OK Zoomer: Gen Z’s radical views on civil liberties and law and order

Gen Z’s attitudes towards law and order suggest a significant break with previous generations.

Political parties pay extremely close attention to the views, attitudes, and preferences of different generations. If they fail to do so, they risk losing votes. This gets tricky when the views of different generations diverge sharply on some issues. Society Watch 2024 focuses on the views of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012), analysing forty years of data from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey to paint a picture of the ways in which Gen Z stand apart from their Gen X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents.

Our data shows that Gen Z are far more liberal than previous generations. Unsurprisingly, this makes them outliers on a range of issues within the realm of law and order. Gen Z are far more likely than other generations to prioritise the freedom of individuals to protest about what they believe is right, above following the letter of the law. They are more likely to agree that its important citizens engage in acts of civil disobedience when they oppose Government actions, and far less likely to believe that always obeying the law is an important part of being a good citizen. 

We can see the impact of these Gen Z views on the Police Crime and Sentencing Act 2022, which contained measures limiting the right to protest. Opinion polls published during the passage of the Bill show that Gen Z were far more likely to oppose limiting the right to protest than other generations. 

Another interesting example is the views of Gen Z on the sale of cannabis. Our data shows that Gen Z are overwhelmingly supportive of legalising the sale of cannabis, whereas other generations are far more polarised on the issue. This is despite the fact that self-reported survey data on the use of cannabis shows that Gen Z are less likely to use cannabis regularly than their Gen X parents were when they were the ages Gen Z are now.

We often expect younger people to be more rebellious on these sorts of issues. Will Gen Z just grow out of this, as they take on more responsibilities and gain more life experience? Analysis of BSA data collected between 1986 – 2023 suggests that they won’t. By looking back at the views of older generations when they were younger, we can see whether views change as people age, or whether they stay the same. What we find is that the average views of a generation are very consistent, and don’t change much as people get older. Gen Z and Millennials have more liberal views than their grandparents amongst the Baby Boomers and Silent Generation ever did. It seems likely Gen Z will still be more liberal than previous generations as they age, entering work, having children, and settling down.  

There are lessons from the past on what can happen when a generation diverge sharply from their parents and grandparents on issues of liberty and personal freedom. In the 1960’s, British society was transformed by a series of social reforms which dramatically expanded personal freedoms and redefined the role of government in people’s lives. This change didn’t happen gradually. Within just a decade the law was changed on capital punishment, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, gambling, and censorship. 

Like their Baby Boomer grandparents before them, Gen Z are far more liberal and anti-authoritarian than previous generations. They don’t support an ever-rising prison population, they don’t agree with our prohibitive drug laws, and they don’t tend to support the inflation of prison sentences. They also believe strongly in the use of civil disobedience and the right to protest to make their voices heard on the issues they feel strongly about when politicians fail to respond.

So how will politicians appeal to Gen Z on law-and-order issues without losing support amongst their Gen X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents? 2024 will be the first time many Gen Z people have been able to vote in a General Election. As Gen Z will grow as a proportion of the electorate over time, traditional political messaging such as ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ will hold less appeal to Gen Z voters than previous generations.

Through the British Social Attitudes survey, NatCen can track changing views on law-and-order over time through a generational lens. Policy makers sitting in darkened rooms, contemplating the future, might do well to spend time examining this data, so that their messages and policies incorporate the priorities of Gen Z, or risk being washed away in an electoral wave.