The UK currently has one of the sharpest divides in electoral participation between different generations of any country in the EU, which has created a situation where young people are not only far less likely to vote than their older counterparts, but their votes are also becoming less significant because of the UK’s ageing population. What can young people themselves do to change this?
Are we becoming a gerontocracy?
These issues were analysed in detail in IF’s most recent research paper The Rising Tide of Gerontocracy, which attempted to quantify how the ageing of Britain’s electorate risks leaving young people increasingly disenfranchised. As the analysis – undertaken by Dr Craig Berry of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) – demonstrated, the median age of people who voted had risen to 51 at the 2015 general election, while by the next general election in 2020, of those who are eligible to vote more will be over 50 than in their 20s and 30s.
The reasons why so many young adults choose not to vote are complex. The most recent ONS research into public attitudes towards politics reveals that propensity to vote is closely related to age: the likelihood of people saying they had no interest in politics fell steadily as they got older, while the share who agreed with the statement that they saw voting “as a civic duty” increased with age. It is also worth bearing in mind that in the current era young people are not the only ones who express a profound sense of skepticism towards institutional politics: the same ONS research found that just 24% of the entire UK population said that they “tended to trust” the government.
However, there is a danger that a certain proportion of young adults may end up not voting because they find they are no longer registered when they turn up at the polling station. The problem of administrative disenfranchisement has been exacerbated over the last year by the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER), a new system under which it falls to individuals to register themselves rather than one member of a household being able to do it on behalf of everyone who lives there.
Data on the number of registered electors in England and Wales show that it fell by over 750,000 people during the period in which IER was implemented. Concerns had previously been raised that its implementation would disproportionately affect young adults because they are likely to change their address more frequently than older voters, for example if they are living at university away from home or in the private rented sector. The data reveal that several of the constituencies which saw the largest falls in the number of registered voters – such as Liverpool Riverside (where it fell by over 15%) and Newcastle upon Tyne East (-13.8%) – were also ones where a very high proportion of the population is aged 18–30.
National Voter Registration Drive
Clearly, it needs to be emphasised to young adults that they may have dropped off the electoral register because of IER without realising it. To be fair to the government, they are attempting to do something about this problem: this year parliament endorsed designating the week between 1 and 7 February as the National Voter Registration Drive, building on an event which has been held for the past few years under the auspices of political education charities such as Bite the Ballot.
Its goal was to educate people who aren’t registered to vote about why it is important for them to do so, and how easy it is now that it can be done via a simple online form. It is to be hoped that the 2016 National Voter Registration Drive persuaded a few of the UK’s disenfranchised young people to register, as this is the first step towards creating a more generationally balanced democracy in the UK.