In the fourth of our week-long series of articles on intergenerational themes co-published with the independent public policy think tank ResPublica, Liz Emerson (Co-Founder of the Intergenerational Foundation) discusses the influence of the “Grey Vote”, and what can be done to ensure better representation of the young
The 2015 General Election will be fascinating on many levels, not least because of the emergence of the UKIP vote. However, there are other factors that could affect the election result more profoundly, among them – most notably from an intergenerational point of view – voter age and cohort size.
That we are living in a time of global ageing is indisputable. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of centenarians has increased fivefold in the last 30 years. Already, the over-75s account for nearly 8% of the population, one in six people in England and Wales are over 65, and one person now turns 65 every 41 seconds in the UK. This “unprecedented” and “enduring” ageing – to use the words of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division – will have “profound implications for many facets of human life”.
The fact that we are all living longer is of course to be celebrated. However, what happens when a number of single-year cohorts come along that are bigger than others – as in the case of the “baby boom” generation which, in broadbrush terms, started in 1946 and carried on through until 1965? In peak years during this period nearly 1 million babies were born, compared to a more usual annual average of approximately 750,000 births. These post-war babies may be considered a “lucky generation” for many reasons but principally their luck is due to belonging to a larger than normal cohort. Their cohort size drove public policy, leading to the building of more primary and secondary schools when they were young, the expansion of higher education as they reached adulthood, the expansion of maternity wards as they gave birth, and now we are dealing with the need for a larger health service as they start to age.
The Grey Vote
Large cohort size also brings with it another power in the form of voter representation at the ballot box, so much so that, according to research by the Intergenerational Foundation, in 2010 the over-65s outvoted 18–24 year olds seven times over in the General Election. By 2020 more than half the voters will be over 50 years of age, with 31% of the electorate over 65 years of age by 2025. This bias is compounded by the reluctance of young people to participate in the democratic process: in the General Election in Britain in 2010, only 44% of those aged 18–24 voted compared to 76% of those aged 65-plus. Furthermore, less than 50% of young adults in the UK are registered to vote, compared to 96% of those aged 65 or more.
It is clear that older cohorts are exercising a disproportionate influence on the democratic process, with political parties keen to harness and maintain support from the “Grey Vote”. Such over-representation by older generations and the power of the Grey Vote is not lost on young people either. Their sense of powerlessness combined with alienation from, and apathy towards, the democratic process, could affect their social and economic prospects if older generations choose to vote in their own interests and not in the interests of their children and grandchildren.
The Intergenerational Foundation therefore supports any policy intervention that can provide a counterbalance to what might be considered the over-articulation of interests of one section of the population to the detriment of other, younger sections, whether they vote or not. It is for this reason that we support votes at 16, encourage greater registration by young people and endeavour to promote the active participation of young people in the democratic process.
A Swing to the Right?
It is common knowledge that we become more “conservative” with a small c as we age. However, could voter behaviour and ageing conspire to fundamentally change British politics if older voters choose to move en masse to the right next May? According to Ipsos MORI voter intention research, three times more men in the 45–54 and 55–64 age groups intend to vote for either the Conservatives or UKIP than both 18–24 year olds and 25–34 year olds, while the number of men aged 65–74 who intend to vote UKIP is double those aged 18–24.
While there may also be a swing to the right by younger votes, unless substantial numbers of young people come out and vote, it will be older generations who decide where our politics go from May 2015.