Generation Left by Keir Milburn

The Blurb On The Back:

Increasingly age appears to be the key dividing line in contemporary politics.  Young people across the globe are embracing left-wing ideas and supporting figures such as Corbyn and Sanders.  Where has this ‘Generation Left’ come from?  How can it change the world?

This compelling book by Keir Milburn traces the story of Generation Left.  Emerging in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, it has now entered the electoral arena and found itself vying for dominance with ageing right-leaning voters and a ‘Third Way’ political elite unable to accept the new realities.

By offering a new concept of political generations, Milburn unveils the ideas, attitudes and direction of Generation Left and explains how the age gap can be bridged by reinventing youth and adulthood.  This book is essential reading for anyone, young or old, who is interested in addressing the multiple crises of our time.  

You can order Generation Left by Keir Milburn from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Keir Milburn is Lecturer in Political Economy and Organisation at Leicester University.  This book has some interesting ideas about rethinking how we view generations, but fails to take into account different issues in different countries, heavily relies on sweeping assertions about generations and their opinions, makes some rather crass observations and ultimately reads like a left-wing fantasy that fails to consider how power is actually won.

Milburn makes a number of arguments in this book: 

– generations should be understood and categorised by reference to key events that shape their world view rather than arbitrary age bands; 

– ’Generation Left’ (essentially the 18 – 24 demographic) had their world view shaped by the financial crash of 2008 and because they are not tied to the old battles/experiences of left-wing politics are more enthused about the ability to change society than older generations;

– ‘centrists’ and neoliberals cannot understand or address the concerns of Generation Left because their way of viewing the world no longer makes sense of the current situation;

– older generations are right-wing through fear, including fear of losing their property, which they need to be coaxed away from through a combination of disruption and offering alternate models of care.

I was interested in his argument with regard to examining how generations should be viewed by reference to certain common events rather than to birth rates and he cites some interesting studies to support his views as to how generation gaps can be identified.  However the obvious flaw with this argument is that you have to identify what those common events are and unless you have an event that is truly global in scale, it’s difficult to see how you can apply those markers across different countries.  This is easier when you have events such as World War II and the 2008 financial crash but between those dates, how do you identify a generation or do you just keep everyone together in one huge blob?

I didn’t disagree with any of Milburn’s analysis as to why Generation Left feels disillusioned with the current political and economic situation, although much of what he says here has been discussed elsewhere.  However, it is interesting how he focuses on the 18 – 24 age group as being particularly left wing when voting suggests that so-called Generation X (aka the forgotten generation) is also more likely to vote for left wing or left of centre politics and many face similar issues regarding opportunity as Generation Left.  Also, he’s particularly hung up on the financial crisis and its aftermath, including drawing on the Occupy protests as helping to develop political consciousness and changing attitudes towards the neoliberal way of doing things but he’s virtually silent on the Brexit debate, which was arguably a more generationally divisive event and will have equally long term consequences for the outlook for younger generations.

My other issue with the Generation Left analysis is that Milburn seems to view it as a homogenous whole and doesn’t take into account prosperity or racial divides and what that means for experience.  This is particularly relevant when he discuses the support Bernie Sanders drew from younger voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries but ignores how badly Sanders polled among African Americans (something which scuppered his bid in 2020).

Milburn is dismissive of centrists and neoliberals and the book sneers at the so-called Third Way proponents, even though Third Way Blairism was popular enough to win 3 terms.  Much of this sneering seems to come from the fact that if the left wants to win power then they have to appeal across voter generations and groups.  He is keen to emphasise the importance of building communities and alternate structures but there’s no obvious path of using that to win power and while leftists don’t like the fact that you need to make compromises and dilute your message and policies to win power, it remains an inconvenient necessity to achieving it.

There are a couple of really crass statements within the book (e.g. to illustrate a point about “moments of excess” he seems to equate the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi with the occupation of Conservative party headquarters) and he makes a sweeping generalisation about how the older generations are essentially scared into voting right-wing but if they are given greater elder care and social support then they’ll be persuaded to vote for the left.  I was turned off by Milburn’s overt support for Corbyn – only the left wing can claim Corbyn’s performance in the 2017 election as a victory when he still managed to lose and whose policies and personal popularity helped see Labour to a crushing defeat in 2019 that it now needs to rebuild from (albeit this happened after the book was published) – and by his decision to lash out at Corbyn’s critics with a spurious claim to bring criticism within his generational analysis.

Ultimately there just wasn’t enough substance here for me to be convinced by Milburn’s arguments.  It seemed to me to be the usual left-wing wishful fantasy but one built around the notion of the youth somehow rising to save us despite ourselves.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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