14 November 2023

The movers of tomorrow

Young adults in Europe have great concerns about the future. Eight out of ten question whether their generation should have children. Although many believe their country will do more to address the climate crisis in the future, they assume society will become less fair, less safe and more divided as a whole. Only a small proportion are engaging in initiatives and associations or protesting in the streets so far – though up to 50 percent want to raise their voices and take civic action.

These are some of the main findings of our first Allianz Foundation Civic Engagement Study entitled “The Movers of Tomorrow?”. The study is based on a representative survey that we conducted, together with the SINUS Institute, among 10,000 young adults aged 18 to 39 in Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom.

The results show: Young Europeans find today’s structures of political participation outdated and do not feel addressed by them. Conventional offers such as party membership are only attractive to very few of them. They want to provide direct input and desire flexible and personal forms of engagement. This is a huge task for politics, civil society and philanthropy: to rebuild trust and create pathways into getting engaged.

More similarities than differences across Europe

Although the five countries vary in terms of their economic, political, and social conditions, the young adults demonstrate significantly more similarities than differences. Nearly three-quarters of respondents regard a robust welfare state, stable prices and a strong social safety net as the most important building blocks of a desirable future society. However, 59% of respondents fear that the gap between rich and poor will increase. And there is little confidence that current leaders in the areas of politics, business and civil society can secure change toward a better future.

Green, yet unequal

The trend on which young adults are most hopeful is climate action, such as promoting the use of renewable energy. A majority of young adults support today’s green transformation agenda and expect their countries to become more eco-friendly over the next ten years. Close to two-thirds feel cautiously hopeful that the fight against climate change can be won.

On the flip side, however, — although not always directly connected — many fear that the gap between rich and poor will grow (59%), not least due to rising costs for energy, food, and transportation, which two out of three expect. These perceived risks likely explain why a robust social welfare state remains crucial for most.

Deep distrust in established institutions

Young adults perceive their societies in a state of transition — a ‘waiting room to the future’ that is marked by profound uncertainties and in which the old ways of doing things no longer seem to work and new forms of ‘making’ the future have yet to be proven effective.

While young adults do acknowledge today’s politicians as de-jure leaders, they also see them with mistrust. For 54%, this mistrust runs so deep that they agree with the provocative statement that politicians are “puppets of powerful, shadowy elites.” In the same vein, industry is often regarded as a self-serving barrier to change, especially when it comes to the green transition. Organised civil society and philanthropy, too, are rarely believed to take a leading role in addressing pressing social and environmental issues.

Conversely, young adults express some excitement toward old and new forms of grassroot politics, such as social movements, citizens’ initiatives, and new collaborations with artists and the cultural sector. However, there is a gap between interest and participation: 56% of young adults are in favor of street-level protest, yet most have never marched in one.

Room for growth: Civic action by young adults

Most young adults want to have a say in the future of their countries. And a clear majority of them already do so in more individual ways such as voting, political conversations, etc. Yet, when it comes to amplifying their individual voices through collective action, young adults are more restrained.

Civic engagement has many faces — ranging from more formalised acts such as voting to more “hands-on” collective acts like marching in a protest to less visible everyday efforts like shopping and travelling in ways that are less harmful for people and planet.

On an individual level, a clear majority of young adults in all five countries is already active: Many vote (76%, on average), donate money or items (63%), boycott products with a bad ecological footprint (45%), and share their political opinions with those in their social circle and at work (60% and 44% respectively). 

Compared to these individual actions, team efforts have been few and far between: On average, more than 70% have never participated in a protest, a sit-in or a citizens’ initiative, even though a majority call for more grassroot efforts. When asked about their willingness to get involved, about a quarter of the population express an interest — in addition to the 25 to 30% who are already active, thus growing the potential recruitment pool for collective action to about 50% of young adults of Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, and the UK — an invaluable asset for a resilient civil society and strong democracies across Europe. 

Yet, given young adults’ deep anxieties about the future of their countries these numbers beg the question: Does their current involvement align with their concerns about pressing issues such as climate change, social inequality, and material insecurity? Are the current modes of engagement suitable for an age group which more than any other “lives” online and is used to being given ample opportunities for co-creation?  And, more importantly: Why do young adults take civic action? Why not?

Barriers and pathways toward civic engagement

It cannot be assumed that all young adults want to engage more, but simply lack knowledge and time (32% and 29% identify these as major barriers, respectively). Furthermore, numerous young adults say they do not have the courage to take civic action, and between 54% and 68% agree that in their country, doing so could expose them to several risks — including physical harm, hate speech or even legal consequences. While conflicts with friends and family, stress, and frustration are tolerable to many, less than one third would be willing to face economic, physical, or legal risks, even if they strongly believe in the cause behind their actions. This is not only true in countries in which the space for civil society has been shrinking in the past year, such as Greece and Poland.

But how can more young people be encouraged to take civic action and to pull together? Here, our study points toward three major drivers:

  • First, young adults take civic action particularly when they sense a moral duty and feel deeply moved by a specific issue. Climate change and discrimination/racism exert a particular pull: at least 60% of those who prioritise either issue have already taken action.
  • Second, young adults tend to act when they see a chance for personal growth, e.g., expanding their network or acquiring new skills.
  • And third, social contacts (both online and offline) serve as gateways to civic engagement, and more strategic use should be made of them. They include family, friends, work colleagues and NGO staff. The latter are encouraged to reach out more directly, as many young adults hold ambivalent or outright negative opinions of organised civil society. These sentiments need to be addressed first.

How can funders help?

Are young adults truly the “movers of tomorrow”? — The answer is yes, potentially. But they cannot change the course of their societies single-handedly. In order to unleash their civic potential, young adults require civil society and its public and private funders to take their concerns and barriers much more seriously than is currently done. This includes the risks and disadvantages that to this day prevent many young adults from getting involved.

To do so, funders are encouraged to

  • Strengthen civil society structures. Here, support should be twofold, comprising longer-term efforts to promote strategic planning, organizational and professional development, along with a robust IT infrastructure. Equally important is the creation and maintenance of ad-hoc support systems that assist civil society actors with legal advice and other support needs, including fundraising, public relations and organisational development.
  • Create and defend safe spaces. Community centers, secure online meeting platforms, networking events and other safe spaces should be recognized as laboratories of democracy. And they should be supported as such, especially in places where civil society is under attack.
  • Amplify civic voices. Funders should provide civil society actors with media contacts and relevant resources so that they can place their messages more effectively in print, broadcast and social media. Furthermore, to help counter current polarisation trends and political echo chambers, funders should support the creation of innovative spaces and formats that bring together civil society, policymakers and the media for a meaningful dialogue.
  • Amend funding practices. Funding programs should be more long term, less bureaucratic and more adaptive, especially when it comes to redirecting funds to seize unexpected opportunities or to cover unforeseen needs, for example in the case of disaster relief.

These recommendations were developed based on study findings by 78 leading voices from civil society, the arts and journalism, which we brought together in seven interactive workshops in seven European cities — Athens, Berlin, Istanbul, London, Palermo, Prizren and Warsaw. The full set of recommendations can be accessed in the Allianz Foundation Future Labs report.

For us at Allianz Foundation, the work does not end with the publication of these two reports. Rather, we see it as an opportunity for a deeper exchange about how we as funders can help create new pathways to civic engagement across Europe.


Simon Morris-Lange
Head of Research, Allianz Foundation