Harvard University and Sydney University
A shorter version of this appeared in the Washington Post/Monkey Cage 14 June 2017
Across the pond, one of the most remarkable developments in recent elections has been the propensity for younger citizens not only to vote – and also to cast ballots in massive numbers in support of older socialist leaders advocating left-wing economic policies last fashionable during the 1970s.
Thus the British Labour party was pleasantly surprised to find that young people flocked to Jeremy Corbyn’s rallies, a 68-year stalwart who has never held office in his long political career as a member of parliament since 1983, a teetotler and vegetarian cycling to work from his home in the classic leftwing cliché of Islington North. A lifetime protestor, and pacifist who voted against the Iraq war, under his leadership the Labour manifesto promised to nationalize key industries (to take the energy industry, railways, buses and the Royal Mail), to scrap tuition fees, to boost workers’ rights, and to raise taxes on the wealthy. On Brexit, Labour accepted the referendum results but promised a fuzzier soft exit, for example maintaining rights for EU citizens living in the UK.
According to the British Election Study (BES), compared with younger cohorts, in general elections from 1970 to 2010 the Conservatives consistently held a modest advantage among pensioners. But the age gap has expanded recently; the June 2016 Brexit referendum saw a generational chasm. Younger people were significantly less likely to cast a Brexit ballot but when they did so, according to the BES, around two-thirds of the under-35s voted Remain, while by contrast the majority of pensioners (57%) voted Leave. Similar divisions persisted in the 2017 general election. In this contest, according to the Ashcroft General Election day poll, Labour received the votes of one quarter (23%) of pensioners but two-thirds (67%) of the 18-24 year olds. By contrast, the Conservatives got the vote of 59% of pensioners, but only one fifth (18%) of the 18-24 year olds. The exact level of young people’s turnout is still to be determined but their voting registration rates surged and, according to Sky News data, the turnout for 18- to 24-year-olds was 66.4 per cent, up from 43 per cent two years ago, although slightly below the national average (68.7). Turnout rose in seats with many young people (aged 18-29), but this effect could have been due to the high levels of the college educated populations in these constituencies. The class cleavage has gradually faded to became negligible in this contest, although education was also important; even controlling for age, the higher the share of college-educated in a constituency, the larger the Con>Lab swing of the vote.
Sounds familiar? In the US, as well, the younger crowds attending Bernie Sanders events in massive numbers and his substantial lead over Clinton among younger voters in the primaries was one of the hall marks reported in the 2016 elections (Figure 2). Sanders displays a strikingly similar social and ideological profile to Corbyn, as a life-long socialist and older white man (76) who has served in Congress for Vermont since 1991, railing in campaign speeches for social justice and against big business, big banks, and billionaires. Although less substantial than in the Democratic primaries, the generation gap was also evident in the Clinton-Trump presidential vote on polling day (Figure 3); in the 2016 American National Election Study, for example, if only those under 55 had voted, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House. Education was equally significant. There remain important differences in electoral turnout, with young Americans consistently less likely to vote, reflecting broader patterns in many other Western democracies. By contrast, occupational class inequalities, the underlying issue of both Sanders and Corbyn’s campaigns, failed to prove predict voting in either contest.
So what explains these substantial age gaps and the enthusiasm of the young Corbysandistas?
On the one hand, it could be that younger people are more idealistic and left-wing in their policy preferences, attracted by the radical egalitarian economic message of both leaders. This is a plausible claim, especially if younger generations feel that they face more limited economic opportunities than their parents and grandparents, given higher university fees and levels of student debt, lack of secure jobs, stagnant wages and youth unemployment (rates more than double the national average). In this sense, age may have become the new social class. Yet the evidence for this claim remains mixed, for example a study using the British Social Attitudes data from 1985 to 2012 reported that young people who came of age under Thatcher were more rightwing in their economic attitudes than previous generations, such as towards issues of wealth redistribution and the welfare state.
An alternative argument, however, is that the Millennials and Gen X in Britain were motivated less by the positive attractions of Corbyn’s left-wing economic policies per se and more by social liberalism on cultural issues such as LGBTQ rights, women’s equality, globalization, and climate change, and antipathetic towards a broader range of authoritarian values associated issues of nationalism and immigration in the campaigns of Theresa May and Donald Trump. In this view, the old Left-Right divisions may have faded but instead the emerging cultural cleavage in Western democracies pits rival camps around values of transactional national interests versus cosmopolitan cooperation in the world, respect for traditional families and marriage versus support for feminism, diverse lifestyles and gender fluid identities, the importance of manufacturing jobs versus environmental protection, and restrictions on immigration and closed borders a la Brexit versus social tolerance towards refugees, migrants, and open borders towards foreigners. There is considerable evidence for this claim. In the US, for example, a March 2017 study by the Pew Research Center noted growing ideological and partisan generational gaps in the U.S. In America, studies have found the younger generation more tolerant, engaged and supportive of social justice. More broadly, data from the World Values Survey shows persistent generation gaps across values dividing authoritarian and libertarian perspectives, such as in support for gender equality, secularization, gay rights, and global governance.
For some initial evidence to see whether similar ideological divisions were evidence in the June 8th UK general election we can turn to the election day poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft’s company among a substantial sample of 14,384 respondents, with CATI and online fieldwork from 6-9th June 2017. This allows a first look at age differences, although the available data does not allow us to determine yet whether these are the result of distinctive generational experiences (like contrasts between Boomers and Millennials), life cycle effects (where attitudes and behaviors change as people age, such as getting married and having children), or period effects (arising from specific events, like the financial crash or European refugee crisis).
As shown in Figure 4, on a wide range of cultural issues, younger people in the UK are far more liberal than their parents and grandparents. The poll asked respondents to assess whether several things were forces for good or ill in society. As the figure illustrates, young people were more socially liberal and older people were more socially conservative on things such as the Internet, the green movement, feminism, multiculturalism, globalization and immigration. The age gaps are substantial, for example a 30-point age gap between the youngest and oldest in approval of the green movement. These patterns reflect the broader comparative evidence about the growth of libertarian and post-materialist values in many post-industrial societies, which is heavily concentrated among younger generations and also college educated sectors. The only item where this pattern was reversed in the UK poll concerns attitudes towards capitalism, where older people were far more positive.
If we compare public opinion towards economic issues, the patterns also show similar substantial age gaps in Britain (Figure 5); thus young people were also more leftwing on attitudes towards social mobility, wealth redistribution, immigration, and rights to health care, housing and education. In all these regards, young people in the UK are more likely to be attracted towards the Labour party’s economic policies and values, as well as social liberalism.
Finally, what of broader feelings about the pace and direction of social change? It might be expected that given the experiences of young people in growing up during the era of austerity cuts in education and the NHS, they might be more pessimistic about the opportunities they faced compared with their parent’s generation, coming of age during more prosperous and secure decades. Here, perhaps surprisingly, there were few clear age differences in the UK poll. Thus Figure 6 shows less consistent age gaps when respondents were asked whether they thought that life would be better or worse in 30 years, whether social change was for the better or worse, and whether there would be opportunities for advancement and social mobility.
Overall therefore the striking similarities in the age gaps which are evident in recent elections in the US and the UK, and the closure of occupational class cleavages, raise important questions about the changing nature of party competition in these countries. If these patterns persist as genuine generational shifts, not just life course or period effects, and if young people can be mobilized to vote so that their voice is heard in the electoral arena, then this is likely to be important for transforming the policy agenda, for the future of party competition, and for prospects of long-term electoral change.
Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Electoral Integrity Project. Recent authored books are Why Electoral Integrity Matters (2014), Why Elections Fail (2016) and Strengthening Electoral Integrity (2017). She is currently working on a new book with Ron Inglehart of Cultural Backlash: The Rise of Populism.