Living standards
Intergenerational Centre
Political parties and elections

Millennials need more democratic firepower to fight the growing inequalities between generations


The demographers used to argue that it was bad news to be born into a big generation – there would be more competition for jobs and for houses.  You would travel through live economy class not club class.  But it has not turned out like that. Instead the big generation, the baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1965 have ended up doing spectacularly well. They own a disproportionate amount of housing and pensions wealth, and do well out of the welfare state too. Theresa May has rightly made it one of her priorities once more to get a fair balance between the generations.

One explanation why things have turned out like this is that in a modern democracy it is voting power which matters. So a big generation can vote for its own interests. Indeed, a new Resolution Foundation report published today shows that the boomers are enjoying a double benefit. They are a big generation and they have a very high tendency to vote. This gives them massive democratic firepower compared with other generations. Combine these two effects and one year’s worth of baby boomers exercise 530,000 votes. A year’s worth of thirty-somethings exercise just 400,000 votes.

There used not to be much of a gap in turnout at General Elections between different generations, just a percentage point or two. But now a big gap has opened up – a full 24 percentage point difference between the high likelihood of people in retirement voting compared with the much lower chances of young adults exercising their democratic rights.

Fewer than half of millennials (born 1981 to 2000) made it to the ballot box in 2015 – far lower than for any other generation at their age since Britain achieved full democratic voting rights. There has not been some general disengagement from politics. Instead the younger generation have disengaged, leaving the field to the older generations who are more likely to vote. And before you rush to judgement on today’s youngsters, this fall in turnout dates as far back as the mid-90s when young people now in their early 40s first started turning away from the ballot box.

Why has this happened? Locked out of ownership the younger generation increasingly rent their homes, and millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote as their peers who’ve managed to get on the ladder. Renting these days is transient with short tenancies and regular upheavals, meaning less than two in three private renters are even on the electoral register. This means that for young people the effective franchise of younger votes is back to the levels we saw in the 1920s before women secured full voting rights. No wonder such a small proportion make it to the polling station. This is a national scandal.

But it is not all doom and gloom. I do not believe that we narrowly vote for the interests of our own generation. We want the best for our children and our neighbours. I believe that politicians can and should appeal to our understanding that it is a contract between the generations that holds society together, much more than they do today.

That is why the Intergenerational Commission that I chair is tasked with identifying the inequalities between the generations and providing a roadmap for fixing them. Of course, democratic engagement right across the life cycle will give us the best chance of making progress. So we should consider practical suggestions for maximising youth turnout, including automatic registrations, online voting, and better citizenship education. But I also hope we can start changing the conversation, so that when we head to the polls politicians know we are voting not just for our own bank accounts, but also for the legacy we leave to generations to come.

This article originally appeared in The Times Red Box