The culture war stereotypes with which we’re all familiar portray Gen Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – as frivolous, individualistic, and obsessed with issues of identity. While the Daily Mail tells us “Woke Gen Z take offence at the thumbs up emoji”, the Daily Telegraph worries “Gen Z’s obsession with feelings only makes them more miserable”.
Recent polling in both the UK and the US, however, paints a different picture. Far from being divorced from the material concerns of everyday life, young people are more pro-union and pro-strike than any other generation. This isn’t just because they’re young: data from the US shows that Gen Z, with millennials not far behind, are far more pro-union than Gen X and baby boomers were at their age. The same seems true in the UK, with the highest support for the current strike wave coming from 18 to 34-year-olds despite the expectation that it will disrupt their lives the most.
Perhaps you’re not surprised. The shift of young people to the left is now a well-established trend, after all. It emerged prominently in the early 2010s as the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis began to unfold and, despite conservative conspiracy theories about leftwing teachers indoctrinating young people, the shift is firmly rooted in the worsening material conditions of those under 40.
Some analysts have cast the housing market as the sole or principal villain of the piece, but strong youth support for union organising indicates that something more general is going on. Reducing what I’ve called ‘generation left’ to ‘generation rent’ would be a mistake, not least because young people’s turn to the workplace is opening up new strategies through which they can assert their interests.
Support for organised labour bridges potential divides within generation left. Young people’s pro-union sentiment is visible across lines of race and gender. It also spans a divide which many use as a proxy for class: those with college degrees and those without. For Gen Z and millennials, there are near identical levels of support for unions across both groups. This isn’t true of Gen X and boomers, with graduates of these generations showing lower levels of union support than non-graduates.
This doesn’t mean these divides no longer exist or are unimportant, of course. But the polling shows the potential for a politics based not on shared identities, but on the material interests which cross, or intersect, with those identities and sectors. Ironically, this kind of intersectional class politics is close to what the Combahee River Collective originally intended to convey when they introduced the term ‘identity politics’ in 1977. It was only with the defeat of the left in the 1980s and early 1990s that the phrase became associated with a liberal politics of competing claims to representation within the existing system.
This potential needs political expression and organisation if it is to take effect, however. Despite their pro-union sentiment, only 10% of 18 to 25-year-olds in the UK are in a union. In the US, the figures are even more stark: although 74% of 18 to 24-year-old Americans say they’d join a union if they could, only 3% are union members. However, recent strikes and unionisation efforts in the UK and US show how this potential is now being explored.
Turning to the workplace.
The current UK strike wave, for example, has two main components. There are logistics workers in once nationalised industries, such as the postal service and rail. Then there are so-called ‘graduate level’ professionals; university lecturers, school teachers, barristers, doctors and nurses have all voted for industrial action in the last few months. Wages and conditions in these sectors have deteriorated rapidly over the last 15 years, which means younger workers are starting these jobs on far worse terms and conditions than those on which older workers entered. Little wonder they’re now driving the action.
The main cause of the disparity between pro-union sentiment and actual union membership among the young, however, is that youth employment is clustered in private sector service work, which has traditionally proven difficult to organise. Yet even here there are signs of movement. Following several wildcat stoppages last summer, the first ever official strike at a UK Amazon fulfilment centre took place in Coventry in early 2023. In the US this trend is much more developed, with landmark unionisation drives sweeping Amazon and Starbucks. Without a doubt, generation left is increasingly turning to workplace organising.
There’s a generational story to be told here. The active core of generation left formed in the protests, camps and occupations that swept the globe in 2011. This explosion, sparked by the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity that followed, was anti-political in nature, claiming of politicians, “we must get rid of them all”. When that wave ebbed, generation left took a distinctly electoral turn forming new parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and flooding into Labour and the Democrats to support Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Finding that path blocked, veterans of those moments in the UK and US have since turned to extra-parliamentary organising, both in the workplace and around other shared problems, such as housing and energy bills. In this, they’ve been reinforced by a generation of young service workers who learned hard lessons during the pandemic when their jobs became much more dangerous. It’s difficult to feel attached to the company you work for when it doesn’t seem to care if you live or die.
To fully understand the potential of the current strike wave we should also situate it within a different historical sequence: the history of class formation. Levels of worker militancy don’t rise and fall in a linear fashion – these shifts are episodic, moving in leaps and jumps. Union membership sometimes explodes, often during strike waves in inflationary periods (like the one we’re experiencing now). It also tends to feature the rapid organisation of previously unorganised sectors. The New Unionism of the 1880s, for example, saw worker organisation spread from its base among craft workers to the huge mass of workers in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs.
Conscious intention by an activist core always plays a part in such moments – but they are also often sparked by a class fraction undergoing a process of rapid change. The huge worker militancy in Italy from the end of the 1960s through the 1970s was partially sparked by the migration of workers from southern Italy to the factories of the north, disrupting settled expectations there. These workers carried an insubordinate sensibility which was agitated by the discrimination they faced. As they weren’t used to factory conditions, they found them intolerable, sparking struggles which spread like a contagion to pre-existing workers.
Something similar may now be occurring in the US and UK, with young graduates who are either bringing militancy to their professions or choosing to enter the service sector due to the lack of ‘graduate level’ jobs and the poor conditions in those that exist. Young American graduate workers are playing important roles in the Starbucks and Amazon unionisation drive, for instance, which seems to be disrupting the existing settlement, sparking struggles and organisational efforts which are galvanising the pre-existing workers in those sectors.
Common struggle over shared problems threatens not just to unify generation left, however, but to bridge the political gap between generations too. It’s this kind of dynamic that has the greatest potential to change the balance of forces in society.
The example of Pasquale “Uncle Pat” Cioffi, an employee at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfilment centre on Staten Island, New York, is illustrative here. This older, once Trump supporting worker was initially suspicions of attempts to unionise his workplace – but was won over, and ultimately proved a key lynch pin in the success of the drive.
We don’t yet know how the current strike wave in the UK is going to play out. But collective struggle, both in and outside of the workplace, can do more than just cohere people who hold different pre-existing identities. At its best, it can also transform people and the ‘values’ they hold. Indeed, if this takes place on a large enough scale, it may offer a route out of the generational divide in politics which is stopping us addressing the multiple crises we face.