No country for young men and women: political inequality and the generational pinch

Addressing the generational divide means reducing inequalities in political participation


David Willetts, the chair of Resolution Foundation, rightly pulled no punches over the weekend in describing how “the social contract is a contract between the generations and in Britain it is being broken”. In policy terms, we are becoming a country for old men and women often at the expense of younger age cohorts.

Yet while Willetts correctly and clearly identified the problem of growing intergenerational inequality – he did literally write the original book on the issue after all – he did not address a key political driver behind it, namely the growth of political inequality in the UK, which is when certain individuals or groups have greater influence over political decision-making and benefit from unequal outcomes through those decisions, despite procedural equality in the democratic process.

For example, while only 43 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted in the 2015 general election, nearly double that – 78 per cent – of 65+ year-olds cast a vote.

Similarly, while three-quarters of individuals in social classes AB voted, only 57 per cent of DE voters did. Moreover, this is a growing trend, with falling turnout in general elections over the past three decades driven by the collapse in electoral participation among younger voters, and to a lesser extent, working class voters.

In other words, the political weight and influence of older and better off voters at the ballot box has grown significantly over time, both relatively and in absolute terms, and with more than half of the electorate predicted to be over 50 by 2020, this problem is likely to get worse with the median age of the electorate forecast to continually rise in the decades ahead.

Demographic changes interacting with ingrained unequal turnout by age and class matters because it reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voters – often the young or the economically marginalised – and thus threatens a central principle of democracy: that every citizen’s preference, no matter their status, should count equally.

Electoral inequality and the ‘greying’ of the electorate therefore appears to have led – or at least correlates to – the better treatment of older voters as a result.

For example, David Willetts points to the fact that the median income of pensioners is now higher than the median income of the rest of the population for the first time, not due to broad and benign social and economic trends, but rather because of a series of targeted policy decisions that have benefitted older generations in an unrepeatable way in which younger citizens see no equivalent benefit.

Similarly, IPPR’s analysis in 2013 of the distributional consequences of last Parliament’s Spending Review highlights the uneven impact of fiscal decision-making on different age and class groups. As a result of the spending cuts, 16 to 24 year olds saw a 27.5 per cent fall in their annual household income. For those aged between 55 and 74 the equivalent figure was 10.1 per cent.

Similarly, while those with an annual household income of between £10,000 and £19,999 saw a drop of 12.7 per cent, individuals in households with an income in excess of £60,000 experienced only a relatively small 2.7 per cent drop in income as a result of the cuts.

More broadly, IPPR’s analysis of the 2010 Spending Review shows that those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote. Of course some of these figures may have change slightly since we conducted the analysis in 2013 – but not enough to change the general pattern.

In other words, cuts fell disproportionately on the young and the less well-off, the groups that typically vote less, as well as on habitual non-voters.

Moreover, while we do not yet know the distributional consequences of this November’s Spending Review, given the fiscal strategy adopted by the chancellor and the implications suggested by a political inequality analytical lens, we can make a reasonable predication that a similar pattern will be repeated.

British democracy is consequently facing a structural, not cyclical challenge in the form of ingrained political inequality with significant and often regressive fiscal consequences. Addressing the generational fiscal divide will therefore also require reducing inequalities in political participation and voice.

In turn this will require bold measures: IPPR has recommended a mix of compulsory voting and proportional electoral reform to counteract political inequality and ensure everyone’s voice is heard in our democracy in future.

In the present climate these goals appear remote; as a shorter-term response, we should be using the significant wave of devolution to experiment with how our democracy works at a local and city-wide level, with a focus on reforms that could boost broad-based participation in political decision-making.

In his history of the Peloponnesian war, the historian Thucydides famously wrote that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. Unless bold and sustained action is taken, not just fiscally but in terms of a democratic reform agenda designed to tackle political inequality, future chroniclers of today’s intergenerational fiscal pinch will record that the old benefitted where they could and the young suffered what they must.

Mathew Lawrence is a Research Fellow at IPPR and author of Political Inequality: why British democracy must be reformed and revitalised He tweets @dantonshead

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