The 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has been highly controversial ever since he took office over a year ago. His isolationist message of ‘America First’, his decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and to move the US embassy to Jerusalem are just some of his actions that have created great controversy on the global stage. While his predecessor Barack Obama was hugely popular among the European public, how do Europeans view President Donald Trump and the future of the transatlantic partnership?
Europe’s millennials, who were born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, make up almost a quarter of the EU’s population. More than 78 million young Europeans use the euro. The common currency is a fact of life for them: as they grew up in an age of rapid European integration during which more and more countries joined the club, few of the millennials can remember a time when there were national currencies.
In June 2016, when an overwhelming majority of young British citizens voted to remain in the European Union, it became clear that young voters want a different kind of Europe than the older generations. A YouGov poll showed that 75% of those who were 24 years old or younger wanted to stay in the European Union, although the total vote only came to 48%. The British referendum on EU membership has been the most recent and most visible sign of a generational clash between the preferences of young people and old people.
We wanted to find out what Europe’s millennials – our sample includes individuals between the ages of 14 and 35 – think about the EU and the euro. Do they support European integration? What do they know about the EU and the common currency? And what changes would they like to see in the Eurozone in the years ahead? Our analysis is based on a representative dataset from a public opinion survey of all 28 European member states.
Conversations can be rather revealing. What do millennials have to say about the EU? This depends on whether they are still in the educational system or have already entered the job market. If they are asked to imagine a conversation between friends or colleagues about Europe, a gap emerges between the two groups of European millennials. In the case of the young millennials between the ages of 14 and 25, almost half of whom are still in the educational system, a majority of 52% said that a conversation about the EU would turn out to be positive. And 55% said the same with regard to a conversation about the euro.
However, in the case of the old millennials between the ages of 26 and 35, of whom almost three out of four are working on the labour market, only 43% would have anything positive to say about the EU, and only 46% would make positive remarks about the euro. These numbers are below the responses of the older generation. 46% of those would make positive comments about the EU, and 49% would say something positive about the euro. In other words, millennials who have entered the labour market are far less positive about the EU than their younger peers who are still in the educational system (figure 1).
A similar difference between Europe’s young and old millennials emerges with regard to the question of how they would vote in a referendum on EU membership. 63% of the young millennials were in favour of staying in the EU, though 21% would vote to leave. By contrast, 57% of the old millennials would vote to remain in the EU, and 32% would vote to leave if their country had a referendum on EU membership. The differences between young and old millennials with regard to EU membership also extend to the question of Britain’s role in the EU. While a majority of young and old millennials in the EU28 wishes to keep Britain in the EU, an even larger proportion of young millennials wants the United Kingdom to remain (58% vs. 53%). Both groups of millennials fear the consequences of Brexit more than the older generation (those between 36 and 65). 48% of all millennials say that “without Britain the EU will be worse off,” 6%-points more than the older generation. The fact that young people are much more likely than old people to be in favour of the EU is in line with other recent EU-wide opinion polls.
Do millennials also support the common currency? 62% of the young millennials from countries that use the euro want to keep the common currency, while 28% would vote against the euro if their country had a referendum on the subject. This is in stark contrast to their older peers among the millennials (between the ages of 26 and 35). Only 51% would vote in favour of and 40% against the common currency. Among the older euro area population, 56% support the common currency, whereas 38% would be in favour of leaving the monetary union. Support for the euro among both the young and the old population is much lower in those EU countries that do not use the euro. Only 24% of millennials from non-euro area countries and 29% of the older generations would vote for the euro to be their currency.
Young millennials do not only have a more positive attitude to the EU and to the euro than their older peers. They are also happier with the way democracy works. 53% of those between the ages of 14 and 25 are satisfied with EU democracy. At 44% the figure for those between the ages of 26 and 35 and for the 35+ age group is much lower. The differences in perceptions on how decision-making functions in the euro area are even more noticeable. Among those in the euro area between the ages of 14 and 25, 58% believe that decision-making in the euro area is democratic, while only 49% of those between the ages of 26 and 35 agree with this statement. The figure for the older generations is even smaller (47%). Similarly, satisfaction with democracy in the respondents’ own countries is higher for young millennials (51%) than for older millennials (43%) and Europeans over the age of 35 (46%).
We aggregate the responses to different questions on European integration into one pro-European index. It shows that the views of young people on Europe are less polarized than those of older respondents. Figure 2 depicts this difference. The young millennials in particular are more in evidence in the upper middle section of the spectrum than at the extreme ends.
The older millennials between the ages of 26 and 35 are less pro-European, but follow the same pattern. Europeans over the age of 35 have more polarized views. A large proportion is either in favour of or against European integration.
Are young individuals really more pro-European? The descriptive data suggest that but in order to know whether there is indeed a correlation between being young and being more pro-European, we run regressions for selected countries.14 We use two different integration measures to ensure that our results hold across different specifications.15 We control for a range of other explanations that previous research has found to have an impact on political attitudes.16 These include gender, highest educational attainment, employment status and political orientation.
We find that age has a statistically significant effect on support for EU integration in some countries. There is a positive effect for those between the ages of 14 and 25 in France and between the ages 14 to 35 in the United Kingdom: they are more likely to be in favour of EU integration than older generations. Millennials in Poland, by contrast, are less likely to be pro-European than the older generations. In Germany, Italy and Spain, Millennials do not differ systematically from older generations. The other control variables have the expected signs. Let us turn to two important factors of EU support that we will look at more closely: the economic situation of millennials and their knowledge about the EU.
European millennials have come of age and have entered the labour market during one of the worst recessions in living memory. Unemployment or the fear of unemployment has been the dominating topic, especially in peripheral Europe. Young people face a higher risk of becoming unemployed than older generations of Europeans. Unemployment rates of young individuals have been consistently higher – sometimes more than twice as high – as unemployment rates of older generations.
If we slice the data by education, our sample shows that 2% of university graduates in Germany run the risk of becoming unemployed, whereas in the case of Spanish graduates the figure is 14%. In general terms such differences can be observed in the case of the countries of the geographical core (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) and those of the periphery (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain), where unemployment is mostly higher.
Education is still an insurance policy against unemployment, though this is less effective than it used to be in many of the countries which are still trying to cope with the fallout from the crisis. Research on the impact of past recessions has also shown that university graduates who enter the labour market during an economic downturn tend to expect significantly lower remuneration levels.
Of the unemployed young millennials 55% would still vote to keep their countries in the EU. This number drops to 44% when we look at the unemployed old millennials. The regression analysis for the EU28 sample in Table 1 shows that being unemployed makes it statistically less likely to achieve a high integration score.
Geography also matters: Millennials in the peripheral countries are slightly more in favour of staying in the EU (63%) than those in the core countries (59%) in the event of a referendum. It is the other way round with the euro. In a referendum 59% of young people in the core countries would want to keep the euro as their currency compared to 53% in the peripheral countries.
It seems plausible that the financial and economic crisis which also endangered the euro contributed to scepticism about the euro among young people in the peripheral countries that were hit badly by the crisis. On the periphery support for the euro is highest among the older generations, where 59% would like to keep the common currency. Approval is much lower among old millennials, of whom only 49% support the common currency. In core countries this generational split does not exist.
The regression results underline this divide. Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Irish citizens tend to be more pro-European than their neighbours in the geographical core. Opt-out countries (the UK, Denmark and Sweden) are more critical. By comparison, support for the euro is greater in the core countries, while support for the EU is stronger in the peripheral countries.
Knowledge about the EU is generally a positive driver for support of European integration. Yet when looking at what young European know about the EU vis-à-vis their older peers, we are surprised to find that while millennials are more pro-European, they know much less about the EU than older generations of EU citizens. We measure their level of EU knowledge again with the help of an additive index. 53% of the young millennials (aged 14-25) do not know a great deal about the EU, though this is true of only 32% of those over the age of 35. As figure 3 shows the proportion of older people who know a lot about the EU is more than 20% higher than for the young age group (34% vs. 13%).
As figure 4 shows in more detail, there are significant differences between the young and the old when it comes to recognizing the names of European leaders: Thus 83% of millennials have heard of German chancellor Angela Merkel, and 62% say that the name of French president François Hollande sounds familiar. 38% have heard of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, which is more than can be said about Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (25%) and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey (18%).
The name of Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, is more familiar than that of Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission (35% vs. 28%). 73% have heard of the ECB, but only 24% recognize the name of Mario Draghi, its president. 45% know that the ECB is not located in London. Only 24% have heard of the Troika, and 28% know that Ireland received a bailout during the crisis. On average young millennials recognized one out of three terms and names from the list. Those who are 26 and older were familiar with almost 1 out of 2.
Among older Europeans knowledge about Europe and voting in favour of EU membership are closely correlated. 44% of those who know little would vote to stay, whereas 69% of those who know a lot would prefer to stay. Our analysis in Table 1 shows that high EU knowledge is correlated with being more pro-European. And this holds true for all six large EU countries surveyed as well as the EU28 as a whole. If, in the case of young people, knowledge about the EU went hand in hand with support for the EU, as in the case of old people, we would have to infer that young Europeans are downright anti-European. We know that they are not. In fact, the young view the EU more positively than the old.
Thus the level of knowledge is far less important among the young with regard to their support for the EU. 60% of young millennials who do not know a great deal would still vote to stay. Support for the EU, as with older voters, rises to 69% in the case of those who know a great deal about the EU. Among older millennials, the relationship between knowledge and support for EU membership is comparable to the older generations.
Young Europeans are not very optimistic about the future of the European Union, although they see it in a more positive light than the older generations. 3 out of 4 millennials say that in general things are not moving in the right direction in the EU. The numbers are similar for the older generations. When asked about their own countries, 72% of young millennials agreed that things were not moving in the right direction.
Although this is a large majority, it is not as high as among the older millennials and older generations, where 78% and 76% respectively believe that things are not moving in the right direction. Similarly, all Europeans in our sample are concerned about the future of the Eurozone, though the young less so than the old. A staggering 44% of older people believe that the Eurozone will still be in a state of crisis 10 years from now. For those between the ages of 14 to 25, the figure of 39% is still high, but slightly lower. Four in five of these young people doubt that the euro will be a strong and stable currency in ten years’ time.
These differences between young and old are also mirrored in the general trend that millennials are slightly less concerned about the potential future threats to the euro. The top three worries for millennials are low growth and unemployment
What Millennials Think about the Future of the EU and the Euro (35% for young millennials and 41% for old millennials), a new financial crisis (34% and 38%), and too much public spending and high debt levels (33% and 34%). The numbers for Europeans above age 35 are consistently higher (46%, 42% and 36%).
Furthermore, young people are less worried about their personal economic situation than the older generations. The assessment of how their personal economic situation has changed in the past two years is striking. While 36% of millennials say that their economic situation has improved, only 25% of the older generation say the same. And while 29% of the millennials say that their situation had worsened over the past two years, a much larger share (43%) of the old generation say that this had happened.
Similarly, when asked about their personal outlook in the foreseeable future, the young are the least pessimistic: 44% of the young millennials think that their personal outlook is negative, whereas 55% of the oldest cohort (those aged 56 to 65) see things in a negative light.
The lack of concern about economic threats such as unemployment and debt are counter-intuitive: after all, these problems are particularly relevant for younger generations. However, this relative carefreeness is in line with the finding that young people support the EU despite knowing less about EU politics and therefore may also worry less about its problems. Millennials have a general feeling that things are not moving in the right direction but they are less concerned about specific threats.
We have seen that young millennials are more pro-European and more optimistic about their future than older generations. In the light of their views, do they believe that the Eurozone is in need of reform? Are young and old millennials in agreement about this? And what kind of reforms for the common currency do they actually want?
In contrast to the older generations Europe’s millennials do not on the whole believe that there is an urgent need for reforms in the Eurozone. Among Europeans above the age of 35 years 48% believe that the common currency is in urgent need of economic reform. 29% were of the opinion that it would help, even though it was not absolutely necessary, and 3% believed that no reforms were needed. 43% of the old millennials thought that reforms were urgently needed, though the number drops to a low 30% in the case of the young millennials. Many young Europeans simply have no views on the subject: One #in four millennials does not know whether economic reforms are actually necessary.
The debate about whether the euro area actually needs its own fiscal capacity and what it should be used for has been around for a considerable length of time.
A clear majority of millennials think that a Eurozone budget would be useful. The same is true for the older generations. Almost 70% of all EU28 respondents agree that a European Finance Minister would be useful for the Eurozone, though there are no clear preferences about what his or her competences should be.
Where millennials and the older generations of Europeans differ are their preferences on how to spend a larger Eurozone budget. Young individuals are less likely to support a budget that is used to provide incentives for reforms. Yet they are far more likely than the older generations to support the idea that money should be given to European citizens when they lose their jobs or when they move to another European country to find one (figure 5). The results from the regressions support our interpretation.
Since the start of the euro crisis the question to which extent member states are willing to share risks has been on the table. Contrary to what many have speculated, almost two out of three Europeans agree that in general there should be more solidarity between the Eurozone countries, at least in times of crisis. In order to dig a little deeper into the question of solidarity, we combined the answers to various questions on solidarity into an index. We want to find out whether there is a correlation between age and solidarity in the Eurozone when we control for alternative explanations.
Our results reveal indeed less solidarity of those aged between 26 and 45. In other words, early and mid-career Europeans are less inclined to support redistribution within the Eurozone. One important factor that may explain why we see a drop in solidarity for this age group is that in times of low growth and low interest rates, many may think that they cannot afford more solidarity in the Eurozone. In the face of stagnating wages and high levels of unemployment, individuals may try to protect their disposable income against more taxation and their savings against lower returns.
It is not easy to design a consistent reform agenda based on our findings. While we can identify some reform preferences of the millennials there are no clear reform favourites. On the one hand, there are data limitations: there are so many possible reform directions and policy trade-offs for which the questionnaire could only cover a selection. On the other hand, the set-up of the Eurozone is complex and the effects of possible reforms on individuals’ lives are often not clear.
The Brexit referendum in June 2016 demonstrated that young voters are significantly more pro-European than voters from older generations. While the difference between the old and the young in support for the European Union holds across all 28 member states, our analysis also reveals that the millennials’ investment in Europe stands on thin ice for at least three reasons:
Pro-European sentiments among Europe’s young generation will not easily translate into votes. Experience shows that the mobilization of young voters is difficult.26 Many of the young millennials who tend to be the most supportive of the EU are even below voting age. Furthermore, our analysis has shown that very young people (14-25 years old) do not know a great deal about the EU. Previous research suggests that this will make them less likely to vote in European Parliament elections.27 Support for the EU and the euro will thus remain rather tenuous among Europe’s young generation.
Old millennials, who have just started their careers, are disenchanted with the euro. Their support for the euro is considerably lower than for the EU: in the periphery, only 49% want to keep the euro, 12%-points less than the support for EU membership. And within the EU as a whole pro-European attitudes are less noticeable among those between 26 and 35 than among their younger peers. Old millennials are disappointed because they have experienced the recession and the ensuing record-breaking youth unemployment. A return to growth should be a top priority, and this should go hand in hand with regaining the support of those who felt marginalized after the last crisis. As long as policymakers in the euro area do not deliver on the promise of growth and jobs, they are jeopardising the support of Europe’s millennials for the common currency.
Millennials are unlikely to drive reforms. On average young people in Europe seem to be much less worried about economic difficulties than their older peers. Young voters are on the whole not against economic reforms, but they believe that there is much less urgency than older generations. This should be taken as a wake-up call because we know that the euro needs reform to be a strong and stable currency in the long run. Policymakers will need to put more effort into explaining how different options to stabilize the common currency could improve citizens’ welfare.
For these three reasons young Europeans may not in fact be a strong and reliable base that policymakers might have hoped for. Encouraging millennials to learn more about the EU and to acknowledge the need for economic adjustment will call for a great effort in terms of targeting and communication. Yet if policymakers present convincing and consistent plans for the future of the Eurozone and the EU, they will be able to tap into the strong pro-European sentiment of the millennials.