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SOCIAL FABRIC

The Kids Aren’t Alright: the 4 factors driving a dangerous detachment from democracy

Why young people are detaching from democracy and social norms – and what to do about it
Luke Stanley, Will Tanner, Jenevieve Treadwell, James Blagden
September 1, 2022
The Kids Aren’t Alright: the 4 factors driving a dangerous detachment from democracy

“Both democracy and capitalism are like Tinkerbell’s light, if you stop believing in them they die. The lack of support for democracy amongst young people is both concerning and unsurprising. This report is right to point to the links between social connectivity and political opportunity”.

Penny Mordaunt MP

Young people today are unhappier, less socially trusting, and more detached from society than young people historically or older people today. 

They have fewer friends and lower quality friendships. They are less likely to volunteer or contribute to their neighbourhood. They are more likely to suffer emotional problems at school and stress at work. And their narrowing social networks are undermining economic mobility. All of these are self-reinforcing, with narrower networks driving greater loneliness and lower social trust. 

This is not just about rising loneliness among young people. It is also driving a generational slide away from democracy and social norms and towards atomisation and authoritarianism. Nearly half of millennials believe that army rule would be a good way to run the country, for example, triple the level a decade ago. The atomisation of youth will have profound implications if left unchecked. 

But what is driving this crisis – and what can be done about it? Onward’s Age of Alienation report last year exposed these trends and how they have changed over time. We found some correlation between rising levels of university enrolment and declining homeownership and falling rates of neighbourliness, but could not examine more proximate causes of declining social trust, friendship quality and support for democracy. That is the task of this paper, drawing on a major survey of 8,000 people by J.L. Partners and new analysis of official surveys. The tables for this survey are available on the J.L. Partners website, here.

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The four drivers of detachment

Repairing the ties that bind

1. Narrow social networks

Young people’s social networks are becoming socially less diverse and their identities more polarised.

Young people’s social networks are becoming narrower over time and political values are becoming a bigger part of their identity and friendship circles – with implications for both economic mobility and political voting patterns.

A third (33%) of 18-34-year-olds say they would not be able to marry someone who supports a political party they dislike, and a quarter (26%) would not consider being friends with them, compared to 20% and 11% respectively for over 55-year-olds.

Narrower friendship circles means that younger generations appear to be less tolerant of others’ views, and increasingly open to flirting with more authoritarian forms of government rather than supporting democracy.

 

2. Overprotective parenting.

Declining independence in childhood is depriving young people of social skills and resilience.

The average age at which children are being allowed out to play on their own has risen from 9 to 11 years old within the last generation, with implications for children’s social development. Children not allowed to play unsupervised are more likely to report emotional problems in childhood and loneliness in young adulthood and the 20% rise in peer-related problems in 10-15-year-olds since 2011 is strongly correlated with isolated play.

3. The treadmill of modern work.

Increasing intensity of work is leaving young people too exhausted to socialise.

Work-related stress, depression and anxiety has risen ten times faster among 18-34-year-olds than among over-35-year-olds since 2006. Meanwhile the proportion of 18-34-year-olds saying they feel “used up” at the end of the working day has increased by 44% since 1992, compared to 32% among older groups. Put simply, the changing nature of work appears to be changing the nature of society. 

The “work treadmill” means that young people spend increasing amounts of leisure time alone recovering rather than engaging in their community and cultivating social networks that can generate long-term happiness and health.

4. “Always online” culture.

Young people who rely on social media for validation or socialising are becoming disconnected from democracy and social norms.

The use of social media for validation and as a proxy for genuine real-life relationships is fuelling mental illness, political polarisation, extremism, and detachment from democracy among the young.

Over a third of 18-34-year-olds (36%) say they have more friends online than in real life, and these young adults are twice as likely to report loneliness and think army rule would be a good way to run the country as those who have more friends in real life than online. Meanwhile, 28% of young people spend over 4 hours a day on social media and 30% spend the same amount of time playing video games. When they do meet friends in real life, young people are twice as likely to stay in watching television than go to the pub or out playing sports.

1. Establish a national civic service scheme to strengthen support for democracy and encourage social mixing.

  • This should build on the good work of existing mass civic membership organisations and be built around broad national missions along similar lines to AmeriCorps Vista in the United States.
  • The substantial cost for the scheme should be hypothecated through the Digital Services Tax, which already raises around £400 million from digital companies.

2. Encourage a national network of “independent play” clubs, supervised by parents or volunteers. This would include:

  • Giving parents the right to use civic spaces and schools for activities.
  • Mitigating the costs of play clubs through support for DBS checks.
  • Legislating to limit potential liability costs for public authorities who offer premises.

3. Extend existing employment flexibilities to allow anyone to receive time off to volunteer to support public services or civic activity. This would mean:

  • Amending the Employment Rights Act 1996, which protects time off for jury duty, to allow workers to request time off to volunteer for civic organisations.
  • Eligible organisations should include the St John’s Ambulance, military cadets, and the Special Constabulary.

4. Introduce mandatory age, identity and usage checks on major social media websites to curb misuse without undermining the inherent value of online connection. This would entail:

  • Age verification checks on users to prevent underage use.
  • Identity verification checks of users themselves or, for under-18s, a parent or guardian to improve user accountability. Introduce opt-out social media limits as default.
  • Encourage platforms to introduce default time limits on social media use, with opt-outs for unlimited use.

The four drivers of detachment

1. Narrow social networks

Young people’s social networks are becoming socially less diverse and their identities more polarised.

Young people’s social networks are becoming narrower over time and political values are becoming a bigger part of their identity and friendship circles – with implications for both economic mobility and political voting patterns.

A third (33%) of 18-34-year-olds say they would not be able to marry someone who supports a political party they dislike, and a quarter (26%) would not consider being friends with them, compared to 20% and 11% respectively for over 55-year-olds.

Narrower friendship circles means that younger generations appear to be less tolerant of others’ views, and increasingly open to flirting with more authoritarian forms of government rather than supporting democracy.

 

2. Overprotective parenting.

Declining independence in childhood is depriving young people of social skills and resilience.

The average age at which children are being allowed out to play on their own has risen from 9 to 11 years old within the last generation, with implications for children’s social development. Children not allowed to play unsupervised are more likely to report emotional problems in childhood and loneliness in young adulthood and the 20% rise in peer-related problems in 10-15-year-olds since 2011 is strongly correlated with isolated play.

3. The treadmill of modern work.

Increasing intensity of work is leaving young people too exhausted to socialise.

Work-related stress, depression and anxiety has risen ten times faster among 18-34-year-olds than among over-35-year-olds since 2006. Meanwhile the proportion of 18-34-year-olds saying they feel “used up” at the end of the working day has increased by 44% since 1992, compared to 32% among older groups. Put simply, the changing nature of work appears to be changing the nature of society. 

The “work treadmill” means that young people spend increasing amounts of leisure time alone recovering rather than engaging in their community and cultivating social networks that can generate long-term happiness and health.

4. “Always online” culture.

Young people who rely on social media for validation or socialising are becoming disconnected from democracy and social norms.

The use of social media for validation and as a proxy for genuine real-life relationships is fuelling mental illness, political polarisation, extremism, and detachment from democracy among the young.

Over a third of 18-34-year-olds (36%) say they have more friends online than in real life, and these young adults are twice as likely to report loneliness and think army rule would be a good way to run the country as those who have more friends in real life than online. Meanwhile, 28% of young people spend over 4 hours a day on social media and 30% spend the same amount of time playing video games. When they do meet friends in real life, young people are twice as likely to stay in watching television than go to the pub or out playing sports.

Repairing the ties that bind

1. Establish a national civic service scheme to strengthen support for democracy and encourage social mixing.

  • This should build on the good work of existing mass civic membership organisations and be built around broad national missions along similar lines to AmeriCorps Vista in the United States.
  • The substantial cost for the scheme should be hypothecated through the Digital Services Tax, which already raises around £400 million from digital companies.

2. Encourage a national network of “independent play” clubs, supervised by parents or volunteers. This would include:

  • Giving parents the right to use civic spaces and schools for activities.
  • Mitigating the costs of play clubs through support for DBS checks.
  • Legislating to limit potential liability costs for public authorities who offer premises.

3. Extend existing employment flexibilities to allow anyone to receive time off to volunteer to support public services or civic activity. This would mean:

  • Amending the Employment Rights Act 1996, which protects time off for jury duty, to allow workers to request time off to volunteer for civic organisations.
  • Eligible organisations should include the St John’s Ambulance, military cadets, and the Special Constabulary.

4. Introduce mandatory age, identity and usage checks on major social media websites to curb misuse without undermining the inherent value of online connection. This would entail:

  • Age verification checks on users to prevent underage use.
  • Identity verification checks of users themselves or, for under-18s, a parent or guardian to improve user accountability. Introduce opt-out social media limits as default.
  • Encourage platforms to introduce default time limits on social media use, with opt-outs for unlimited use.

Endorsements

“This report highlights a concerning disconnection from democratic norms among young people. If we are to stave off authoritarianism in the future, ministers must take action to help the next generation find genuine connection in their lives, by developing civic service opportunities and robust regulation of social media.”

Rt. Hon. the Lord Hague of Richmond, former Foreign Secretary

 

“Both democracy and capitalism are like Tinkerbell’s light, if you stop believing in them they die. The lack of support for democracy amongst young people is both concerning and unsurprising. Order something on Amazon it arrives in hours. Solving a problem with legislation take years. We have to modernise both the mandate and its management. Part of this is about connecting people and empowering them. This report is right to point to the links between social connectivity and political opportunity”.

Rt. Hon. Penny Mordaunt MP, former Defence Secretary

 

“Narrowing social connections and increasing loneliness affect rich and poor across our country. For individuals it’s painful and for society it’s costly. We know that service to our country, and connecting people from across communities can from friendships and help people. The recommendation from Onward to build a national civic body could lay the foundation for future generations to tackle these issues and is very welcome.”

Tom Tugendhat MP, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee

“Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine has shown the devastating consequences of allowing authoritarianism to rise. The worrying data in this report shows we need to re-convince the next generation that democracy is the best way to promote freedom, prosperity and security. The steps proposed by Onward are a welcome first step towards making this important case.”

Rt. Hon. Matt Hancock MP, former Health Secretary

 

“If we allow a whole generation to become disillusioned with what democracy has to offer, we are playing with fire. It is an urgent challenge to all democratic Governments that the system offers hope to young people, so that if they work hard they can expect the rewards that their parents and grandparents enjoyed. This report’s recommendations show that there are solutions that would reconcile young people with the necessary compromises of democracy, and I hope the Government treats them very seriously.”

Rt. Hon. Damian Green MP, former First Secretary of State

 

“We should never be complacent about the freedoms we have and the representation we enjoy. The case for democracy needs to be made and remade for every passing generation and this work by Onward is invaluable in showing us why. Crucially, it doesn’t just diagnose the problems – social isolation, changing technology, polarisation of social media – but puts forward potential solutions, too. Anyone who cares about how our country is run – and how it can be improved – should read this.”

Rt. Hon. the Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links, former Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party

 

“We should all be concerned that younger people’s attachment to democratic norms seems to be falling away. What’s even more worrying is the root cause of that detachment – the lack of connections that young people feel to each other and wider society. This isn’t a problem we can just wish away. As this report argues, it needs active attempts by families, communities, councils and central government to create new connections and a sense of belonging among young people.”

The Lord O’Shaughnessy, Chair of Onward’s Social Fabric Steering Group

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