Blaming young people for low turnout is…stupid!

Apr 22, 2015 | BLOG

By: Ben Franklin

There are many factors determining whether or not people vote, so while age may play some a role, it is by no means a panacea and actually masks something more dangerous.

As the General Election draws ever closer there are an increasing array of patronising articles about younger people and their failure to vote. At worst, some will argue that younger people fail to vote because they are lazy and can’t be bothered or simply because they are too stupid.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense should toss both arguments out the window. Not only are younger people often working hard in full-time education, but many also hold down jobs to pay their way as well as volunteering. In 2012/13, a whopping 44% of people aged 18-25 volunteered, with nearly 3 in 10 volunteering at least once a month.

But it does appear to be the case that a higher proportion of young people fail to vote than older people. In a considered blog in late 2014, the Economist noted that “in not a single European country do the young turn out more than older people [and] over the past few decades things have got worse.” But rather than blaming this on laziness, the Economist puts it down to the fact that the young have less of a stake in society – they are, for the most part, not property owners, they do not have children in school and do not have parents and loved ones in urgent need of NHS support and adult social care. The flipside of this argument of course, is that the young are disenfranchised by political campaigns which fail to appeal to the real concerns of younger voters, such as youth unemployment, the high cost of student loans and rising renting costs. And which fail to utilise methods of communication – both in terms of rhetoric and use of new media – that captures the imagination of voters.

Your humble author thinks there is something in this combination of arguments that may explain why younger people have systematically voted less than older people, but not necessarily why things seem to have got worse over the last few decades. For this we need to look at the numbers. Our rough analysis of the British Election Study shows that the simple “blame it on the kids” tactic, helps to mask a much more worrying trend of falling voter turnout by age cohort – with those born in later decades less likely to vote, regardless of their age, than those born in earlier decades.

Let’s have a look at the chart below. It shows voter turnout across different cohorts at general elections since 1974. The immediate pre-war cohort (born 1921-1940) have the highest turnout – even higher than those born before them (1901-1920). But turnout rates fall for later cohorts. For example, those born in the period between 1961 and 1980 have markedly lower turnout rates those born in the two decades before. And a similar drop is also recorded for the latest cohort, born between 1981 and 2010.

If turnout is determined at least in part by cohort rather than by age, then it suggests that population ageing per se will be insufficient to raise turnout rates over future decades. In other words, age is a red herring when looking for something or someone to blame for falling turnout. Rather, we should be most worried about the general trend of falling turnout over time which is not due to rising fecklessness or stupidity amongst the young and more about a rising discontentment with government and politics amongst electorates in advanced democracies. Blaming the young is often popular, but in this case it’s stupid.

Finally, it is worth pausing to consider the significant turnout amongst voters aged 16-17 in the Scottish Referendum. 75% of this age group voted – higher than total turnout for any UK General Election since 1992. While this was lower than the turnout across all age groups, which reached 85%, it demonstrates that than younger voters will go to the polls in the right circumstances. Similarly, while the general trend of falling turnout across advanced democracies is clear to see, specific elections have resulted in sudden surges in turnout across all age groups – with 2010 being a prime example. The simple logic is, when people think their vote will count for something, they get to the polling booth.

Ben Franklin

Assistant Director, Research & Policy

Ben Franklin worked at the ILC from December 2013 to October 2018. He is currently Head of research methods at the Centre of Progressive Policy