Family and politics: does parental unemployment cause right-wing extremism?

Publication type

ISER Working Paper Series

Series Number



ISER Working Paper Series


Publication date

November 2, 2006


Right-wing extremist ideas, parties and movements are a problem in contemporary Germany. In a speech on 10 April 2005, Paul Spiegel - the then President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany - stated: 'Since right-wing extremist parties have gained or regained seats in the parliaments of Saxony and Brandenburg, not a week goes by without the right-wing extremist managing to become the focus of political discussion in Germany. What they are saying is nothing new: open racism and anti-Semitism are complemented by firing up people's weariness of the political discussion in Germany'.

What are the driving forces behind right-wing extremism? To what extent do family background characteristics, such as parental unemployment during childhood, affect affinity towards right-wing extremism? This paper seeks to shed new light on these questions in the case of young people in Germany. In particular, it examines the extent to which maternal and paternal unemployment during childhood have an impact on political far right-wing views, affinities to right-wing extremist parties, and the chances of joining skinhead or neo-Nazi groups. Also examined are young Germans' prejudices and hostile attitudes toward foreigners and asylum-seekers.

Investigating whether parental unemployment has an impact on young people's right-wing behaviour is of substantial interest since the majority of right-wing extremist crimes in Germany are conducted by young men aged 15-25 years. In addition, attitudes and orientations in general are most susceptible to influences and events during childhood and early adolescence. Furthermore, since attitudes and political values are relatively stable from early adulthood on, young people's right-wing extremism today may have a lasting impact on their political values and behaviour in the future.

This paper is unique in that it is the first study trying to investigate causal effects of right-wing extremism and xenophobia. It also provides first evidence on intergenerational relationship between parental economic conditions and young people's right-wing extremist attitudes and behaviour. I find a strong and significant association between parental unemployment and various right-wing extremist outcomes for young Germans in simple cross-sectional estimations, in particular for men. I document that the relationship is robust to young people's feelings of economic insecurity, their dissatisfaction with the political system, and the influence of parents' political attitudes and economic expectations. Furthermore, I show that there is convincing evidence in favour of a causal effect from parental unemployment during childhood on young people's right-wing extremism.



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