Torn between material comfort and social change
By Filip Pazderski.
Young people in Poland mistrust the public institutions of representative democracy, but show few signs of wanting to actively change things. The Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part did the research.
Poland’s representative democracy is floundering as the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) dismantles many checks and balances. The party nevertheless has significant public support and that’s often explained by many people’s disappointment with politics, and a significant part of society that feels they haven’t benefitted from the economic transformation.
Young Poles also reflect both these attitudes. They take democracy for granted (rather than something for which one had to fight on a daily basis – as their elders did) and they show few signs of wanting to take things in hand to change the situation. Their fatalistic attitude is simply that Poland’s political party system is rotten.
The passivity of the younger generation has been a fact of social life since the fall of communism. This hasn’t changed significantly yet, although opinion polls indicate some increase in their participation, as the younger generation is apparently beginning to understand the value of democratic institutions.
Second, particularly since the 2008 economic crisis, young Poles are no different to their peers across the continent and are finding it hard to find a suitable place in the capitalistic social model. They are more concerned about material comfort and work conditions, with the important difference being that Poland is among the few countries in the EU that maintained a healthy economic growth rate during the post-2008 recession, and has now reached unprecedented levels of material comfort.
Despite the positive economic indicators, young Poles have expressed their disappointment and outrage at the ballot box. This shift could already be observed in 2011 and has continued since. In the 2015 general elections, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 supported anti-establishment and opposition candidates.
Three quarters voted against the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO), which after eight years in government chalked up only 14.6 percent of young Poles’ votes. Over a quarter, 25.8 percent, voted for the populists of PiS, 19.9 percent for the anti-establishment Kukiz’15 and 16.8 percent for the right-wing, eurosceptic Korwin party, which garnered three-quarters of the youngest voters’ total votes.
Young people also expressed their disillusionment by supporting more targeted interest groups. In 2012, the anti-ACTA movement opposed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, seen as a form internet censorship, and since 2016 the Black Monday (later Black Friday) protest has opposed the tightening of abortion law. Both movements support a range of issues, notably human rights, freedom of speech, abortion rights and unrestricted access to the internet.
Many young Poles also protested in July 2017 against the ruling party’s controversial reforms of the judicial system, and continue to defend core values of the rule of law. But it’s important to remember this only represents a small percentage of the Polish population.
Becoming richer or being fairer, which is more important?
Based on poling results, young people in Poland are keener than their peers in other EU countries to preserve their social security and quality of life. Respect for democracy comes second.
Surveys in seven Member States have shown Poles, along with the French, as the EU’s least optimistic young people when looking at the benefits of democracy, the least supportive of minorities, and the most comfortable with technocratic decision-making.
More significantly perhaps, young Poles were the least enthusiastic respondents to the notion of “accepting democratic decisions, even if they go against one’s own interests”. They, like the French, felt that “it is sometimes important to violate the rules of democracy in order to make important changes possible.”
Research by the Open Society’s European Policy Institute’s Voices on Values project has shown that young Poles are also less likely than the older generations to consider open society attributes as essential to a good society, and are a little keener to defend a number of closed society attributes.
They are also more willing than older age groups to trade off open society values for better life conditions. When asked whether they would swap treating immigrants equally for their own economic interests, younger Poles were likelier to say that wellbeing is more important than the fair treatment of immigrants. Yet a quarter of the same young people belong to the age group most supportive of newcomers, even if this predominantly concerns the 18-24-year-olds (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Willingness (in percentage) to trade off equal treatment of newcomers for improved economic wellbeing
Poles aged 18-24 and 25-34 are also likelier to believe that it is more important to protect their country’s social cohesion than it is to ensure the equal treatment of recent arrivals. The trade-off question (figure 2) shows that the two youngest age groups are the most likely to make a choice between the two options and are reluctant to see them as equally important. This may represent a relatively high polarisation of their opinion about two apparently competing values.
Figure 2. Willingness (in percentage) to trade off equal treatment of newcomers for safeguarding social cohesion
The Voices on Values survey results should be read alongside another poll showing Polish youth as strongly opposed to accepting refugees, and having ambivalent views about other directions of social change. According to the Institute of Public Affairs’ (IPA) previous survey, 55 percent feel there should be more women in leadership positions, but far less are supportive of same-sex relationships, with almost half against.
This is very much a reflection of the general anti-immigrant and conservative views of much of Polish society. However, when the same young respondents were asked in the Voices on Values survey to choose what best expressed the state of the political system, either 1. freedom, democracy, freedom of expression, or 2. living standards, the price of goods and availability of services, the Poles aged 18-24 and 25-34 chose the second option more than their elders.
They were also the age group that saw only one option as essential (more than members of other age groups), making the younger Polish generation the most polarised between the two extremes (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Question: “Some people assess the current political system in terms of freedom, democracy, the opportunity to express themselves and their opinion. Others tend argue for living standards, price of goods and availability of services. Which of the two is more important to you?”
Young Poles were the happiest in the six-country survey about their country’s political situation, and the least satisfied with its economic climate (see figures 4 and 5).
Figure 4. Satisfaction with political situation
Figure 5. Satisfaction with economic situation
Recent research by the IPA and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) show that young Poles are very much concerned with what they see as the problematic areas of healthcare, the cost of living and pensions.
This would suggest that they are satisfied with the way the country is run, except in what concerns their economic situation (since young people are more likely to feel dissatisfied in this area).
If material comfort is more important to this generation than democratic principles (as shown by the Voices on Values’ combined results for people aged 18-34), and they perceive economic and social welfare as the biggest problems, then it is not surprising if they are willing to trade off open society values for financial security.
This is even more the case if the open society value to be traded-off concerns the welcoming of foreigners. In such cases, young Poles presumably feel little solidary for the plight of migrants.
The degree to which Polish society accepts newcomers was dealt a serious blow by the rhetoric of Poland’s populists, particularly the PIS and Kukiz’15. Both political actors have been vociferous on migration, which hasn’t met with any visible reaction from the opposition parties.
As a result, since 2015 Poles have been increasingly hostile to migrants with that hostility now reaching its highest level ever (74 percent of Poles in 2017 were opposed to relocating refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
Young Poles might therefore be keener to trade off the welcoming of foreigners for a policy to improve the economy, its poor employment conditions, wage levels and pension system. Were politics based on fear of the other to be combined with improvements in social security that would make a dangerous mix, allowing political actors to win the votes of a significant proportion of young citizens.
What’s the next step for young voters?
What does the Voices on Values survey tell us about how we can expect this generation to develop politically? Young people value higher standard of living over democracy, and at the same time they are dissatisfied with the political situation (even if older Poles are even more unhappy). On top of that, other surveys suggest that young people are reluctant to use the democratic system to change things they are dissatisfied with.
It is true that a substantial number of young Poles have joined public protests against the present government’s anti-democratic moves, and favour progressive values like contraception and abortion. But a significant proportion is happy to sit back and reap the socio-economic rewards they owe to their parents and grandparents.
But even the last group, although they may be more concerned with maintaining their lifestyle than fighting for democracy, may eventually realise that economic development also means the strengthening of the socio-political gains achieved after 1989.
Then it is also difficult to guess how the larger group of young Poles will change their values and cultural priorities as they grow older. How many young people feel strongly about democracy in relation to how many value their material security may determine the future development of the open society in Poland.
 See: “Youth, Democracy, and Politics: Poland. Survey results”, NDI/IPA 2018, https://www.ndi.org/publications/youth-democracy-and-politics-public-opinion-research-poland, p. 4-6.  See: Roguska, B.,„Aktywność społeczno-polityczna Polaków” [Poles socio-political activity], CBOS survey report, No. 16/2016, February 2016.  See: Szafraniec K. (2012), „Dojrzewający obywatele dojrzewającej demokracji…”, Instytut Obywatelski, Warsaw, p. 17.  See: “Young Europe 2018”, TUI Foundation 2018, https://www.tui-stiftung.de/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/YouGov_TUI-Stiftung_Jugend-in-Europa_Report_EN_v3.pdf, p. 25-35.  See: Kucharczyk, J., Łada, A., Schöler, G. (eds., 2017), “Exit, voice or loyalty? Young people on Europe and democracy Case studies from Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia”, available at http://www.isp.org.pl/publikacje,25,944.html, p. 127-137.  See: “Youth, Democracy, and Politics: Poland. Survey results”, NDI/IPA 2018, https://www.ndi.org/publications/youth-democracy-and-politics-public-opinion-research-poland, p. 21.  See: Głowacki, A., “Stosunek do przyjmowania uchodźców”[An attitude towards accepting refugees]. CBOS survey report, No. 44/2017, April 2017, p. 1-2.  See: “Youth, Democracy, and Politics: Poland. Survey results”, NDI/IPA 2018, p. 5-6.
Filip Pazderski is a project manager and analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.