The secret to millennial engagement? Progressive politics!

millennial engagement
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Maria Joao Rodrigues, President of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and Vice President of the S&D Group in the European Parliament, argues that the secret to millennial engagement is progressive politics

A recent article by The Economist speaks about “The Rise of Millennial Socialism”. (1) Its main claim is that socialism is emerging as a popular ideology amid millennials who, in turn, wish to see greater control over the market economy, strong global action against climate change and open participation channels in contemporary political systems. The Economist additionally claims that this generation misdiagnoses what sort of public policies could address the world’s problems and – most importantly, that millennials’ dreamy expectations are misguided.

Articles such as this one – and many others that determine millennials (those youths born between 1980-2000, aged 18 to 35) to be an idealistic yet at the same time, a politically apathetic generation – has prompted The Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) to bring about a greater understanding about this demographic, their values and expectations with regard to society and political systems. This generation has been a research priority for FEPS since 2015 exactly because of hyped journalistic diagnosis and a lot of general misperceptions about this generation.

In addition to the reason stated above, for FEPS it was equally important to focus on a generation that consists of roughly a quarter of Europe’s entire population (2) and that, consequently, is a demographic that should be better understood by the media and differently engaged with by politics.

Sparking fresh, forward-looking and balanced ideas on how progressives need to respond to this increasingly powerful and influential cohort was FEPS’s contribution as the only Progressive European Union (EU)-level Think Tank in view of bridging the gap between millennials and social democracy.

But how do millennials actually see today’s world – and, most importantly, how they participate in public life and what sort of public policies would they like to see governments realise?

These questions become even more pertinent especially in the year of change ahead in the European continent – the 2019 EU elections – and also because sometimes compelling headlines deserve a more attentive review.

It is, therefore, not surprising to see this generation rise up to the number of problems that Western societies are facing rising inequalities, climate change and a general disempowering feeling that your voice does not matter and that is not being heard by today’s political class. We have seen massive mobilisations on these issues by this generation in the U.S., Europe and beyond. What is surprising though is the Economists’ claim that the dreams of this generation are naïve and to some extent that these should be tamed or even dismissed.

As the future generation millennials matter and I believe that it is, therefore, extremely important for social democrats to encompass the power of this generation and embrace it – this generation is indeed the vessel to bring about the progressive change that we want to see in the world and as progressives our role is to be the leading political force to realise this change via progressive policies.

In fact, the FEPS Millennial Dialogue survey shows that this generation is in favour of progressive policies. A strong wish for a social safety net in uncertain times is reflected in the survey. This is a generation that is clearly expecting more from the EU leadership in terms of social welfare policies, such as access to healthcare and education, job creation and an EU-wide minimum wage, for example. While millennials are often described as apathetic, our research showcases that they react to major global issues. Millennials also support the EU to have stronger powers to fight more vehemently climate change and to have a leading role in this fight on the world stage.

An interesting insight with regard to economic policy specifically was also the wish expressed by 82% millennials that citizens should have a greater say on how the EU handles the economy. Such a significant percentage of support highlights indeed that this generation wants to have a greater say on how decisions that directly affect them are made.

What is certain though is that even though millennials value the EU, they have an issue with the EU ballot box. Just 27% of youth aged 18 to 24 voted for a member of the European Parliament in 2014. To reverse such trends, it needs to be widely understood it is not lack of knowledge or willingness to engage that keeps millennials away from politics in the traditional sense, such as voting – this generation is engaging and mobilising politically in a different way.

In the run-up to and beyond the EU elections the recommendation is clear: for social democracy to gain the hearts and minds of this generation it needs to stand by its values-based mission and make greater efforts to encourage millennials’ participation in decision-making processes as equals and take clear action on the issues millennials care and most importantly that they dream about.



1 The Economist, February 16th-22nd 2019.

2 The Millennial Dialogue on Europe report, FEPS and Think Young, November 2018 (


millennial engagement
Maria Joao Rodrigues

Maria Joao Rodrigues

President of the Foundation for European Progressive

Studies (FEPS) and Vice President of the S&D Group in the

European Parliament

Tel: +32 22 34 69 00


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