The young, especially the less well-educated, have always been more indifferent to voting than their parents and grandparents. In a world where turnouts in general elections were once as high as 80 per cent – as was the case when today’s pensioners first cast a vote for Attlee or Churchill – that did not matter so much. Younger voters still turned up in sufficient numbers to make their voice heard.
No longer. Just as turnouts generally have declined towards 50 per cent, the proportion of youthful voters has slumped even more sharply. The “betrayals” of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have something to do with current dissatisfaction – but the source is more deep-seated than that. It has worrying consequences.
First, there is a danger that any referendum on Europe could go badly wrong. If older voters – disproportionately Eurosceptic – determine the outcome, the price paid by future generations will be heavy indeed.
Second, politics and government priorities grow more broadly distorted. As we have seen since 2010, this means robust protection for pensioners’ benefits while students and young families take a hit. The NHS contributes to this skewing; as 60 becomes the new 50 and so on, and as we live longer, the service is even more of a boon to the elderly than it ever was. Yet uniquely among public services, every political party has pledged to maintain or increase spending on it: paid for in taxes by those of working age or by borrowing from future generations.
Third, the balance of economic power will shift still further towards the grey-haired if there is no electoral incentive for parties to appeal to youth. Already enriched by successive house price booms, privatisation giveaways and proper pensions related to their old salaries – not to mention free grammar schools and universities – the old seem set to get richer while the young get poorer.
As the generations progress and only the wealthy can afford to help their own children get a foot on the property ladder, it makes for a grim outlook on social mobility.
Of course it is not as simple a picture as that. Recent scandals about residential care remind us that society does not lavish attention and funds on vulnerable older folk. The retirement pension does not allow much leeway for financial emergencies. Older people are also more prone to be victims of certain crimes and sharp practices. And yet for many of the middle classes their standard of living in retirement is perfectly comfortable; they might wish they were 21 again, but materially they have never had it so good. The Saga generation will soon be able to buy shares in Saga itself, something of a symbolic moment.
Given the trends, it is not easy to see how to shift the balance of demographic political power. It is true that the electoral system has barely caught up with the internet, and youthful familiarity with new technologies would help the young redress the balance by making it easier for them to vote. Yet there is still a feeling that the scale of their disengagement is such that not that many would bother their iPhones with party political action. They seem to prefer, if only by default, to make their own way in a hostile world. It leaves our democracy increasingly undermined – which should worry old, young and middle-aged alike.