenged existing certainties about the radicalization of Greek youth. These hypotheses argued that even though young people have been voting for left-wing parties en masse between 2015 and 2019, if not since 2012, they cannot be described as radical. 9The left-wing vote was therefore far from consolidated, precisely because it was not based on a value and ideological foundation of a coherent leftist worldview.
Indeed, SYRIZA’s very high percentage amongst young people in September 2015 -significantly higher than the one it received in January- foreshadowed the limits and fragility of young people’s supposed left turn. Moreover, the low levels of identification or affiliation with political parties that young people express, 10 especially against a broader background of ideological fluidity and decline of grand narratives, render the results of the May 2023 elections less unexpected than may have seemed at first glance.
Although the aforementioned data by no means suggest that voting in elections is not a valid way for younger generations to participate in politics, as is sometimes stated, it nevertheless seems to have lost part of its gravitas and subversive potential. It is worth mentioning that only 35.5 % of the participants replied that voting – in the sense of a governmental change – is a way of improving their lives. This suggests, as the scientific supervisor of the research, Loukia Kotronaki, rightly points out in her report, that voting is a “low-expectations political participation practice” for young people and is therefore not necessarily indicative of their overall political profile.
Certainly, from the point of view of the politically active individuals, voting is less important than their values, which constitute the core of their identity, as well as their political attitudes, which obviously influence their electoral choice but, more importantly, determine the overall climate of a particular time period. And clearly it is of less importance than the overall vision of society that the voters hope for, and which is only slightly discernible in the electoral results.
What seems to prevail amongst the young generation is a “progressive” rights-based worldview, which, by disconnecting social radicalism from its political content, can even coexist with a right-wing vote, as we saw in the recent elections. This coexistence finds fertile ground especially when the diverse category of young people is characterised by a particular “ideological syncretism”, 11 as well as by perceptual and value contradictions, which have been reflected in numerous studies. 12 Even if we concede that today’s youth are generally left-leaning in terms of their values, at the present conjuncture this does not mean that they are left-wing -whatever that means – or used to mean – politically and practically. And even more so, it does not mean that it is radical in its majority or an actor with a vision for a society based on equality, freedom and solidarity.
SYRIZA’s trajectory, already since the summer of 2015, has blurred things further and rendered left-wing politics and worldview even harder to discern, since, on the one hand, it alienated the -small- minority of essentially left-wing youth who identified with it politically, and on the other hand, it has not managed to plant a seed of radical vision in the minds of the younger ones. Instead, it rather aimed at appealing to them with better/fairer governance and identity issues with rights-based mentalities. Yet, those same issues and mentalities can now be served, under neoliberal hegemony conditions, by unexpected social/political alliances. Even if the distinction between Left and Right, and ideologies as we have known them, continue to be useful analytical categories and are still invoked by individuals, they no longer define coherent and opposing visions of society and the world in the way they used to.
At the same time, they determine less than in the past “the array of the preferences and values of citizens”, 13 especially young people, a development that also renders their voting more fluid and volatile. This happens precisely due to the predominance of neo-liberal ideas masked as common sense that have also affected part of the left-wing social perception. However, in essence, the Left-Right distinction has never been ideologically and primarily value-wise more clearly opposed than it is today.
The findings of Eteron’s research on Greek youth support the conclusion of a muddled and contradictory ideological orientation amongst the young generation, as well as profound individualisation. More specifically, when it comes to the ideological and political current people they primarily identify with, most young people who participated in the research, position themselves within the broader spectrum of the Left (14.7% say they feel closer to democratic socialism, 12.4% express the same for social democracy, 5.1% for communism and 3.4% for anarchism).
However, the most popular option, with 22.2%, is “None [No ideology], I believe in the individual”, a position directly linked to the core of neoliberal ideology, although neoliberalism as such is not as popular (4.3%). Moreover, almost 1 in 5 young people chooses not to answer this particular question (19.3%). Both of these findings demonstrate the decline of grand narratives and their corresponding identity function as we knew them until recently, but also the ideological impact and diffusion of neoliberalism far beyond those who describe themselves as neoliberal.
Moreover, we should not overlook the fact that this development is in line with the “Zeitgeist”, which is defined by the personalisation of all aspects of human experience, including politics. The fragmentation of the cultural fields that provided solid identities for people, such as class or gender, means that individuals rely less and less on ideology or fixed identities; instead, they are increasingly acting politically in their everyday lives, and in order to do so, they choose flexible means of expression and single-issue causes. In this context, it is not surprising to find strong elements of individualisation even within what we can call left-wing politics and worldviews.
In the same vein, when asked “How do you think your life could be improved?” 66.2% answered “by making individual effort”, and only 33.2% think that improvement can be achieved through participation in collective actions and movements (the same percentages were recorded amongst both men and women in both answers). Also, a considerable 24.1% believe they will improve their lives through networking and making useful contacts, a rate that is significantly higher amongst men. Also interestingly, almost half as many women than men choose voting and joining political parties as a means of improving their lives. It is again confirmed that young women join political processes largely by bypassing the formal, institutional participation channels, sometimes criticising their inherent androcentrism. Lastly, 8.8% responded that nothing could improve their lives, possibly indicating a low sense of political efficicacy or even political cynicism in an implicit manner.
The general devaluation of the previously established, mainly collective ways of managing the common aspects of our lives together is also consistent with the loss of trust in major institutions, as shown in the findings of multiple research reports. In fact, Eteron’s research confirms the general pattern of very low levels of trust in institutions, which were already visible in Greek society shortly before the onset of the economic crisis, with the lowest rates observed amongst the youngest age groups. In descending order, the more distrusted institutions are political parties (88.5%), the government (75.4%), the Church (71.2%), Justice (69.6%), the police (69.4%), trade unions (62.9%), independent authorities (56.9%) and the army (57.7%), indicating the extent of the trust crisis that affects all institutions. Furthermore, there is widespread distrust towards most media outlets, especially television, while only news websites and social and family circles are viewed positively.
The general disappointment and sense of frustration with the current way politics function is also corroborated in the findings of another Eteron survey, the insight into the minds of voters, where 75.8% of young people responded that they are dissatisfied or rather dissatisfied with the way democracy operates in Greece. We know that this sense of dissatisfaction, which involves contradictory interpretations, is linked to an overall feeling of malaise rather than a (now much more than in previous time periods) sense that democracy in Greece is currently under attack. A characteristic example highlighting the solidity of this argument, is the very low ranking of the wiretapping scandal, a major issue of democratic operation, among a list of issues that will influence the vote of the young (it ranks last among the possible options cited, with just 6.4%).
At the same time, however, 14.6% of young people agree or rather agree with the statement that “in some cases, dictatorship is preferable to democracy”, a percentage that is very close to the relevant figures amongst the overall population (13%). It is a finding that also appears in other surveys conducted around the same time, where along with young people making a left turn of sorts, some others systematically turn to the far-right, although in this case there is a clear gender differentiation. This is also reflected at the level of electoral records, where Golden Dawn gathered much higher percentages amongst young men, even more than double its national average. In the May 21st elections, the electoral current of far-right’s influence on young people appears to be reduced compared to previous elections, with the sum of the votes for Elliniki Lisi and Niki amounting to 6.9% amongst 17-24-year-olds and 7.3% amongst 25-34-year-olds, slightly below their national average.
However, there are two remarks that ought to be made at this point: On the one hand, the fragmentation of the far-right forces does not allow a very clear picture of its appeal amongst young people, since the released exit poll results do not include data on votes cast for parties that did not reach the electoral threshold of 3%. On the other hand, the same is true for the gender and age cross-section, which would provide valuable information as to the continuation or not of past trends. However, even if it is declining, there is still a sympathetic audience for far-right rhetoric within the Greek youth, which may exceed its electoral appeal.
The May 2023 elections revealed a new political landscape that strays from much of what seemed to be the cultural norms of the political process for young people in Greece until recently. And from a long-term perspective, far more important than the vote itself is the process of shaping the cultural parameters that seem to be crystallising within the context of the current elections and the general all-encompassing political reality. Thus, potentially fruitful directions for further research emerge, both in terms of the -visible and more covert- ways in which neoliberal ideological hegemony affects progressive youth, as well as their ideological profile.
What does the coexistence of movement dynamics and the choice of diverse forms of political participation on one hand, with the massive rejection of political parties and the comparatively smaller rejection of institutions such as the government, the Presidency of the Republic, or independent authorities on the other, ultimately demonstrate? What kind of profile does that outline? Does it confirm, once more, that young people perceive the notion of “freedom” through a rather liberal lens, with “equality” clearly lagging behind? Finally, it would also be interesting to investigate in more detail the internal age sub-groups that constitute Greek youth today, which, considered in conjunction with basic socialisation experiences based on each period’s overall context and climate, could lead to substantial conclusions.
In conclusion, although the political profile of young people seems to be shifting, based on who they voted for, it is worth stressing the fact that their ideological profile remains more or less stable. It is just that, in the current context, it can be expressed through many different political (party) voices. Is this practice superficial? Maybe so. But this is the general atmosphere, the cultural Zeitgeist that is shaping progressive, pro-rights and pro-diversity young people, with no ability/awareness to view things from a social (class) perspective, a youth that is inspired by the “live and let live” motto/mentality, rather than by “another unimaginably better world is possible”” Only the Left can convince the youth of the latter. But of course, the Left itself must first prove that it wholeheartedly believes that statement.