Salvo 05.13.2024 5 minutes

The Great Divergence

Climate Crisis Strike In Seoul

Gen Z men and women are charting two different political paths.

Conventional wisdom holds that older generations tend to support right-leaning parties and hold more socially conservative beliefs, while younger generations tend to move, as a bloc, toward the Left. This trend is particularly true with Millennial voters, or roughly those between the ages of 25 and 40. They were the first generation in the United States and the United Kingdom to buck the post-war trend of growing more conservative with age. 

But the youngest generation is going through a dramatic shift. Alice Evans, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, claims that there is a “great gender divergence” occurring among those under 30. Evans’ data show that there is a growing political divide between young women aged 18 to 29 and their male counterparts. From an ideological standpoint, Gen Z seems to be two generations rather than one.

According to Gallup polling, American Millennial women are nearly 30 percentage points more liberal than their male counterparts. It took just six years for this ideological divide to widen, according to the Financial Times. The difference is about the same in Germany and only marginally smaller at 25 percentage points in the U.K.

But this is not just a Western phenomenon. In nations on every continent, a generational divide is growing between young men and women. The difference is most pronounced in South Korea, where a staggering 50 percentage point gap separates young men and women ideologically, according to data from Korea’s General Social Surveys. Though the gap is not as great in countries like Tunisia, China, and Poland, it is still much greater than it was in previous generations.  

It is difficult to hypothesize whether this is because Gen Z women are becoming more liberal and their male counterparts are becoming more conservative, given that the data uses party affiliation as a proxy for ideology. It’s plausible to argue that women have remained the same while conservative parties have moved further to the Right, taking young men with them. More women could simply be choosing to vote for left-leaning or liberal parties. Nevertheless, there are a few reasonable explanations for the divide.

The world is becoming increasingly secular. In Europe, conservative parties align themselves with the Catholic Church, much like the Christian Democratic parties in Germany and Poland. On the other hand, liberal parties typically have more humanistic values. Religion has a big impact on voting preferences, and historically, women have always been more religious than men. Women tended to vote more conservatively; however, they seem to have moved Left in the last half of the twentieth century. According to data from the United States young women between the ages of 18 and 25 have recently become less religious than young men for the first time in American history. 

It’s not easy to assign causality to major cultural trends, but a good indicator of social cohesion is marriage. South Korea is one of the most culturally conservative countries in the world, yet the country has seen a precipitous decline in marriage in recent years. South Korea also has the lowest fertility rate in the world, with 0.78 births per woman in 2022, despite the country’s Gen Z gap widening. 

Then there’s the #MeToo movement. Many young South Korean men believe women should not work, while twice as many Gen Z Korean men as elderly Korean men think women want to control men in order to obtain power. In the 2022 presidential election, young Korean men tended to vote primarily for the right-wing People Power Party, while women voted nearly equally for the liberal Democratic Party. Meanwhile, older Korean voters were not divided by gender in their electoral choices. 

It is worth considering the strong anti-immigration sentiment of Generation Z in Europe. Compared to previous generations, younger Germans are more actively opposed to immigration, and, among voters under 30, support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is rising. In Poland, during the most recent parliamentary election, nearly one-fifth of all young men between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for the hard-right Konfederacja (Confederation) party. 

The emergence of social media, where most young people get their news, has been a significant contributing factor. Instagram has supplanted traditional media as the number one source for news. Content creators cater to their more extreme viewers through a process called audience capture, or else they risk losing subscribers. The most controversial creators are promoted algorithmically. Social media acts a great sorting mechanism to split and isolate audiences and hook them to particular narrative silos. It is no wonder Jonathan Haidt calls social media “the great rewiring of childhood.”

There is another, evidence-based explanation. Women are far more likely than men to attend university. Academic achievement plays a significant role in influencing voting behavior, particularly in Western democracies like the U.S. and U.K. Attending university is one of the best indicators of voting intentions. Eighty-five percent of Extinction Rebellion activists hold a degree, according to academic research.

People’s worst qualities can come out when they discover you are a conservative. Evidence of this growing hostility can be observed in some of the most contentious political issues of our day. Consider Brexit. Sixty-four percent of British adults over 65 supported the 2016 decision to leave the European Union, which was erroneously labelled as a “right-wing” issue. 

The novelist Ian McEwan speculated that a second referendum might be forced as elderly Brexit supporters die off. In 2017, he told a delegation of remain-voting supporters, “A gang of angry old men, irritable even in victory, are shaping the future of the country against the inclinations of its youth. By 2019 the country could be in a receptive mood: 2.5 million over-18-year-olds, freshly franchised and mostly remainers; 1.5 million oldsters, mostly Brexiters, [sic] freshly in their graves.” The website “Deatherendum” was inspired by the widespread disdain for the political preferences of the elderly.

But the intragenerational divergence of Gen Z should serve as a cautionary tale. Who says that the youth will necessarily adhere to the leftist reflexes of stereotype? Growing polarization erodes a world that is already bitterly divided. The violence and mayhem brought about by the recent wave of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses serves as proof of this shift toward moral absolutism and ideological certainty. The foundation of a high-trust society is the civic virtue of decency. Progressives should try having a conversation with a conservative instead of cancelling them or organizing a social media pile-on. Who knows? Maybe it will help bring the gap closer together. 

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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