2016: The Year the Old Took Control

In primaries, elections and the EU referendum, the old always trounced the young.

by Sam Wolfson
01 January 2017, 12:43am

Joxemai via Wikicommons

2016 has been a year of shockers. From new kinds of terrorism and unimaginable geopolitical alliances, to unexpected election results and the rise of populist parties on the left and right, it has been a time of historical upheaval that has confounded bookies, pundits and many of the best minds of our time.

Yet as the dust settles, one principle has held fast in many of the elections and referenda in developed countries: the old always win. The candidates and policies favoured by older voters have continually beaten those favoured by the young.


According to Politico, among people who voted, 61 percent of over-65s wanted to leave the EU compared to just 25 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.

Turnout among young people was also relatively high compared to previous general elections, and much higher than initially reported, at 64 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds and 65 percent for 25- to 39-year-olds.

Reading that, you might wonder how it was that Leave won, but in the end it all comes down to one phenomenal stat: among voters aged 65 and above, turnout was at an incredible 90 percent.


Spain had its second general election within the space of a year, after the December, 2015 vote returned a hung parliament with no party able to form a government. In June of this year, Spain went to the polls again and a generational divide became clear. The Partido Popular (PP) was the fourth most popular party among under-50s, behind more radical choices like Podemos, Ciudadanos and the PSOE. But among over-65s, the PP were wildly popular. As in the UK, older voters turned out in greater numbers than younger voters, and so the PP received the greatest number of votes and greatest number of seats, increasing their vote totals from the previous election. They are now going to form a minority government.


According to Princeton, Bernie Sanders had an overwhelming slice of the young electorate—around 72 percent—compared to Hillary, who had around 28 percent. Clinton had a huge majority among the over-65s: 71 percent, compared to Bernie, who had just 26.5 percent. But once again the olds won it; 61 percent of the primary voters were over 45, which likely helped steer Hillary towards the nomination.


Young voters – those aged 18 to 29—preferred Clinton over Trump by a 55 percent to 37 percent margin. Older voters—those 65 plus—tended to favour Trump, by 53 percent to 45 percent. Unlike other elections this year, the popular vote actually sided with the young – Hillary received more overall votes than Trump. But under the US' FPTP system, Trump won the presidency, thanks in part to the large turnout of older voters in key swing states.

SO WHAT OF 2017?

As we've written about before, populism barely got started this year; there were relatively few elections in 2016 – next year there's a string of important European elections, and in each one there are strong populist challengers who command a lot of support from older voters. Of course, there can be no totally hard and fast rules – the "no" vote in the recent Italian referendum was characterised by some as a rejection of the political establishment by young voters, for example, although the complex and often conflicting narratives that decided that vote don't make for easy comparisons.

What's certain is that we need to be wary of the bleating that comes with every new vote, that "millennials could decide this election" or that "this will be the internet election". By and large, what we have seen this year is a phenomenal turnout of older voters making themselves the decisive factor in most major elections, and until young voters can be mobilised in far greater numbers, it's difficult to see how that will change.