Democracy in danger as young people’s disenfranchisement accelerates

In a guest post, Craig Berrydraws attention to the increasing weakness of young people’s voters compared to older people’s votes – both because of the ageing population, and because young people in Britain are much, much less likely to vote.

Young people are more affected by the outcomes of the democratic process than other cohorts: their youth means that by and large they will live with the consequences of political decisions for longer. Furthermore, young people are at a crucial life-stage where the impact of political decisions will have a decisive and cumulative effect on their socio-economic circumstances across their lifecourses. The growing power of ‘the grey vote’ appears to have had real consequences for the ability of young people to make themselves heard within the democratic process, but more worryingly, may begin to undermine the legitimacy of democracy itself.

How old are the voters

Simply, cohort size matters. Analysis of the British Election Survey by Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel shows that generations tend to be selfish when they get to the ballot box. This of course does not mean that age is the only or main determinant of voting behaviour, or that age-based political inequality matters more than any other form of inequality. That generations can act, more or less coherently, to bring about change in social structures was a proposition first put forward by Karl Mannheim in 1923. Mannheim, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, believed that generational change was one of the main driving forces of political change. Strangely, this key precept of the discipline of sociology seems to have been largely overlooked by the study of democracy by political scientists.

At the 2010 British general election, 40-somethings were dominant at the ballot box. The youngest voters, and voters in their early-30s, were particularly disadvantaged. But the voting power of people approaching retirement, whose life chances will be affected by electoral outcomes to a far lesser extent than younger voters, was also highly significant. For example, there were more voters aged 50, 51, 52 or 63 than any single age between 31 and 36.

This inequality will accelerate in coming decades. Due to increasing survival rates, and the ageing of the members of the large baby booms of the immediate post-war era, the overriding trend is towards an older electorate, with greater concentrations of potential voting power among people in their 50s and 60s. There will be only 700,000 18 year-old potential voters, compared to a single-year age cohort average size of 902,000 for 50-somethings). Thirty years later, in 2051, there will be a particularly powerful set of cohorts aged around 60. The average single-year cohort size for people aged 58-62 will be 937,000, yet there will be only 825,000 18 year-old voters, and no smaller cohort up to age 68.

The median potential voter was 46 in 2010. In 2021 this will rise to 47. The median potential voter will be aged 50 by 2041, and 51 in 2051. It is worth reiterating that this is a relatively recent phenomenon, or more accurately, one we are yet to fully experience. The median potential voter in 1981 was already aged 46; this fell to actually fell 44 in the ten years to 1991, before rising to 45 in 2001.

Who votes

Taking voter turnout rates into account shows that the democratic process was even more skewed towards older cohorts. The median ‘actual’ voter was aged 49 in 2010, three years older than the median ‘potential’ voter. The median actual voter will be 52 by 2021, rising to 54 by 2051. OECD research shows that the gap between young and older voter turnout in the UK is three times the OECD average – leading to calls, for instance, for compulsory voting among first-time voters.

At the 2010 general election, relatively high turnout meant that 40-somethings were largely successful into converting their potential power into actual votes. But older cohorts had closed the gap significantly. Excluding 40-somethings, there were more actual voters aged 63 than any other age. Given their lower propensity to vote, 18 year-olds exercised less actual voting power at the 2010 general election than 73 year-olds, while 45 year-olds exercised 84 per cent more actual voting power than 18-year olds. Similarly, Scott Davidson’s research demonstrates that at the 2010 general election, more than half of MPs (319 seats) were elected by constituency electorates within which more than half of actual voters were aged 55 or over, with a further 102 MPs elected in constituencies were more than 40 per cent of voters were 65 or over.

My research also projects future inequalities. In 2021, 18-year olds will exercise less actual voting power than 79 year-olds. 55 year-olds will exercise more than double (115 per cent) the power of 18 year-olds. By 2051, if turnout rates persist, 18 year-olds will exercise less actual power than a typical single-year cohort in their late-80s. (The full results of this research are available from the Intergenerational Foundation website.)

These inequalities do not mean, in any straightforward sense, that young people’s vote should somehow be worth more. Democracy’s first principle is, and must remain, ‘one person, one vote’. But that representative democracies with near-universal franchises have only ever existed within populations with pyramid-shaped age distributions may be one of the hidden foundations of representative democracy. Representative democracy without this demographic bias towards young people is entirely untried – it is into this uncharted territory that we are heading at a rapid pace.

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