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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