Generation Y, the youngest adult generation, have recently been called Dave’s No 1 Fans, Thatcher’s Children, The Boris Generation or just plain Generation Right.
Much of this discussion draws on our analysis – and there is some truth in the conclusions. But it paints a picture of party political allegiance that is not quite right - and more importantly, risks missing the much bigger issue of a frightening generational shift away from any sort of party political engagement.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest an outlook among the young that could be described as more right-wing. They are less in favour of more redistribution through welfare. They feel very little connection to big government institutions like the welfare state. This reflects a greater sense of personal responsibility and individualism than we’ve typically seen in other generations at a similar age. They have a focus on the importance of personal contribution that you may not expect from a generation that are starting out in particularly tough economic conditions.
And our recent work on the next cohort of teenagers coming through suggests this trend is continuing, with increasing emphasis on getting on at an individual level.
As noted in much of the commentary, this is combined with more liberal attitudes on a wide-range of social issues, including gender roles, homosexuality and immigration or diversity.
So economically and institutionally right-wing, but socially liberal – a generation for austere but open times?
Leaving aside the obvious issues with generalising about a whole generation - given we’ve been one of the main culprits in that - this does seem to fit with the data. It’s true that it’s not a particularly new insight about the young – there were, for example, very similar observations in 1960s America.1
But it’s in trying to relate this to support for the Conservative party where this characterisation of Generation Y in the UK breaks down.
First, there is the simple fact that Generation Y are still vastly more likely to say they will vote Labour than Conservative – as shown in the chart below, which includes new analysis from our 2014 surveys. Generation Y are also more likely to say they will vote Labour than any of the older cohorts - which would be difficult to guess from some of the commentary on them.
It is true that the proportion saying they would vote Conservative has increased markedly from the mid-2000s – but this group still only make up 18% of the Generation Y population.
And comparisons with previous generations show that the current young are not that politically different from previous cohorts of young people, in relative terms. For example, back in 1996 Generation X were roughly the same average age as Generation Y are now – and were actually closer to older cohorts on Labour support and at a similar relative level of Conservative support.
Of course, there’s more to the left-right axis than just which political party people feel most connected to. 2
Indeed, one important distinction that’s often made is whether it’s a measure of identification with a party or with ideas. 3
That is, if we think about where they sit on the spectrum of political ideology rather than party affiliation, Generation Y may still be more right-wing than older generations even though their level of support for the Conservative party may not be particularly unusual.
But our new analysis of a question that asks people directly where they would place themselves on the left-right spectrum shows again that the picture is not of Generation Y being a straightforwardly more right-wing generation. As the chart below shows, Generation Y are actually often the least likely to view themselves as on the right of the political spectrum, including in the most recent survey from 2012. It is true that in a couple of surveys they are slightly more likely to self-identify with the right than Generation X, but the differences are small, and there is no sign of a significant break from other cohorts.
Generation Y are actually most likely to self-identify with the “centre”, with 54% placing themselves in that middle ground, higher than seen for all other generations – which may mostly reflect their lack of interest in traditional left-right politics.
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And it’s this disengagement that’s the bigger story here.
We’ve seen in previous work that barely 20% of Generation Y say they identify with a particular party, compared with 70% among the pre-1945 generation. This is the biggest gap between old and young of any European country we’ve looked at.
And our new analysis of the Audit of Political Engagement shows how this translates directly to certainty to vote, in the chart below. Barely 20% of Generation Y say they would be certain to vote in an immediate election, compared with 70% of the pre-1945 generation.
And the lines are very flat: there is little sign over this 10 year span of generations growing into greater electoral engagement. The root of the problem is overall attachment: as one Conservative MP has put it, should we be focusing on Pepsi versus Coke when people are stopping buying cola?
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Given the stability of the generational trends we’ve identified, it is possible to predict future engagement with greater certainty than we typically can. Generations seem stuck with a level of party political attachment – elections cause blips, but there is little sign of systematic increases in engagement among younger groups as they grow older.
Using relatively simple statistical models we can roll the pattern forward, as in the chart below. 4 As older groups die off and are replaced in the population with younger groups, the fall in attachment to parties is relentless: in 10 years’ time, by 2024, only 24% of the whole population will feel attached to one particular party, compared with 51% in 1983.
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As we and others have outlined, this does not mean that the youngest generations are uncaring or inactive on the political issues they think are important – far from it. It is more that buying into one particular all-encompassing party manifesto is much less appealing or relevant for a generation that is used to a highly filtered, responsive and individually targeted world.
This leaves the most important question of what to do – and there seem to be few (if any) convincing answers. The more concrete actions focus on getting younger cohorts to fit into the political system, through encouraging voter registration and turnout. It gets much trickier to think of practical ways the system can fit with these coming generations. But the need for new ideas is only going to grow – and the worst thing we can do is to reduce the debate to party political terms that are part of the problem, not the solution.
1 This eventually led to “the Nolan Chart”, which distinguishes people based on their views on both personal and economic freedom. See a discussion of how this came about in Mariotti, S. (2013) Economically Conservative Yet Socially Tolerant? Find Yourself on the Nolan Chart. Huffington Post.
2 There is a huge literature on its meaning and measurement, challenges and refinements - for example: Tilley, J. (2005) Research Note: Libertarian-authoritarian value change in Britain, 1974-2001. Political Studies Vol 53:442-453; Rockey, J. (2010) Who is Left-wing and who just thinks they are? University of Leicester Working paper No. 09/23;
3 White, J. (2010) Left, Right and Beyond: the Pragmatics of Political Mapping. LSE ‘Europe in Question’ Discussion Paper Series No. 24/2010
4 We used the Holt-Winters method, assuming that each time series (each cohort) has a level, a trend and a seasonal pattern which can vary over time. The estimates of the current levels of these parameters is made by an exponential smoothing of the historical data, which means that more recent observations are given slightly more weight than older ones, with the weights set by fitting to the history (minimising squared residuals). We had to make a slight adjustment because the seasonal pattern in this case is general elections which do not happen with a fixed pattern. We then project forward for each cohort using the current level, trend and expected election dates. Generation Z is a projection based on the average age difference between X, Y and Z and assuming that the difference between X and Y in 2024 can be extrapolated for Z.