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How Old People Are Skewing British Politics

By 2021, 60-year-olds will exercise 95 percent more voting power than 18-year-olds.

A UKIP leadership hustings, photo by Jake Lewis

After the EU referendum, it was widely reported that turnout among young people was extremely low – around 36 percent. That turned out to be bullshit. In fact, more young people voted in the EU Referendum – 64 percent of registered 18 to 24-year-olds, rising to 65 percent among 25 to 39-year-olds – than in any general election in recent memory.

However, that's not the whole story, because older people also turned out in higher numbers than initially reported. Among 55 to 64-year-olds, turnout was 74 percent, and for the 65+ group it was an astonishing 90 percent. It was these high turnouts that handed the vote to Leave. If young people had turned out in those numbers, Remain would have won in a landslide.

If politics in 2016 had a theme it would be division. Populist movements are taking advantage of cleavages in society to pit the electorate against each other. Rich against poor, the common man against the liberal elite and anyone they possibly can against refugees and immigrants. But perhaps no division has been as pronounced and uniform as the generational one, with society's young and old becoming increasingly separated over issues, and the old winning repeatedly.

In the 2015 General Election, turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was 43 percent. Among those 65 and over it was 78 percent. Labour led in the younger demographics, while Tories led with older voters. Once again, it all came down to turnout.

Official demographic data for the US 2016 Presidential Election will not be available until next year, however exit polls indicated a majority of people over 45 voted for Trump, compared to 37 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds. In 2012, turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was 41 percent, compared to 72 percent among those aged over 65.

This divide is likely to become more apparent due to population ageing. A 2015 UN Report found that between 2015 and 2030, the number of people aged 60 years or over is projected to grow by 56 percent globally, from 901 million to 1.4 billion. This will be most prominent in North America and Europe, where older people are expected to account for more than 25 percent of the population by 2030. In the UK, for example, a 2015 Parliament report found that between 2015 and 2020, when the general population is expected to rise by 3 percent, the number of people aged 65 and over will increase by 12 percent.

This increase would be less of an issue if the working population wasn't decreasing in comparison due to declining fertility rates. In 2014 there were 3.2 people of working age for every person of pensionable age. By 2037, even after planned increases to the state pension age, this will fall to 2.7. This means less tax revenue to pay for bills that are likely to get larger.

One obvious solution to all this would be to encourage immigration to ensure the working age population remained high enough to support the welfare-guzzling baby boomers. The problem is that older generations voted against EU membership and are much more likely to vote for anti-immigration parties like UKIP, making it harder to increase our workforce.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, photo by Michael Segalov

Older people are more likely to hold conservative views for a variety of psychological reasons. For example, a study found that as the brain ages it becomes slower, meaning older people are more likely to see things in "black or white" terms to improve efficiency, leading to a lower tolerance for ambiguity. This often means they dismiss information that conflicts with their views and act in more prejudiced ways. The open-mindedness required to understand new cultures, lifestyles and situations can also lead to insecurity and self-doubt, whereas conservatism provides familiarity. A 2014 study in the UK found ageing caused a gradual shift of nearly 20 percentage points towards the Conservatives between 20 and 80.

In 2010, researchers at De Montfort University found over half of the constituencies in the UK, including 94 marginal seats, would have a majority of voters over 55. A 2012 study estimated that, by 2021, if turnout rates persist, 60-year-olds will exercise 95 percent more voting power than 18-year-olds.

Dr Craig Berry from the University of Sheffield has researched population ageing and its effect on politics for the Intergenerational Foundation, and believes older people are "certainly" becoming more influential. "Democracy has sort of developed in young societies where young people outnumber old people quite substantially, but that's no longer the case," he says. "In the next ten to 20 years we're going to see that go into reverse quite sharply."

Dr Berry was keen to stress that age demographics do not vote uniformly and that "there's as much of a class divide in benefits from public expenditure within age groups as there is across age groups". He doesn't believe that "older voters aren't going to screw over younger people election after election", but did suggest an older population does currently favour the Conservative Party. "It does seem they are much more popular among older groups, and not just the oldest old, but Baby Boomers in their sixties who are going to be around for decades yet. They're much more likely to be conservative and, as you get older, you're much less likely to change your mind about your political preferences."

The consequences of an older electorate are now well known, with all major parties having to prioritise old voters if they are to stand a chance of winning. Provisions that older generations have gained will likely never be lost. One Parliament report admitted that "older people are more likely to vote; and if they are growing in number, this could make changes that reduce welfare and care entitlements politically difficult".

Dr Scott Davidson, an academic from the University of Leicester who has written extensively on age and politics, believes this has been exacerbated by a lack of planning. "We have all known these changes have been coming – they [were] identified decades ago – but short-termism in politics has meant our society has not truly reflected on how we adjust. I would say certainly that progressive politics in Britain has been wilfully neglectful of this demographic change."

Dr Davidson said he worries that "residue ageist attitudes amongst some on the left" will actually aid the right: "The origins of the movement that set out to stop the state from supporting people in later life by framing this as somehow being unfair to younger people was the neo-liberal Americans for Generational Equity. Right-wing politicians in the US have been using this as an argument to kill off the welfare state for decades. I am now aware of many people, often journalists, who think of themselves as being progressive who are now aligned with the Washington neo-liberals. We all hope to live a long-life, and cutting pensions or health care isn't cutting 'their' pensions or health service; it is cutting 'your' pension and health service. Those who push intergenerational conflict are engaging in a zero-sum game where no one wins. They are useful idiots for neo-liberalism. The better answer is to promote intergenerational solidarity."

While a short-term benefit for the right does seem likely, population ageing is unlikely to have much of a significant impact on long-term social change. Professor James Tilley from the University of Oxford co-authored the 2014 report into how age impacts conservatism. "The relationship between age and these attitudes is quite complicated," he told me. "A lot of the change is partly down to the generational aspect, which is impacted a bit by the ageing population, but most of is just everybody changing. Take something like attitudes towards homosexuality. If you go back not long ago, to the beginning of the 1990s, end of the 1980s, something like two-thirds of people thought same-sex relationships were morally wrong. Today, that'd be more like 20 percent. Everybody's changed to a certain extent, so it's not just a generational change."

This point is highlighted by the Trump and Brexit victories. While older generations formed a core part of the support, the victories weren't entirely down to older generations. Other key factors such as class, xenophobia and economic anxiety were critical to the outcome.

Still, population ageing is rebalancing our democracy towards older generations and causing our society to take a more conservative bent. Of course there will always be divides within age groups, but it seems like the cards could be stacked against young voters for some years to come.

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