Untangling the Messy Relationship Between Age, Young People and Politics

By Former Media Director Richard Wood

Academic research has a lot to offer when it comes to exploring the interesting and topical link between age and political participation.

Politics allows people to create change in their communities. Citizens therefore need to be armed with the democratic toolkit to make the alterations they wish to see in the world. I have long had a passion for engaging individuals, especially young people, in the political system, something which led me to explore and evaluate the links between age, young people and political participation in my academic research outlined below.

Political Participation

Before delving into existing theories and empirical evidence, as well as my own findings, it is worth defining political participation. This is crucial as political actions are not merely restricted to voting at the ballot box every four years. The definition of participation has developed over time and is under regular scrutiny, but there is consensus that it is more than so-called “formal participation” such as voting, contacting elected officials and running for election. Ekman and Amna offer one of the most comprehensive typologies on this subject, but for the purpose of my research, I used Teorell, Torcal and Montero’s typology, which outlines five modes of participation: voting, party activity, contacting, protesting and consumer activity.

Voting and age

When it comes to voting, age and young people (generally those aged 18-25), firstly data consistently indicates that young people are less likely to vote than older individuals and that the propensity to vote increases with age. The most interesting aspect of this is that this relationship is near universal. My own research, which utilised representative data from the gold-standard British Election Study and the European Social Survey (as well as qualitative interviews with people who have worked with young people and politics), confirmed that this has been the case in every general election for which data was available for in the UK. Furthermore, the relationship persists across Europe and much of the wider world. Out of eighteen European countries surveyed in 2016, age was strongly linked with voting. The only exceptions were Belgium – which can be explained by the country’s compulsory voting arrangement - and Iceland. The latter did have this relationship, but results were not significant.

The second important feature of this is that evidence suggests the relationship between age and voting is not actually strictly linear, rather it is curvilinear meaning the very oldest voters are less likely to vote than middle-aged voters. This has been widely noted in the literature, and often linked to increasing immobility and social decline, and my own research once again highlights this in Britain over time and across Europe in 2016.

To explain this relationship, two theories, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, dominate academic literature. The first is the life-cycle theory. This states that as individuals put down roots, settle into a routine with a steady job and a permanent location, things that become more likely with age, their cost of voting is reduced. This implies that younger voters are less exposed to the political system and are more likely to be moving around so have high barriers to voting, often characterised as “start-up costs”. Then as individuals age, their investment in society increases due to them having a larger stake in society’s “system” through things like owning property and starting families, thus decreasing their costs of not voting. In other words, age is a proxy for these factors, which all tend to relate to age. Plenty of research backs up this theory as do my own findings, however, there are other proposed explanations.

The second dominant theory is the generations argument, which states that different political generations, formed in differing political eras, have varying propensities to vote. This is derived from Mannheim’s generation thesis. The most extensive research on this in Britain was conducted by Stuart Fox, who used advanced statistical techniques to find strong evidence for these effects while controlling for the life-cycle. My own research found similar evidence. The generations school of thought has been further evidenced for by Lyons and Alexander, Blais and Rubenson and others, however, the theory has an obvious limit. Defining generations is largely subjective and determining completely accurate cut-off points is an impossible task. This therefore limits the credibility of attempts to measure this, meaning that caution must be urged when examining this type of research.

In addition to finding evidence for both theories, my own research built a model made up of factors established as key determinants of voting, such as political knowledge, voting as a civic duty, interest in politics and party mobilisation. Without going into the boring statistical details (who doesn’t love regression!) multiple models were generated with different age-groups using large British Election Study wave samples. The main finding was while there were almost no differences across the ages, even when other likely voting determinants are controlled for, the model suggests that a lack of political understanding in young people is more likely to deter them from casting their ballots than in older people. This indicates that political knowledge is crucial in determining an individual’s decision to vote.

The main policy implication of this? Compulsory, impartial and informative political education. This would tackle start-up costs and give young people the tools to make informed decisions and think critically when going to the ballot box. Additionally, in the interview section of my research, all but one participant highlighted political education as a key tool for engaging young people in politics, thus strengthening the case for political literacy as a way of bridging the voting age gap.

Non-voting participation and age

When it comes to other forms of participation, the relationship with age is less clear. The main consensus in this area of the literature is that young people’s involvement in political parties is limited. The most recent evidence for this comes from research conducted as part of the Party Members Project. Published in 2018, it suggests that 4% of Labour party members are aged 18-24 compared to the 29% of those aged 65 and older. The disparity is even more striking for the Conservatives, with 5% of members aged 18-24 compared to the 44% over the age of 65. The pattern persists in the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, and considering that only around 18% of the UK population are aged over 65, these findings become even more overwhelming. Furthermore, my research suggests that in twelve of the fourteen countries where data was available, young people were less likely than the average population to conduct party activity.

As for contacting elected officials, research relating directly to this mode of participation is limited but evidence indicates that young people are less likely to engage this way, which makes sense considering their reluctance to vote and be involved in political parties. As for consumer participation, which includes boycotts, buycotts, signing petitions and similar, research suggests there is no real link between them and age as evidenced by Garberg and Newburry, as well as by Sloam. Nonetheless, these are all areas needing further examination.

However, when it comes to protesting, there is a strong link between young people and demonstrating, including student protests and social movements. Furthermore, European data indicates that young people are more likely to demonstrate than the general population.

This therefore raises an interesting question: are young people participating in other ways instead of voting? For advocates of the idea that instead of voting, young people are going out and participating in different ways, my research using British Election Study data suggests this is not the case. Out of a list of eight non-voting political activities, 64% of non-voting 18-25-year-olds had done none of these. Furthermore, the majority of the rest had done just one non-voting activity, indicating that voting young people are more likely to be politically active in other ways than non-voting individuals.

In conclusion, research on the complex relationship between age and political participation deserves more media attention as academic projects continually advance our collective insight into timely and important topics. Furthermore, the policy implications from this type of research are enormous. While disruption caused by start-up costs when young people leave school and try to find their way in life will always exist to an extent, the policy goal should be to bridge this gap as much as possible to engage young people in politics and resultantly grow a population that continues to be involved in the political system. Explaining this gap through research can result in that outcome.

Richard Wood is a political commentator, who works in media intelligence and is a Master’s Graduate in Political Research from the University of Aberdeen. He is the former Media Director of TalkPolitics and the Communications Officer for the Scottish Young Liberal Democrats.

Sources and Further Reading 

Image: Chris Beckett @flickr


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