Policy concern about intergenerational fairness is perhaps no better highlighted by the voting behaviour exhibited by different age groups. Older people turn up to vote in greater numbers than younger people and seem to want different results.
As a result, there are growing fears that the voice of older people is dominating policy debate. Commentators worry that with an ageing population, this trend will exacerbate.
The public debate seems to be getting angrier. Following the EU referendum, The Independent ran a story “How old people have screwed over the younger generation”. Huffington Post ran another under the headline “Young ‘Screwed By Older Generations’”.
The argument goes that older people are benefitting while younger people are finding themselves increasingly politically and socially excluded. Older people’s universal benefits have been broadly protected whilst working age adults and younger people have seen cuts under austerity.
ILC-UK’s (2016) “The future of the welfare state” project went as far as considering whether democracy and a welfare state were compatible in an ageing society. We asked whether older people would vote for their own benefits to be cut even if a failure to address sustainability of the welfare state risked its very survival?
But how real is “Grey Power”?
Older people are, perhaps inevitably, over represented in elected institutions across the world. But it is not clear that the number of older elected representatives acts to empower older people as a group in society, or to advance the interests of older people over other groups. If older people were as politically powerful as claimed, surely Government would have acted sooner than now on social care funding?
It isn’t even clear that we would see different election results if younger people vote in greater numbers. Analysis by Dr Stuart Fox following the European Elections in 2014, found that had younger people voted in greater numbers, it might have only changed the outcome by just one single seat.
There is seemingly little empirical evidence that older people are electorally self-interested. In fact, older people claim to be broadly concerned about the same issues as younger people. Older people are arguably more, not less, diverse than younger people in terms of their beliefs, attitudes and wealth.
The evidence as to whether greater electoral participation by younger people would lead to a different policy focus may therefore be somewhat weak. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t true and doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to increase the participation of younger people. But how can we best do it?
Votes at 16 has been introduced in Scotland and Wales, but has it made any difference to participation by younger people? And is it really the solution? Are there other radical ideas to be tested out? Is there a case to consider mandatory voting for example?
Or perhaps there is a case for a greater focus on electoral registration, given this results in someone receiving more information about candidates and their priorities? Perhaps compulsory political education or even electoral reform should be back on the agenda?
It’s worth saying that the political engagement trends aren’t actually new. Since the 1950s, studies have explored why voting participation is low in youth, increases in middle age before falling right at the very end of life. Some researchers argue that there are life-cycle and life stage factors which influence engagement and explain why participation varies as we age. If this is true, which if any of the possible solutions outlined above might make a difference?
On 22nd March, ILC-UK, together with Mile End Institute, are pulling together a group of experts to consider what can be done. How can we get more younger people engaged? And does it matter if we can’t?
We want to hear what you think and will be collating a series of short articles into a report after the event. If you would like to contribute your ideas, do get in touch.