How the growing grey vote could undermine British democracy

Current trends in UK voting figures point to an ageing cohort and deficit in youth participation. With clear evidence of the correlation between generational factors and political alignment, those who are the most affected by long-term policy changes may have the smallest voice in determining their future.  

Population ageing has many consequences – not all of them bad. But one of the implications that has received relatively little attention from both policy-makers and the academic community is the ageing of the electorate. The power of ‘the grey vote’ has of course become something of a cliché. Yet it is a circumstance that appears to have had real consequences for the ability of young people to make themselves heard within the democratic process. If current trends persist, the impact may be wider still, in undermining the legitimacy of democracy itself.

We know that when it comes to the ballot box, generations tend to be selfish – both young and old. Analysis of the British Election Survey by Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel shows significant differences in policy priorities between age groups. In The Pinch, current government minister David Willets presents intergenerational conflict not merely as a recent phenomenon – although it has intensified – but rather an endemic feature of social and political life.

This does not mean we should assume that the voting patterns of members of generations or age cohorts are perfectly aligned. Rather, it means we should recognise that people at the same life-stage share formative experiences, and therefore develop common perspectives. People of the same generation may vote for different political parties, but generally speaking generational perspectives will influence the broad political agenda within which all parties seek to garner support.

It is precisely because generations tend to be selfish that cohort size matters. 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. The nature of public policy, especially on issues that impact directly on intergenerational fairness such as the pension system and infrastructure investment, is such that even where policy decisions are ostensibly reversed, the impact of the initial decision cannot be fully eliminated.

This does not mean that young people’s votes 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.

We cannot say that this demographic context is a pre-requisite of democracy; that there have been no genuine democracies without such a context is not alone decisive in this regard. Yet we can say for certain that representative democracy without a pyramid-shaped population is entirely untried – it is into this uncharted territory that we are heading at a rapid pace.

Next generation baby boomers

At the 2010 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. There were more voters aged 50, 51, 52 or 63 than any single age between 31 and 36, more voters aged 62 than any single age between 32 and 35, and more voters aged 50, 51 or 63 than aged 18.

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. In 2021, there will be only 708,000 18 year-old potential voters, and 702,000 19 year-old potential voters (compared to an average single-year age cohort size of 902,000 for 50-somethings) – single-year cohort sizes across the age distribution will not drop below this level until age 65.

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.

Voting power and the generational deficit

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. It is of course entirely plausible to retort that young people choose not to vote. Even if this is the case, it remains vital to appreciate the age distribution of the electorate to which actual governments are actually beholden.

Furthermore, the idea that non-voting is a choice, and therefore an indication of apathy or even contentment, is far too simplistic. As Colin Hay argues in Why We Hate Politics, we need to consider the ‘supply’ of democratic life, such as the nature and role of political parties, as well as ‘demand’ for politics. Non-voting is also complicated by the problem of non-registration: voter registration rates are 55 per cent for people aged 18-24, but 90 per cent for people aged 55-64, and 94 per cent for people aged 65 or over. Moves towards individual voter registration will exacerbate this problem.

At the 2010 general election, 40-somethings were largely successful in converting their potential voting power into actual power. 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. 45 year-olds exercised 84 per cent more actual voting power than 18-year olds, and 50 year-olds exercised 62 per cent more.

In 2021, 18-year olds will exercise less actual voting power than 79 year-olds. 50 year-olds will exercise 97 per cent more power than 18 year-olds, 55 year-olds will exercise more than double (115 per cent) the power, and 60 year-olds will exercise 95 per cent more. In 2031, 18 year-olds will exercise less actual power than 84 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 will be available from the Intergenerational Foundation website in early May.)

Conclusion

Responses to disenfranchisement must be led by young people themselves. Inspiration can be taken from attempts to enfranchise future citizens, such as the ‘super-jury’ championed by Green House or Kirsty Schneeberger’s advocacy of an ombudsman for future generations. Similar solutions must be found for young citizens who, while they have the power to vote, have seen their status in the democratic process undermined by ageing. Votes at 16 will be part of the solution – but small cohort sizes for 16 and 17 year-olds mean that the impact on the overall intergenerational democratic deficit will be minimal. Instead, we need to be considering ways to ensure that young people’s voices are always heard within governments and legislatures, irrespective of their numbers. Democracy without young people might be possible – but is it worth the risk?

About the author

Craig Berry is a Research Fellow at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute. He worked formerly as a policy officer at the TUC, lecturer in economic policy at the University of Warwick, policy advisor at HM Treasury, and head of policy at the International Longevity Centre. His book Globalisation and Ideology in Britain was published in 2011.