As Europe's youth movements falter, its grayer ones are winning

Though expected to be a big winner in Iceland's elections on Sunday, the youth-driven Pirate Party only came in third. That continues a trend across Europe of youth-powered movements underperforming.

Frank Augstein/AP
Birgitta Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party arrives for a press conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Sunday. No party emerged Sunday with a clear mandate to form a government from Saturday's election, with the Pirate Party placed third, behind the Independence Party and the Left-Green movement.

Observers anticipated a “revolution” after this weekend’s national elections in Iceland, especially a Pirate Party “takeover.”

In the end, while the party founded by young internet activists did triple its presence in the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, it came in a less-than-riotous third place.

On the same day Icelanders cast their ballots, Mariano Rajoy, who heads the conservative Popular Party, secured the Spanish parliament’s vote of confidence for another term as prime minister – capping 10 months of political suspense, including two inconclusive elections, after the anti-austerity Podemos party helped overturn Spain's two-party system.

For young leftists hoping for the dawn of a new political alternative, it was the ultimate killjoy.

Both outcomes point to the limits facing political newcomers and their brand of fresh politics – limits that might come down in large part to age. While anger about corruption, vested interests, and against the establishment generally across Europe is widespread across age brackets, the continent's youth-driven political movements are failing to bring about the sort of change as those pushed more by older voters.

The graying of Europe

To be sure, some of their political fortune lies in their own mistakes and shortcomings – as well as macroeconomic and geopolitical forces out of their control. But the young have had a limited impact in recent elections in Europe, despite much fanfare.

Carolina Bescansa, a professor who is responsible for political analysis for Podemos, said that if the Spanish electorate were made up of under-45-year-olds, Pablos Iglesias, the party’s pony-tailed leader, “would be president since last year.” Instead, a third of the Spanish voters are already over age 65. In that age bracket, only 4.4 percent support the left-wing upstart.

In Iceland, there is also a clear generation gap in party preference. Those under age 40 were two times as likely to vote for the Pirates than for the center-right Independence party that came in first, according to a recent Gallup poll reported by the national broadcaster RUV.

The Pirates, who some estimated might clinch first place, garnered only 15 percent of the vote. Gretar Thor Eythorsson, a political scientist from the University of Akureyri, says age is the reason why. “Younger people are less likely to show up to vote, so not all Pirate supporters voted on election day,” he says.

The graying of Europe has implications for everything from pension funds to housing policies, but it will also have an enormous influence on politics, possibly shifting it more conservative. By 2050, the ratio of European residents ages 60 or older will grow to 34 percent of the population, compared with 21 percent globally, according to United Nations data.

In Germany, older voters have led the way resisting new, badly needed infrastructure projects. Criticizing Europe's response to its crises, from refugees to youth unemployment, Pope Francis called the EU “elderly and haggard.”

In fact, the one revolution that has actually come to fruition in Europe was the decision in June of Britain to leave the EU. And there, older voters led the way. While 71 percent of voters aged under 25 voted to remain, 64 percent of those over 65 opted to leave, according to YouGov.

Errors of youth

In Spain, Ivan Redondo, a political consultant who has advised candidates from the center-right and center-left, says that Mr. Rajoy is in office today in large part because Spain is an aging society. He says the country has divided into two groups: children and grandchildren on the one hand, and parents and grandparents on the other. The former were born into democracy and are not afraid of regime change. The latter fear a radical overhaul, such as Podemos put on the table. The latter wield far more power, as they do across Europe.

“What we are seeing in Europe is a generational battle,” he says. “In the majority of countries, it is the conservatives who are winning,” he says, “the part of society that is oldest, because they are the most numerous.”

Upstart parties have also been set back by the circumstances around them. Rajoy was boosted by the Brexit vote days before Spain’s repeat election in June, as well as by the mistakes of his center-left rivals.

In Greece, Syriza came into office in the winter of 2015, drawing not just the young but an entire swath of the population angered by austerity policies set by the EU. But despite reaching Greece's highest office on leftist promises, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been limited by continued debt woes and European intransigence.

In Iceland, trust of the political elite was undermined by the 2008 financial crisis, and later this year’s tax haven scandal that prompted the resignation of the prime minister.

“The economic losses in 2008 were not the most important thing,” says Olafur Hardarson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland. “The most important thing was the self-image of Iceland. A lot of people said to themselves, how could this happen?”

The Pirate Party burgeoned in the wake of this national reflection, with calls for more direct democracy and transparency to fight corruption. But to many voters, their platform remained vague.

The Pirates were also hurt – as was to a certain extent Podemos in Spain – by a stronger economy.  “The economy is actually booming,” Prof. Hardarson says. In this context, he argues, the results are significant giving way to new parties who now are eyeing a coalition government. “We had a major change in this election, even though it was not a revolution.”


It could have gone further had young voters turned up. Turnout overall was 79 percent – low for Icelandic standards. There is not yet a statistical breakdown of voter participation by age. But in previous elections, those under age 30 have voted at significantly lower rates than those over 40. “The Pirates have a very distinct age profile; they have a very strong following among the young voters and almost none among the older voters,” says Hardarson.

Getting them to the ballot box – also a problem in Spain – is a vicious circle.

Some groups have criticized ruling leaders for pandering to their oldest and most important electorate by maintaining generous pensions, for example, to the detriment of youth policies.

The London-based Intergenerational Foundation released the “European Intergenerational Fairness Index" of 2016 to attempt to measure how the position of young people has changed across Europe between 2005 and 2014. They came to the grim conclusion that “the European Union is failing its young.”

Liz Emerson, co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, says that young people are basically being asked to uphold the status quo: “protect the old to the detriment of the young with high pensions and lower retirement ages for older workers, and low-pay and precarious employment for younger workers with little access to the same pay, perks, and pensions enjoyed by older generations,” she says. “Unless serious investment is made in the future of young people, why should they participate in the democratic process?”

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