Friday, July 10, 2009

The political culture of Generation Y aka Generation 2.0: Openness, Ethics and Humility

A week ago I published a post about Generation 2.0 that dealt with the cultural consequences of the digital revolution. Yesterday, I discovered on Twitter the term of Generation Y thanks to @boriswandoren. The statement “Generation Y” is used to qualify the generation roughly born since the end of the seventies, which is the first one to have massively integrated the use of digital technologies in their daily lives. Boris Wandoren, Jon Worth and I engaged in a Twitter debate about the necessity of Generation Y values to be represented more in politics, which led Jon Worth to write a blogpost disproving the generational argument, stating that the main issue in today’s politics is more the structural difficulty of political parties to integrate “risk takers, leaders, people with drive, people with ideology, and bind them into a party structure”. Julien Frisch picked up this post, partly agreeing with Jon while arguing at the same time that there is some truth in the generational issue.

I still believe it is a matter of generation. But don’t get me wrong, I do not mean it is simply a question of replacing elder politicians by younger ones. That would be too easy. To paraphrase Jon, “it’s more important than that”. The generation question is not only an age question; it is much more relevant as a cultural question. Many young people still think like older generations while some elder people embrace the cultural changes younger generations bring in. Take the example of the 1960s cultural protest movement. Back then, not all young people were culturally liberal hippies! Some were conservative. They were the same age though. Yet looking back in history, at that moment it’s the values of the young progressive hippies -joined by their open-minded elders- that won the cultural battle.

The relevance of the generation question is more culture than age-related. So what is the specific culture of Generation Y and how does it matter? According to the Wikipedia articles I could read on the topic in English and French, what characterises Generation Y -at least in Western countries- is the following:

  • They didn’t grow up with the apocalyptical threat of the cold war.
  • They have integrated the moral transformations of the 1960s/1970s.
  • They haven’t known the world without AIDS.
  • They were young enough when computers and portable electronic devices started to widely disseminate so that they could gain an intuitive command of these technologies, much better than that of their parents.
  • They were born at a time when ecology started to raise interest in the wide public.

This list is certainly not comprehensive, and more importantly not entirely relevant to all geographies, but it is still good food for thought. Although these Wikipedia articles give a good description of Generation Y’s culture, they do not relate it to political behaviours. And that’s where we get back to the point I wanted to make.

The emergence of this new culture will have a long-term impact on politics. My guess is that Obama’s election is the first visible sign of what the political legacy of Generation Y will be. I believe that the future of politics lies in Openness, Ethics and Humility:

  • Openness because, thanks to digital technologies, the public debate has become much more open to citizen’s direct interaction, which also leads to the necessity for institutions to be more transparent. Openness also because tolerance is one of the defining values of Generation Y that believes in sexual liberties and the promotion of minority rights.
  • Ethics because in the past decades there has been a growing disenchantment about politics as a consequence of recurring corruption scandals and a perceived discrepancy between what politicians say they stand for and what their behaviours are.
  • Humility because in today’s world one can become an idol in just a minute, only to fall back as quickly into anonymity, because the world has become so complex that no ideology can pretend to have all the keys to world peace, because we live in an interdependent world where the fate of the richest is linked to that of the poorest.

There is a growing demand for a new way of doing politics. However, there is still not quite a satisfactory offer. Stay tuned: more posts coming up on Generation Y, the open society and what it means for politics.

Update on 11 July:

Boris Wandoren's take on the topic:

and the amazing article by Kevin Kelly on digital socialism:


  1. As an aside. To link values to the European Union, I think it is great that the EU wants to export its universal values, like democracy.

    But do you think that Generation Y (2.0) would want the EU to import its own value, democracy, as well?

    I find it perplexing that India can be a democracy, but the European Union not.

  2. Can't wait to read the following and how Generation Y must build new political organizations that fits with their way of thinking.

    I would have also raised Values at the same level. What the right wing did, in France, to win was to communicate on simple values. Obama was elected with a very simple message, carrying huge values to America, and then declined it in a political programm., with the help of activists

  3. @Granhlaw,
    I'm not sure what your point is... but Generation Y is as relevant to the EU as it is to national systems. The EU will have to open up to this cultural change, or it will face an even wider gap between it and the citizens in the future.

    completely agree regarding the values, which is why I started to detail those of openness, ethics and humility. A culture is partly a set of values. Reading your comment, I couldn't help but think to you are familiar with George Lakoff's work? Don't think of an elephant has become my bible, and the main source of inspiration behing this blog's project. I'll soon write an article on this book.

  4. @Eurosocialiste : I don't know George Lakoff's work, but I'm very happy to know I inspired him...

  5. @Alexandre:

  6. Generation Y will most likely become a more Conservative Generation compared to Generation X and the Boomers. For one thing, they'll be paying off alot of debt incurred by present governments. In the newspapers, it has said that Generation Y and future British/European generations will have a tougher future economically wise compared to previous generations. Also, despite the young socialists telling us how "tolerant" Generation Y has become to ethnic minorities and the like, this is infact a lie. A good majority of the generation are very concerned about immigration and very much resent the politically correct culture being forced down their necks. Alot of younger members of Generation Y support the far-right and Conservative parties in Europe. In emerging powers such as China and India, not to mention Russia, Generation Y in those countries want STRONG countries, not an interdependent world relying on everyone else. They want to dominate. In essence, we will probably see Generation Y becoming very similar to the Lost Generation. With more immigrants entering Europe and European demographics showing that within 100 years, Europeans will be a miniority in their own continent, not to mention fading culture and lack of money to spend, this Generation will most likely become more right-wing as time goes on. You can tell them right from birth to be tolerant but when the going gets tough, all that education flies out the window.