Torn between material comfort and social change

By Fil­ip Pazder­s­ki.

Young peo­ple in Poland mis­trust the pub­lic insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy, but show few signs of want­i­ng to active­ly change things. The Open Soci­ety Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and d|part did the research.

Poland’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy is floun­der­ing as the gov­ern­ing Law and Jus­tice par­ty (PiS) dis­man­tles many checks and bal­ances. The par­ty nev­er­the­less has sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic sup­port and that’s often explained by many people’s dis­ap­point­ment with pol­i­tics, and a sig­nif­i­cant part of soci­ety that feels they haven’t ben­e­fit­ted from the eco­nom­ic transformation.

Young Poles also reflect both these atti­tudes. They take democ­ra­cy for grant­ed (rather than some­thing for which one had to fight on a dai­ly basis – as their elders did) and they show few signs of want­i­ng to take things in hand to change the sit­u­a­tion. Their fatal­is­tic atti­tude is sim­ply that Poland’s polit­i­cal par­ty sys­tem is rotten.[1]

The pas­siv­i­ty of the younger gen­er­a­tion has been a fact of social life since the fall of com­mu­nism. This hasn’t changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly yet, although opin­ion polls indi­cate some increase in their participation[2], as the younger gen­er­a­tion is appar­ent­ly begin­ning to under­stand the val­ue of demo­c­ra­t­ic institutions.[3]

Sec­ond, par­tic­u­lar­ly since the 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis, young Poles are no dif­fer­ent to their peers across the con­ti­nent and are find­ing it hard to find a suit­able place in the cap­i­tal­is­tic social mod­el. They are more con­cerned about mate­r­i­al com­fort and work con­di­tions, with the impor­tant dif­fer­ence being that Poland is among the few coun­tries in the EU that main­tained a healthy eco­nom­ic growth rate dur­ing the post-2008 reces­sion, and has now reached unprece­dent­ed lev­els of mate­r­i­al comfort.

Despite the pos­i­tive eco­nom­ic indi­ca­tors, young Poles have expressed their dis­ap­point­ment and out­rage at the bal­lot box. This shift could already be observed in 2011 and has con­tin­ued since. In the 2015 gen­er­al elec­tions, vot­ers between the ages of 18 and 29 sup­port­ed anti-estab­lish­ment and oppo­si­tion candidates.

Three quar­ters vot­ed against the lib­er­al-con­ser­v­a­tive Civic Plat­form (PO), which after eight years in gov­ern­ment chalked up only 14.6 per­cent of young Poles’ votes. Over a quar­ter, 25.8 per­cent, vot­ed for the pop­ulists of PiS, 19.9 per­cent for the anti-estab­lish­ment Kukiz’15 and 16.8 per­cent for the right-wing, euroscep­tic Kor­win par­ty, which gar­nered three-quar­ters of the youngest vot­ers’ total votes.

Young peo­ple also expressed their dis­il­lu­sion­ment by sup­port­ing more tar­get­ed inter­est groups. In 2012, the anti-ACTA move­ment opposed the Anti-Coun­ter­feit­ing Trade Agree­ment, seen as a form inter­net cen­sor­ship, and since 2016 the Black Mon­day (lat­er Black Fri­day) protest has opposed the tight­en­ing of abor­tion law. Both move­ments sup­port a range of issues, notably human rights, free­dom of speech, abor­tion rights and unre­strict­ed access to the internet.

Many young Poles also protest­ed in July 2017 against the rul­ing party’s con­tro­ver­sial reforms of the judi­cial sys­tem, and con­tin­ue to defend core val­ues of the rule of law. But it’s impor­tant to remem­ber this only rep­re­sents a small per­cent­age of the Pol­ish population.

Becom­ing rich­er or being fair­er, which is more important?

Based on pol­ing results, young peo­ple in Poland are keen­er than their peers in oth­er EU coun­tries to pre­serve their social secu­ri­ty and qual­i­ty of life. Respect for democ­ra­cy comes second.

Sur­veys in sev­en Mem­ber States have shown Poles, along with the French, as the EU’s least opti­mistic young peo­ple when look­ing at the ben­e­fits of democ­ra­cy, the least sup­port­ive of minori­ties, and the most com­fort­able with tech­no­crat­ic decision-making.

More sig­nif­i­cant­ly per­haps, young Poles were the least enthu­si­as­tic respon­dents to the notion of “accept­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sions, even if they go against one’s own inter­ests”. They, like the French, felt that “it is some­times impor­tant to vio­late the rules of democ­ra­cy in order to make impor­tant changes possible.”[4]

Research by the Open Society’s Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Institute’s Voic­es on Val­ues project has shown that young Poles are also less like­ly than the old­er gen­er­a­tions to con­sid­er open soci­ety attrib­ut­es as essen­tial to a good soci­ety, and are a lit­tle keen­er to defend a num­ber of closed soci­ety attributes.

They are also more will­ing than old­er age groups to trade off open soci­ety val­ues for bet­ter life con­di­tions. When asked whether they would swap treat­ing immi­grants equal­ly for their own eco­nom­ic inter­ests, younger Poles were like­li­er to say that well­be­ing is more impor­tant than the fair treat­ment of immi­grants. Yet a quar­ter of the same young peo­ple belong to the age group most sup­port­ive of new­com­ers, even if this pre­dom­i­nant­ly con­cerns the 18–24-year-olds (see fig­ure 1).

Fig­ure 1. Will­ing­ness (in per­cent­age) to trade off equal treat­ment of new­com­ers for improved eco­nom­ic wellbeing

Poles aged 18–24 and 25–34 are also like­li­er to believe that it is more impor­tant to pro­tect their country’s social cohe­sion than it is to ensure the equal treat­ment of recent arrivals. The trade-off ques­tion (fig­ure 2) shows that the two youngest age groups are the most like­ly to make a choice between the two options and are reluc­tant to see them as equal­ly impor­tant. This may rep­re­sent a rel­a­tive­ly high polar­i­sa­tion of their opin­ion about two appar­ent­ly com­pet­ing values.

Fig­ure 2. Will­ing­ness (in per­cent­age) to trade off equal treat­ment of new­com­ers for safe­guard­ing social cohesion

The Voic­es on Val­ues sur­vey results should be read along­side anoth­er poll show­ing Pol­ish youth as strong­ly opposed to accept­ing refugees, and hav­ing ambiva­lent views about oth­er direc­tions of social change. Accord­ing to the Insti­tute of Pub­lic Affairs’ (IPA) pre­vi­ous sur­vey, 55 per­cent feel there should be more women in lead­er­ship posi­tions, but far less are sup­port­ive of same-sex rela­tion­ships, with almost half against.[5]

This is very much a reflec­tion of the gen­er­al anti-immi­grant and con­ser­v­a­tive views of much of Pol­ish soci­ety. How­ev­er, when the same young respon­dents were asked in the Voic­es on Val­ues sur­vey to choose what best expressed the state of the polit­i­cal sys­tem, either 1. free­dom, democ­ra­cy, free­dom of expres­sion, or 2. liv­ing stan­dards, the price of goods and avail­abil­i­ty of ser­vices, the Poles aged 18–24 and 25–34 chose the sec­ond option more than their elders.

They were also the age group that saw only one option as essen­tial (more than mem­bers of oth­er age groups), mak­ing the younger Pol­ish gen­er­a­tion the most polarised between the two extremes (see fig­ure 3).

Fig­ure 3. Ques­tion: “Some peo­ple assess the cur­rent polit­i­cal sys­tem in terms of free­dom, democ­ra­cy, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to express them­selves and their opin­ion. Oth­ers tend argue for liv­ing stan­dards, price of goods and avail­abil­i­ty of ser­vices. Which of the two is more impor­tant to you?”

Young Poles were the hap­pi­est in the six-coun­try sur­vey about their country’s polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, and the least sat­is­fied with its eco­nom­ic cli­mate (see fig­ures 4 and 5).

Fig­ure 4. Sat­is­fac­tion with polit­i­cal situation

Fig­ure 5. Sat­is­fac­tion with eco­nom­ic situation

Recent research by the IPA and the Nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Insti­tute (NDI) show that young Poles are very much con­cerned with what they see as the prob­lem­at­ic areas of health­care, the cost of liv­ing and pensions.

This would sug­gest that they are sat­is­fied with the way the coun­try is run, except in what con­cerns their eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion (since young peo­ple are more like­ly to feel dis­sat­is­fied in this area).

If mate­r­i­al com­fort is more impor­tant to this gen­er­a­tion than demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples (as shown by the Voic­es on Val­ues’ com­bined results for peo­ple aged 18–34), and they per­ceive eco­nom­ic and social wel­fare as the biggest prob­lems, then it is not sur­pris­ing if they are will­ing to trade off open soci­ety val­ues for finan­cial security.

This is even more the case if the open soci­ety val­ue to be trad­ed-off con­cerns the wel­com­ing of for­eign­ers. In such cas­es, young Poles pre­sum­ably feel lit­tle sol­idary for the plight of migrants.

The degree to which Pol­ish soci­ety accepts new­com­ers was dealt a seri­ous blow by the rhetoric of Poland’s pop­ulists, par­tic­u­lar­ly the PIS and Kukiz’15. Both polit­i­cal actors have been vocif­er­ous on migra­tion, which hasn’t met with any vis­i­ble reac­tion from the oppo­si­tion parties.

As a result, since 2015 Poles have been increas­ing­ly hos­tile to migrants with that hos­til­i­ty now reach­ing its high­est lev­el ever (74 per­cent of Poles in 2017 were opposed to relo­cat­ing refugees from the Mid­dle East and Africa[7].

Young Poles might there­fore be keen­er to trade off the wel­com­ing of for­eign­ers for a pol­i­cy to improve the econ­o­my, its poor employ­ment con­di­tions, wage lev­els and pen­sion sys­tem. Were pol­i­tics based on fear of the oth­er to be com­bined with improve­ments in social secu­ri­ty that would make a dan­ger­ous mix, allow­ing polit­i­cal actors to win the votes of a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of young citizens.

What’s the next step for young voters?

What does the Voic­es on Val­ues sur­vey tell us about how we can expect this gen­er­a­tion to devel­op polit­i­cal­ly? Young peo­ple val­ue high­er stan­dard of liv­ing over democ­ra­cy, and at the same time they are dis­sat­is­fied with the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion (even if old­er Poles are even more unhap­py). On top of that, oth­er sur­veys sug­gest that young peo­ple are reluc­tant to use the demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem to change things they are dis­sat­is­fied with.[8]

It is true that a sub­stan­tial num­ber of young Poles have joined pub­lic protests against the present government’s anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic moves, and favour pro­gres­sive val­ues like con­tra­cep­tion and abor­tion. But a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion is hap­py to sit back and reap the socio-eco­nom­ic rewards they owe to their par­ents and grandparents.

But even the last group, although they may be more con­cerned with main­tain­ing their lifestyle than fight­ing for democ­ra­cy, may even­tu­al­ly realise that eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment also means the strength­en­ing of the socio-polit­i­cal gains achieved after 1989.

Then it is also dif­fi­cult to guess how the larg­er group of young Poles will change their val­ues and cul­tur­al pri­or­i­ties as they grow old­er. How many young peo­ple feel strong­ly about democ­ra­cy in rela­tion to how many val­ue their mate­r­i­al secu­ri­ty may deter­mine the future devel­op­ment of the open soci­ety in Poland.


[1] See: “Youth, Democ­ra­cy, and Pol­i­tics: Poland. Sur­vey results”, NDI/IPA 2018,, p. 4–6. [2] See: Rogus­ka, B.,„Aktywność społeczno-poli­ty­cz­na Polaków” [Poles socio-polit­i­cal activ­i­ty], CBOS sur­vey report, No. 16/2016, Feb­ru­ary 2016. [3] See: Szafraniec K. (2012), „Dojrze­wa­ją­cy oby­wa­tele dojrze­wa­jącej demokracji…”, Insty­tut Oby­wa­tel­s­ki, War­saw, p. 17. [4] See: “Young Europe 2018”, TUI Foun­da­tion 2018,, p. 25–35. [5] See: Kuchar­czyk, J., Łada, A., Schöler, G. (eds., 2017), “Exit, voice or loy­al­ty? Young peo­ple on Europe and democ­ra­cy Case stud­ies from Aus­tria, the Czech Repub­lic, Ger­many, Hun­gary, Poland and Slo­va­kia”, avail­able at,25,944.html, p. 127–137. [6] See: “Youth, Democ­ra­cy, and Pol­i­tics: Poland. Sur­vey results”, NDI/IPA 2018,, p. 21. [7] See: Głowac­ki, A., “Sto­sunek do przyj­mowa­nia uchodźców”[An atti­tude towards accept­ing refugees]. CBOS sur­vey report, No. 44/2017, April 2017, p. 1–2. [8] See: “Youth, Democ­ra­cy, and Pol­i­tics: Poland. Sur­vey results”, NDI/IPA 2018, p. 5–6.

Fil­ip Pazder­s­ki is a project man­ag­er and ana­lyst at the Insti­tute of Pub­lic Affairs.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.


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