Votey McVoteface: Understanding the growing turnout gap between the generations

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This paper is the second report of the Intergenerational Commission, which has been brought together to explore questions of intergenerational fairness that are rising up the agenda. In particular, the Commission will offer solutions for fixing imbalances in living standards between the generations, both now and as they are expected to evolve in the future.

Renewing the intergenerational contract rests on policies related to labour market outcomes, the accumulation of wealth and assets, and the role of the welfare state. It also relies on broad engagement in the democratic process across the generations. This is not least the case because any new policy agenda will require public support, in order for democratically-elected politicians to pursue it. And politicians appeal and respond to the motivations of those who they expect to vote. Of course these motivations need not be governed by self-interest; people are often as concerned for the prospects of their families and neighbours as they are for their own. But very often individual interests, in particular in relation to a person’s age, are perceived as dominating.

In this light, the generational turnout gap that has opened up since the late-1990s – and was recently laid bare by voting patterns in the EU referendum – is a cause for concern. A growing divide between young and old means that generation X and the millennials have voted in lesser numbers than previous generations did during early adulthood, with the millennials so far around one third less likely to vote during their 20s than the baby boomers were. This generational turnout gap endures when we account for the sharp decline in overall turnout in recent years.

At the last General Election in 2015, 67 per cent of baby boomers voted, compared to 56 per cent of generation X and just 46 per cent of millennials of voting age. Combined with the impact of their large cohort size, this resulted in a four million person ballot box advantage for the baby boomers over the millennials. The superficial correlation between generational voting blocs and the tax and benefit policies being implemented this parliament, which deliver a net benefit to those aged 55-75 set against large losses for those aged 20-40, is evident.

What has driven the growing divisions in voting behaviour between the generations? A combination of factors appear relevant, including:

  • A decline in voting when first eligible, which is a strong determinant of subsequent voting behaviour.
  • Changing living patterns. Renters are much less likely to vote than homeowners, so the suggestion is that far lower levels of home ownership among younger generations may have contributed to the turnout decline. We speculate that as well as being associated with higher incomes, ownership engenders a stronger attachment to communities and therefore engagement with politics, not least in terms of voter registration.
  • Growing turnout divisions between subgroups within generations. In particular, within recent generations the renter-homeowner and degree-educated-to-non-degree-educated turnout gaps have widened significantly.
  • A shift in attitudes among young people, in particular around trust in politicians, party identification and interest in election results.

This situation should not be considered intractable. Most other developed economies have both higher overall turnout and a smaller turnout-by-age-gap than the UK does, suggesting that improvement is possible. A number of practical options for arresting and reversing the generational turnout divide have been suggested, including compulsory first-time voting, online voting, greater efforts to maximise voter registration and a more robust citizenship education programme. The Intergenerational Commission will consider these and other options in its deliberations, with a view to putting the social contract between the generations on a firmer footing for the long term.