Since 2011, various European countries have experienced periods of intensive political turmoil, with mass demonstrations that have sometimes turned violent. The high level of mobilization contradicts the often-expressed idea that young generations are no longer interested in politics, but hit the hardest by the economic downturn, the youth are most motivated to mobilize themselves.

Until a couple of years ago, it was commonplace to complain about the lack of political and social involvement among youth in Europe. To a large extent, these complaints were ill-grounded. The available statistical evidence does not show that younger age groups were less active than their older counterparts. They were and still are less likely to register as voters or to become a party member, but they remain very active in other sorts of mostly non-institutionalized participation. The student revolts of the 1960s have become legendary, and in retrospect the social movements of that era indeed were successful in putting new issues like the environment, democratic equality, and women’s rights on the political agenda. In countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, the 1980s were the era of massive and sustained protest against the deployment of nuclear weapons.

In the two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, no such large mobilizing issues were to be found anymore, and no single large protest movement has since succeeded in conquering the global political agenda. This did not mean, however, that levels of participation in protest demonstrations had decreased. Counting all the demonstrators in a country over a longer period of time, shows that the level of protest more or less remained the same, but that protesters were dispersed over a broader range of smaller and momentary protests. Because of these small-scale activities, the mass media tended to lose interest, and so the political impact of these protests also became more limited. Research on Belgian police records, for example, has shown that the number of demonstrations in the country has continued to grow, but that the average number of participants in a demonstration is much lower now than it was a few decades ago. European youth continue to participate as intensively as ever before, but the main difference is that it is not always self-evident what the result of this engagement might be. While European youth protest against the adverse consequences of economic globalization, the scale of their protest already makes clear that they themselves have entered an increasingly globalized world, in which the boundaries of the nation-state have lost much of their historical importance.

Youth unemployment

Rapid changes occurred from 2008 onward, as the financial crisis hit European economies. In Spain, youth unemployment rocketed from 24.6 percent in 2008 to 47.8 percent in 2011. This means that for most young people in Spain (the situation is not that much better in countries like Greece, Portugal, Ireland, or Italy) prospects for finding a job are very limited. While in the past, highly educated youth could hope that their school education record would provide them with the prospects of finding a good job, these prospects have become very bleak. All economic sectors were hit by the financial crisis, and the public sector too was forced to make cuts; many companies and government offices simply suspended new recruitments. While those who had jobs usually managed to keep them, those who only entered the labor market, had no prospect whatsoever. Since these young people have not worked yet, in most countries this means that they either do not receive any unemployment benefits, or only receive them for a shorter period of time. For millions of younger people, especially in southern regions of Europe, this effectively means they have no other option than to remain dependent on their parents. The transition to adulthood, and the independence that comes along with it, has been delayed by a few years for this group.

Given this economic distress, there are not many options open for these young adults. The first option is migration, and indeed highly educated Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks have begun to leave their country, looking for better prospects abroad. This, in itself, is a troubling phenomenon for these countries, as the brain drain will make economic recovery more difficult in the years ahead. The second option is political radicalization, and this reaction was rendered all the more likely given the specific characteristics of the financial crisis. If one looks back at earlier economic downturns, most often the crises were not framed as having clear culprits. This time it was different; most younger Europeans would agree that the economic problems have been brought about most often by the selfish and reckless behavior of American bankers, but also by the lack of tight controls by the national government and by international agencies like the IMF.

Characteristics of the modern movement

There are three main ways, however, in which the current protest is different from what we used to know a few decades ago. First of all, there is no clear organizational framework. Various labels have been proposed, like the Occupy movement of 2011, the ‘Indignados’ in Spain, and the Globalization movement. Most of the time, however, there is no clear and well-defined organizational unit that corresponds to this mobilization. On the one hand, this semi-organized protest seemed to work very well when thousands of protesters gathered at the central Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, for example. Their main demand was a stronger government policy to fight unemployment, as well as an end to the budget cuts on social security and education. Protest leaders also explained that they no longer needed the traditional kind of formal organizing, as this would only lead to slower decision-making and to a concentration of power, thus limiting the creativity of the protesters. The lack of formal organization, however, also has negative consequences, as governments did not find any official representatives with whom they could enter into negotiations. For the organization of the protest marches too, the lack of formal organization was not always a blessing. In the Greek capital of Athens, tens of thousands of people protested peacefully against the economic downturn of their country, but they could not prevent a much smaller group resorting to violence, and almost self-evidently these images of fierce clashes with the police were displayed interminably in mass media.

A second defining element is the rapid diffusion of new techniques and ideas worldwide. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon; back in the 1960s various protest organizations also tried to copy successful techniques that were being used globally. But in the current era, this copying behavior develops much more rapidly, making it much more difficult for authorities to respond to. In May 2011, Spanish ‘Indignants’ started to squat on central meeting points in cities across the country, and in autumn 2011 this was taken over by the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement in the United States. In turn, this example rapidly spread to various European countries. However, not only did the techniques spread quickly, but to a large extent so did the ideas that gave rise to the movement. The argument that “the 99 %” had been dragged into the financial crisis by the misconduct of a small financial elite rapidly gained traction. Mass media, the Internet, and international networking sites made sure that the diffusion of ideas and techniques came about much more rapidly than ever before.

A third characteristic of the protest is that it does not coincide at all with traditional ideological and political cleavages. Traditionally, one would have assumed that protests against unemployment and economic inequality would provide support to socialist parties and trade unions. This, however, was not the case in this protest wave. Basically, every ruling party was accused of not doing enough to help to fight the crisis, and protesters did not make any distinction with regards to the ideology of the parties. In Italy, the protest was directed against the right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but in Spain and Greece, socialist leaders were equally blamed for everything that went wrong. Extreme leftist parties tried to capture the momentum of the ‘Indignados’ movement, but without much success.

To a large extent, the current protest wave seems to defy traditional left-right divisions. The most obvious example would be the leaflet “Time for Outrage: Indignez-vous!” that was published by the French career diplomat Stéphane Hessel and in a short time has become one of the most central texts of this new movement. Hessel strongly claims that he is disgusted by inequality and bad economic policies, and that this basic human indignation does not have anything to do with political ideology. This kind of position, however, also makes it difficult to judge what exactly are or will be the main political consequences of this new protest movement. At the moment, one cannot really tell whether left or right wing parties in Europe ‘profit’ from the movement. If election results since 2010 show one clear trend, it seems to be that incumbents always tend to lose, no matter whether they are left or right wing.

Does social security still offer a solution?

Various leaders of the protest movement have indeed expressed their doubt of European welfare states delivering on their promise of more equality and less poverty. Since the end of World War II, social security systems have radically changed European societies, installing distributive regimes. Objective figures show that the risk of poverty has declined in most Western European societies. Demographic transitions, however, seem to have undermined the legitimacy of these redistributive regimes. Life expectancy has risen considerably in Western Europe, and this means that the percentage of the population living on retirement benefits in most cases has doubled. Since 2008, most countries in Europe have developed plans to make these retirement schemes less generous, but in most cases, governments are very reluctant to infringe upon the rights of people who are already retired. Cutting down existing pension schemes is indeed something like an electoral suicide mission, given the electoral weight of the older age groups, who are mostly well organized. Most governments therefore decided to target the ones who will retire in the future instead. In 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the legal age of retirement from 65 to 67. This was taken as a lack of intergenerational solidarity. Young age groups not only were struggling to find jobs, but furthermore they would have to work for a longer period of time than the generation of their parents.

The pessimistic view of social security is fed further by the consideration that what we are witnessing now is just the start. For decades, the idea of being able to retire at 65 was mostly fixed. In France, the retirement age of 65 was not changed between 1945 and 2010. Generations grew up with the idea that 65 was a “natural” age to retire from professional life. Given longer life expectancies it was no longer possible to maintain this age, and there is a strong feeling that in the years ahead, access to retirement schemes will have to become even more restrictive, and therefore the legal age of retirement might rise even further. Those who were active in the economically successful 1960s could have believed that the economy would continue to grow, and that therefore there was not a need to worry about their future standard of living. Indeed, this generation is now above their retirement age and their economic prospects are still rather good. Those who are now in their 20s no longer have these confident expectations about the future state of the economy and the social security system in Western Europe. What drives the current unrest is not just the idea that one may need a year or two to find a first job. The feeling of insecurity goes much further; even if one finds a job, it will be less secure than jobs were for previous generations, and in the long run there is concern about whether the current social security systems can be sustained.

In fact, when I ask my own students (their ages ranging from 18 to 22) what social and political problems are most important to them, a majority of them answers: “Will there still be a pension when I retire?” My counter-argument that they are too young to worry about their future retirement is usually dismissed by the argument that I still belong to the generation that could benefit from social security schemes. The idea that upward social mobility will continue to be possible, in some way or another, seems to have been lost.

Value patterns

It is extremely difficult to arrive at a correct labeling of the ideas of the current protest movement. Partly this is a result of the fact that they themselves refuse to be labeled. The idea that the protest is spontaneous and reflects a basic feeling of indignation is powerful and is a strong founding myth of the movement. For scholars of protest movements, this kind of argument is nothing new, as in the past new protest movements have always tried to emphasize the uniqueness of their claims. How valid is this point, however, in this case? As has already been mentioned, the protest movement does not really fit into the traditional left-right cleavage. The protest against economic inequality and the lack of state control of the financial world on one hand might seem a rather leftist position. On the other hand, protesters seem skeptical about the possibilities of using a social security system to reduce inequalities, a mechanism of Socialist governments. Simultaneously, they also know that national governments by themselves do not have the power to install stricter controls on the financial sector. This kind of oversight should be provided by international organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, or the G20, but these organizations are also distrusted because they are being held partly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. In contrast to traditional leftist politics, therefore, the current movement seems to have lost faith that political institutions can effectively regulate the economy.

Research, however, has shown that traditional left-right divisions are not the only ideological cleavage structuring the current ideological debate. In past decades, a conflict between left-libertarian and right-authoritarian value patterns has been equally important. Environmental issues, international solidarity, equal rights for women or for gay couples (as left-libertarian issues, or ‘liberal’ issues in American politics), or opposition to multiculturalism and increasing ethnic diversity in Western Europe (as examples of right-authoritarian issues) have played an important role in the recent political history of Western Europe. Here too, the current protest movement proves resistant to a clear label. While in the past, environmental movements have argued that further economic growth is antithetic to sustainable development, it is striking that this concern about the global environment does not play an important role in the current protest movement. It would also have been easy to express sympathy for right-authoritarian causes, as in the past high levels of unemployment have been associated with a hostile climate against foreign workers who are perceived as competitors in the labor market. This has not happened, and despite populist right-wing parties’ efforts to capture the dynamics of this movement, they have not been very successful. Therefore, it would be wrong to label the current young age group in Europe as “leftist” or “right wing”, or “liberal” or “conservative”. With regard to basic social and political values, they are perfectly main stream as they reflect the dominant value orientations among the European population.

Global governance

Can we therefore compare the current generation of protesters with the ones who took to the streets of Paris and other cities in the 1960s? To some extent, yes. The demographic profile of protesters is often the same, as especially young and highly educated citizens are likely to participate in this protest. There is a marked difference, however. In the 1960s, there was a clear agenda, and lasting policies were developed for the protection of the environment, education was democratized, and initiatives were taken to achieve equal rights for women and men. One could argue that these issues would have entered the political agenda with or without student action, but the protests at least accelerated this process and forced political systems to adapt to the new political preferences of their constituents.

It is more difficult to assess what will be the long-term political consequences of the current protest. To a large extent the “Occupy” movement is confronted with a Catch-22 situation. Most of its supporters have a negative view of the consequences of economic globalization, and there is a clear consensus on the need for more political and ethical control on the way the economy, and especially the financial system, is being run. But simultaneously, the protesters are extremely critical toward the institutions that could be responsible for some form of global economic governance. Ironically, the Occupy movement would be most successful if international agencies like the IMF or the European Union gained more power to implement controls for the financial sector. While the protesters are fiercely critical about the way the IMF or the European Union are being governed, they do have to admit that there is no way back as national governments have lost most of their power to have a real impact on the economy. Simultaneously, agencies like the G8 and the G20 do seem to be sensitive to the demands of the protesters, although thus far it remains to be seen how much of this is mere rhetoric, and what will lead to actual policy initiatives. In the long run, the financial crisis of 2008 through 2011 will most likely lead to a strengthening of international economic governance structures, and this has certainly happened already at the level of the European Union. This might not have been the consequence the protest movement aimed to achieve, but most likely its meaning will lie in being the expression of just another small step in a longer historical process whereby the traditional nation-state is losing much of its power.

MARC HOOGHE is a professor of political science at the University of Leuven in Belgium. He is a leading expert on civil society foundations and government-citizen interactions in European democracies. He is also the treasurer of the Belgian Political Science Association.