Marching in Philadelphia, June 2020. Photo by RGB, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

One of the self-evident things about contemporary politics is that Millennials–the oldest now around 40–are clearly under-represented. The Black Lives Matter protests are a marker that this is about to change.

In the US, I can confidently say without checking that a Presidential run-off between Trump and Biden would be the oldest aggregate age of the two major party candidates. Until last year, Britain’s two main political parties had leaders with a combined age of 133.

The long values shift

This isn’t just a question of representation. We are in the middle of a long values swing, per Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, from ‘modern’ values–conformity, hierarchy, authority–to post-materialist values–autonomy, creativity, self-expression. Post-materialist values are also more universal and more internationalist than modern values, and so are more interested in things like diversity.

In an valuable paper in 2016, based on data from 31 European countries and also the USA, Inglehart and Norris describe the political effect of this:

As post-materialists gradually became more numerous in the population, they brought new issues into politics, leading a declining emphasis on social class and economic redistribution, and growing party polarization based around cultural issues and social identities.

The ‘moderns’ last stand

To rewind a bit first, it’s possible to believe that the surge in populism during the 2010s was not just a response to the financial crisis, but also the last stand of the ‘moderns’. Certainly the photos of the BLM protestors in London in the protests in the middle of June, and the far-right so-called ‘counter demonstrators,’ were an interesting contrast in both age and diversity.

And post-materialist values have been a long time coming. Patient Zero was probably the Beats in the US in the 1950s–young white men who wanted to immerse themselves in black culture. The ’60s protests saw the arrival of some early adopters. The notion that we were seeing a values shift gained credibility through the work of Inglehart, and also through Anderson’s notion of ‘cultural creatives‘ and maybe some of Richard Florida’s work about the ‘creative class’.

Without getting too sociological about it, the rise of the services sector as a share of advanced economies (typically between 70-80% of GDP now, compared to 50/50 in the 1960s), has played a part in this.

Social transitions

It’s hard to work out where we are now, but the best estimates are that somewhere around half of the population in richer countries now hold post-materialist values, perhaps slightly more. Inglehart and Popper suggest that the share dips slightly in recessions, but then climbs past the previous peak. And half is an interesting point in social transitions: it is usually the point at which the losers start to dig in. They start to notice. You see more extreme behaviour.

This is a cohort effect, not an age effect. This means that the likelihood of holding post-materialist values correlates (inversely) with age. In other words, if you’re younger, you’re more likely to hold post-materialist values.

It also means that these values are not something you ‘grow out of’. The Millennials became the largest generation in the US last year: the people who hold ‘modern’ values are dying off. This is one of the explanations for the strong age skew in elections pretty much everywhere, but notably in the US and the UK.

Generational hand-off

As I argued in a paper that explored this in 2017,

Existing political parties with an older base will continue to manipulate the electoral system, legally and less legally, to delay the moment when they are overtaken by demographics… But how long for? As the Millennials and Centennials take their political moment, such studied inter-generational discrimination will be harder to maintain and harder to justify.

Since 2017, certainly in the US, there have been signs of a generational hand-off; the leaders of more progressive Democratic party politics, Bernie Sanders (78) and Elizabeth Warren (71 at the end of June) have been joined by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (30) and Ilhan Omar (37). Internationally, New Zealand and Finland now have Millennial leaders (Jacinda Ardern, 39, and Sanna Marin, 35, respectively).

‘The broadest protests in US history’

But watching the accounts of the Black Lives Matter protests, I realise that I may have been looking in the wrong place. Because all of the accounts of the protests emphasise two things: how young most of the protestors are, and how widespread they are, popping up in places with no history of protests.

Indeed, an article in the Washington Post by three American political scientists described the current wave of protests as “the broadest in U.S. history.” This account of the protests in Pennsylvania can stand for the whole:

“Nearly all Pennsylvanian cities with this profile have seen large, multiracial protests led by young local black activists — often people who have been organizing around the label and issue of Black Lives Matter for years — joined in the streets by white and Latino young people in ways and numbers they have never seen before. Reading, Wilkes-Barre, Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Lancaster, Harrisburg: in each, more than a thousand people marched in protest in the space of a few days.”

Rebecca Solnit amplifies this point in an article on Literary Hub:

“Small gatherings keep popping up in rural California towns, remote, tiny Baker, Nevada, in Paris, Texas, the Great Plains, and in other places where the crowds are largely or entirely white. They were largely Indigenous as far as I could tell in Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northermost town in the USA.”

Anecdotal evidence from Facebook and Twitter also suggests that some of America’s suburban mums may have been radicalised by the protests–a group that has also seen a huge swing away from Trump since 2016.

The same story of both age and scale has been seen internationally. The Irish Times reported a similar age profile in a large demonstration in Dublin, for example. The same is seen in New Zealand (photo below). Actually, pictures like this one have been seen in countries all over the world. Everywhere, the demonstrations have been larger than expected, despite their often inexperienced organisers.
Black Lives Matter protestors in New Zealand. Photo: Jihee Junn

And I guess we can also add to this list the online activism of mostly young K-pop fans drowning out racist hashtags, and the teenagers who ‘pranked‘ Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally by ordering a million tickets.

Waves of change

One of the thing you learn from doing futures work is that structural patterns of change tell you something about what is likely to happen, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you how it is likely to happen. This is what I mean by saying I was “looking in the wrong place.”

Because there’s a different way of telling this story, through three waves of issues which all reflect post-materialist values.

The first is the rise of gay rights, and the eventual arrival of equal marriage. Solnit tells much of this story in her 2005 book Hope in the Dark. Even at the time, the speed of the transition was seen as surprising, but the building blocks were put in place over several decades.

The second is the impact of #TimesUp and #MeToo, which, again seemed to emerge quickly in response to a series of high profile cases. Although the phrase ‘me too’ goes back to 2006, the hashtag went viral in late 2017 in response initially to the Harvey Weinstein abuses. The Time’s Up campaign was founded in 2018. But again, this was sitting on decades on work by activists.

Black Lives Matter is the third of these. The Black Lives Matter movement was formed in 2013, and was again built on years of activism.

Taking the reins

In her Literary Hub article, Solnit says,

“When historians fifty or a hundred years hence look back on these weeks of insurrection, they may see them as the point at which the old white America gave up the ghost and the coming nonwhite-majority country really began to take the reins. And the protestors know it; they know that they are making history, and that the future is determined in part by the stories we tell in the present.”

But such ideas don’t emerge on their own. As Jim Dator reminds us, there is a small number of things that create generational level change, and values is one of them. Like so much of futures work, they follow an S-curve, but often an uneven one.

Solnit again:

“The best ideas that change the world emerge from the shadows and the margins; they are at first ignored, then regarded with alarm or disdain by many outside those zones, and they work their way inward. When they are a consensus idea, that’s the end of the insurrection, or the waterfall, and politicians are smoothing things over.”

Hitting the mainstream

Graham Molitor writes of public policy ideas taking 20-100 years to reach the mainstream, going through phases of ‘framing the issues’, ‘advancing issue consideration’, and ‘resolving public policy issues’. His full diagram looks like this:

In practice, the detail here might be a little legalistic, even if the phases feel right.

In the context of the history of electronic music I have written a version of this about processes of cultural change: first there is a crack, then the crack expands, then the system recovers, then adapts.

On the border

Whichever model you use, the three issues outlined above are at different stages.

Gay rights has made it all the way to the top, pretty much, even in the US, with last week’s Supreme Court ruling. TimesUp is somewhere through the ‘resolving’ stage, in that some of the legal and process issues are beginning to be addressed (discussion has moved on from equal pay and equal rights to hidden discrimination such as the gender pay gap, hidden work, and so on). Black Lives Matter is still on the border between Advancing and Resolving, or expanding and recovering, with the killing of George Floyd as one of Molitor’s “catalysts”. We see this from both the wide range of proposals in play about how best to transform the American police and the apparent denial by conservative politicians that there is anything much amiss.

It’s not coincidence that these three issues have arrived in the order that they have done. If progressive politics is about saying ‘no’ to power, gay rights is less of a challenge to the structures of power that sit behind the modern worldview than either women’s rights or black rights. The 50 years of feminist campaigning since the 1960s has produced less of an institutional backlash, if more limited economic progress, than the passing of the Civil Rights Act did.

But it is also not a coincidence that all three have arrived. Because this is what generational change looks like.