Old people are stereotyped as backward and ignorant. They have been cast in the role of narrow-minded bigots who possess archaic prejudices. Their attitude and behaviour are unfavourably contrasted with the enlightened, cosmopolitan and caring outlook of the young. This positive representation of young people is promoted by the authors of Cultural Backlash, who insist that enlightened and socially liberal values are gaining greater and greater traction among the young. These young people are supposedly digging the graves of the nasty, authoritarian, xenophobic politics of their elders.
Numerous commentators appear to believe that the political behaviour of young people constitutes an important act of rebellion against the values of the older generations. Such commentaries often suggest that the young have become more and more politically engaged, politicised, and even radicalised. But what defines the voting behaviour of young people is not so much radicalism as the politics of conformism.
Young people’s politics are strongly influenced by the values and attitudes that they have internalised through the dominant institutions of culture – such as the media, schools and universities. The current pattern of socialisation has relegated the role of the family to a secondary, supporting role. A shift away from the family socialising young people to schools and universities socialising young people has encouraged generational estrangement.
It is not that university-educated people think they are smarter than the rest of the electorate, and that in voting for Labour they are demonstrating their superiority. Rather, they have internalised the anti-traditionalist and anti-conservative values to which they were exposed on campus. Unlike student radicals of the past, who often rebelled against university authorities, the recent cohorts of undergraduates have internalised and conformed to the prevailing ethos. It is also difficult for students seriously to question this ethos, and most of them feel they have no choice but to adopt it.
The so-called post-materialist and anti-traditional values upheld by many young voters is sometimes portrayed as a form of radical defiance. It is nothing of the sort. The conformist script that many young people have internalised was written by a small section of their elders, those within the cultural elite. Like the children led by their teachers to join a school strike for the planet, many young people vote against their elders because that is what they have been taught to do.