Voting turnout gap between old and young widening – report

Resolution Foundation says 4m more baby boomers voted in 2015 election than millennials, because of demographics and youth disengagement

A combination of demographics and greater turnout gave the baby boomer generation an advantage of 4 million votes over millennials at the last general election, according to a report that warns of a growing intergenerational political divide. With likelihood to vote closely tied to being a homeowner, the turnout gap between younger and older people could increase further, the Resolution Foundation said.

The thinktank has analysed turnout figures for every general election since 1964, as part of the work of its Intergenerational Commission, which is trying to understand inequalities between age groups.

It found that in 2015, the vote gap between baby boomers (those born between the end of the second world war and the mid-1960s) and millennials (defined here as people born from 1981 to 2000) was a combination of sheer numbers and the fact that the latter were a third less likely to cast a vote.

The statistics showed that a total of 10.6 million baby boomers voted in 2015, 67% of the demographic’s population. In contrast, 6.4 million millennials voted, which was 46% of those of voting age.

The report defines turnout as the proportion of the voting-age population who cast a vote, as against the usual definition of the percentage of registered voters who cast a ballot, so as to give a broader picture of democratic engagement across generations. This was important, the authors said, as evidence suggested that registration has been declining over time, particularly for younger people.

This generational difference in turnout has grown over the decades, mainly from the mid-90s, as generation X – identified here as those born from 1966 to 1980 – lost the voting habit. In 1964, the analysis found, there was just a three-percentage point gap between the turnout for those aged 66-80 and the 21-35 group. But by 2005 this had increased to 26 percentage points, and has stayed near that ever since.

Given the likelihood to vote tends not to change much as people age, the report’s authors said, declining registration and turnout among successive waves of potential first-time voters “presents a major challenge for future elections”.

Turnout is mirrored by interest in politics, the study discovered. Those aged 21-35 who said they cared which party won the election has dropped from 74% in 1992 to 56% in 2015. At the same time, however, the figure for those aged 66-80 has risen slightly, and now stands at 81%.

The report identifies another factor likely to exacerbate the process: declining levels of home ownership. Those in rented properties are less likely to vote, an effect that seems to have increased over time.

For example, while those from the baby boomer generation were 16 percentage points less likely to vote at age 30 if they rented, compared with their home-owning peers, for millennials the gap between renters and homeowners at this age was 43 points. Falling home ownership “may be fuelling the generational turnout gap”, the report says. Turnout among millennials could nonetheless rise as they age and more own houses, even at later ages than their predecessors, it notes.

Such a widening gap in voting is likely to be reflected in government policy, the authors argue, with more focus on areas such as pensions rather than building affordable housing.

The divide in turnout was “a deep-rooted problem, dating back to the mid-90s, when young generation X-ers started turning away from the polling booth”, said Laura Gardiner from the Resolution Foundation. “This generational divide in turnout matters for our democracy, but also has profound implications for policy if politicians feel they only need to target the votes of older generations to win power.

“We need to explore ways to correct the democratic imbalance before the voting pool shrinks to a puddle. Ideas such as first-time compulsory voting with the option to not select any candidate, making voter registration easier, voting online and lowering the voting age are not silver bullets, but may help reverse this worrying trend.”

Chris Skidmore, minister for the constitution said: “We currently have 46.5 million people on the electoral register – the highest figure at any point in its history. But if we are to have a democracy that works for everyone, we have to recognise registration as a social justice issue.

“We will continue to engage more and more young people in democracy through support to energetic campaigns, and this autumn I will set out in detail the government’s vision for driving up democratic engagement.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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