Young people and the open society: The myth of liberal youth

By Magali Mohr and Christine Hübner.

Young people are widely expected to hold progressive views, but this isn’t always so. In a series of articles for the Voices on Values project, the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part have found intriguing nuances in attitudes among young Europeans.

Young people don’t necessarily share the same values just because they are young, even if they are generally assumed to hold open society views. On average, they have more liberal attitudes than their elders towards immigration, ethnicity, gender roles and sexuality.[1] But in some European countries, as in Poland, Hungary and France, a fair number do not support values of tolerance and openness.

Our Voices on Values survey has collected data in six EU countries with our project partners in Poland, Hungary, France, Italy, Greece and Germany. For this series, we have compared the views of the younger respondents.

Two compelling narratives about young people

Today’s young people born in and after 1994 are more optimistic, better educated and more tolerant than previous generations.[2] They value their autonomy, remain longer in education and, thanks to increased mobility, are more likely to have grown up among people from other ethnic backgrounds. These experiences are assumed to favour progressive values.[3]

But today’s young people have also grown up with the uncertainties of austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and amid fears of terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly, surveys show them as wanting stability, law and order and traditional national values.[4]

The white nationalist identitarian movement has been gaining the support of more and more young people across Europe, giving approval to right-wing populist parties like Hungary’s Jobbik and France’s Front National. Does this mean that today’s youth is likely to support closed society values?

The evidence is that neither holds true

Of all age groups, younger respondents have the least sympathy for closed society values (Figure 1). The 18-to-24-year-olds attach the least importance to attributes such as the idea that governments represent the views of the majority, or adherence to national norms and values.

But this does not mean they support open society values. Looking at average responses in six countries, young people are least likely to support open society views. It was among older respondents aged 45 and over that we found the strongest support.

Figure 1. Importance of closed society values by age group (index across seven items, with 95% confidence interval)

Figure 2. Importance of open society values by age group (index across seven items, with 95% confidence interval)

At first glance this seems counter-intuitive, but the youngest respondents were on average the least likely to support open society values, like freedom of the press and minority representation in parliament.

Two thoughts may explain this apparent contradiction:

First, as Jan Eichhorn’s report on Germany shows, open and closed society views are not necessarily at opposite ends of the same scale – at least not for everyone. Some people are equally attached to both open and closed society values – we call them the “in-betweens”, and it appears that young people are often in-betweens.

Second, although this data averages young people in Germany, Poland, France, Hungary, Greece and Italy, in fact country-specific data reveals substantial differences between how young people in these six countries see open society values (Figure 3). The articles in this series focus on these country differences.

Figure 3. Importance of open and closed society values among 18-24-year-olds by country (index across seven items for each)

No single general attitude of young people exists

Young people today seem inconsistent in their defence both of liberal social attitudes and of traditional values. Because there is now a wider variety of transitional stages from youth to adulthood, youth researchers expect greater differences in values among young people than in the older generations. This is why it is so important to closely examine young people’s responses. (Settersten & Ray, 2010, Arnett, 2000).

Shedding new light on attitudes of the young

To explain the nuances and add depth to our understanding of young people’s views on open societies, the Situation’s Room’s partners in Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Hungary and Greece have sought answers to such questions as:

  • How do young people evaluate the different aspects of open and closed societies?
  • Is there a group of “new young conservatives”, and if so, what characterises them?
  • How similar, or different, are young people across Europe?

The answers will shed light on a generation that does not think in terms of black and white.

Find all articles of our Youth series here:


[1] Own analyses using EVS/WVS (wave 4, 2008-2014) and ESS (wave 8, 2016) data. For further reading see Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2008) Millenials Rising – The Next Great Generation.
Halman, L., Sieben, I., & van Zundert, M. (Eds.). Atlas of European Values. Trends and Traditions at the Turn of the Century. Brill. HM Government (2014). Social Attitudes of Young People. Horizon Scanning Programme. Ipsos MORI (2013). Generations.

[2] ibid.

[3] Inglehart, R. & Welzel, C. (2005) Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: the human development sequence. Cambridge University Press. O’Reilly, J. & Moyart, C. (2017). Young people’s attitudes and values. In: O’Reilly, J., Moyart, C., Nazio, T. & Smith, M. (Eds). Youth Employment. STYLE Handbook.

[4] See for example Albert, M., Hurrelmann, K., Quenzel, G. & TNS Infratest (2015). Jugend 2015. Shell Jugendstudie. Frankfurt: Fischer. TUI Foundation (2017). Young Europe 2017. But also: Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. (2018). Cultural Backlash: The Rise of Authoritarian-Populism. New York: Cambridge University Press (forthcoming). Bart Cammaerts, et al., “The Myth of Youth Apathy: Young Europeans’ Critical Attitudes Toward Democratic Life,” American Behavioral Scientist 58, no. 5 (2014): 645–64.

The authors of this article, Magali Mohr and Christine Hübner, are the members of the core team that oversees the work on the Voices on Values project.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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