Written evidence submitted Dr. Kaat Smets, Lecturer in Politics,

Royal Holloway, University of London (VUK 21)


Executive summary




  1. Introduction


Turnout in UK General Elections has decreased rapidly since the early 1990s. Research suggests that while turnout levels of both younger and older voters go down, turnout levels among young cohorts are declining at an increased rate. The result of this trend is a widening generational divide in UK turnout. To put it differently, not only do 4 in 10 under 24-year-olds not register to vote, many of those that do register eventually do not make it to the polling booth on Election Day. It, therefore, has to be concluded that young citizens are ill represented in UK General Elections and that they lack a voice in the electoral arena. Young voters grow into older voters. Unless turnout losses are made up as young people age, recently witnessed low turnout levels among young adults predict lower general turnout levels in the future. In order to reverse the trend of low and declining turnout, the political engagement of UK young adults should therefore receive special attention.

The observation that young people vote less than older citizens is not new. According to the political life-cycle argument young adults vote less than older citizens because they are faced with ‘startup’ problems: pre-occupations outside the political sphere that lead to low attachment to civic life. In terms of the life-cycle theory, declining turnout patterns among young adults suggest that today’s young people face more or extended start-up problems than previous generations. Indeed, delayed transitions to adulthood are witnessed in almost all advanced industrial democracies. This trend, in combination with the current economic crisis, which puts today’s young Europeans in an exceptionally precarious situation, does not bode well for future levels of political participation.

This document aims to set out the link between declining youth turnout and delayed transitions to adulthood. In the next section the role of young adults in declining general turnout levels is described. The evidence shows the UK gap in voter turnout between younger and older citizens is unprecedented. Never has the age gap in voter turnout in the UK been larger than it was in the past four elections. In comparison to other European democracies, the UK moreover seems be suffering from an a-typical disengagement of young citizens from traditional forms of political participation. The third section sets out the link between delayed transitions to adulthood and young adult voter turnout. It shows how current cohorts of young adults have experienced fewer life-cycle events that mark the transition to adulthood than cohorts of young adults in the past. This delayed transition affects young adult voter turnout negatively. In the final sections section ways to re-engage young adults are discussed.



  1. The role of young adults in declining turnout levels


Official turnout levels in UK General Elections have started to decline since the early 1990s, with an all-time low of 59.4% recorded in 2001. While turnout has increased in the 2005 and 2010 elections, it was still well below the pre-1997 level. Figure 1 plots the turnout levels of young adults (aged 35 years or less) and older voters (aged 35 years and over) for all elections from 1964 onwards. While turnout has certainly declined among the older age group, turnout levels of young adults have dropped much more rapidly. As a result the age gap (i.e. the difference) in voter turnout between younger and older voters has widened. It is, moreover, evident that young adults’ turnout levels contribute disproportionally to the lower overall turnout levels in recent UK elections.

                                                                                                  Source: British Election Studies 1964-2010


Figure 1: Official turnout, young adult turnout and older citizens’ turnout, 1964-2010

The trend toward declining youth participation levels has been particularly well documented in Canada (Gidengil et al., 2003; Pammett and LeDuc, 2003; Johnston et al., 2007), the United States (Levine and Lopez, 2002; Lopez et al., 2005) and Great Britain (Phelps, 2004, 2006). In an over-time study of the age gap in voter turnout in 10 Western democracies Smets (2010, 2012) shows that the trend towards a widening generational divide is, however, not observed in all Western democracies. Figure 2 shows the age gap in voter turnout from the early 1960s onwards for two extreme cases (the UK and Italy) and a middle-of-the-road case (the Netherlands). The age gap is defined as the as the turnout difference between younger (aged ≤ 35 years) and older voters (aged >35 years). The more positive the score the wider the gap in turnout between younger and older voters.



Sources: British Election Studies (BES), Italian National Election

            Studies (ITANES), Dutch Election Studies (NKO)


Figure 2: The age gap in voter turnout between young adults and older citizens in Great Britain, Italy and The Netherlands



Figure 2 shows that after a relatively stable period in which the turnout difference between younger and older citizens was around 10-15 percentage points, the UK age gap started to increase in the 1990s. It reached its highest point in the 2005 elections with young adults on average being 35 percentage points less likely to cast a vote than citizens aged 36 years or over. The trend toward a widening generational divide seems to have been somewhat reversed in the 2010 elections, but it remains to be seen what happens in the General Election of 2015.

Italy, on the other extreme, shows hardly any evidence of an age gap. The difference in turnout levels of young and old has consistently fluctuated around the 0% level. In some years the age gap is even negative, indicating that – contrary to conventional wisdom – young adults were more likely to turn out to vote than older citizens. In the Netherlands, lastly, the difference in turnout has fluctuated between 5 and 15 percentage points most of the time. The over-time trend in the age gap is, however, stable within that 10 percentage point range.

Summarizing, the recent widening of the age gap in voter turnout in the UK – caused by falling turnout levels among younger voters – is singular not only from a cross-time perspective, but also from a cross-country perspective when compared to trends in other European democracies. The magnitude of the age gap has historically always been larger in the UK, but in the past 20-25 years the difference with other European countries has only increased.



  1. Delayed transitions to adulthood and young adult voter turnout


The previous section has demonstrated that the turnout patterns of today’s young adults are distinct from the turnout patterns of their parents and grandparents when they were young adults. This poses the question of what makes young adults today different from young adults in the past. One way in which today’s young adults differ decisively from previous cohorts of young adults seems to have been systematically overlooked in the empirical literature. Young citizens nowadays grow into their adult roles at a different pace than their parents or grandparents did when they were young. To understand how such later maturation is linked to young adult turnout decline we need to consider the life-cycle approach of political participation.

According to the life-cycle argument of political behaviour, young people participate less in politics given their low attachment to civic life: a characteristic that is fuelled by young people still going through education, being occupied with finding a partner, establishing a career, having higher mobility, dealing with the psychological transformation into adulthood, etc. These characteristics lead young people to be politically inexperienced and to have little political interest, little knowledge and fewer skills (i.e. to have few political resources). This, in turn, makes political participation both more difficult and less meaningful in this first stage of the life-cycle.

In middle life, participation rates are thought to stabilise at a higher level as people experience life-cycle events that mark the transition to adulthood. Such events include leaving the parental home, buying a house, starting a full-time job, cohabiting or getting married, starting a family, settling down in a community, etc. Even though many of these processes demand time, they are associated with activities (involvement in organizations, associations, the community, etc.) that tend to enhance political participation due to increased motivation, mobilisation, skills, and pressure. All in all, the middle-aged seem to have the best cards to understand politics and their part in it, which is most likely the reason why this stage of the political life-cycle is often used as a base against which to compare the political participation levels of younger and older citizens.

Based on findings in the sociological and demographic literature as well as circumstantial evidence, it seems plausible to reason that the political life-cycle of young people of today is not similar to the life-cycle of their parents or grandparents when they were young. Higher educational levels have resulted in young adults staying in school longer, having extended co-habitation with – as well as longer financial dependence on – their parents, and postponed full entry onto the labour market. Moreover, the average age of marriage has gone up and childbearing is increasingly postponed. Seemingly facing more and/or extended start-up problems than young people of previous generations, political participation patterns of today’s young adults seem to have been negatively affected.

Figure 3 demonstrates that in the UK too the percentage of young adults (aged <35 years) that has experienced life-cycle events that mark the transition to adulthood has declined. The lines in the figure track the average scores on six life-cycle indicators (having left education, marriage or cohabitation, having children, home ownership, residential stability and having a job) for young adults of different generations: the pre-war generation (born before 1944), the baby boomers (1945–1959), the 1960s generation (1960–1969), the 1970s generation (1970–1979) and the post-1970s generation (born in 1980 or later).

The graph shows that the percentage of young adults who have left education, are married and have children has declined steadily and drastically between the pre-war generation and the post-seventies generation. The post-war generation on average went through most life-cycle events by the age of 35. Young adults of the post-seventies generation, however, score lower than any other generation on all six life-cycle events that mark the transition to adulthood.



Source: British Election Studies 1964-2010


Figure 3: Average scores of young adults of different generations having experienced life-events that mark the transition to adulthood.



The findings presented in Figure 3 beg the question of what would have happened to young adult voter turnout had maturation levels remained stable through time. Figure 4 shows the reported and predicted turnout levels by generation had maturation levels remained constant at the pre-war level. While pre-war levels of maturation would not have led to higher levels of turnout for the baby boom generation, the difference is clear for the subsequent generations of young adults: a difference of +6% for the sixties generation, a difference of +5% for the seventies generation, and a difference of +14% for the post-seventies generation (for more details see Smets 2014).

While certainly not the only factor behind the rapid decline in voter turnout among young adults, delayed transitions to adulthood do certainly seem to be a piece in the puzzle explaining why young people stay at home on Election Day. In the next section ways to re-engage young citizens are discussed.


Source: British Election Studies 1964-2010


Figure 4: Reported young adult turnout and predicted turnout based on pre-war maturation




  1. Conclusion and recommendations


If one accepts that delayed transitions to adulthood partially explain declining turnout levels among young voters, then it will be clear that the current economic climate does not bode well for the future. Young Europeans were and remain among the first to be hit by the economic crisis and find themselves in exceptionally precarious situations as a result. Cuts to educational grants, the increase in tuition fees, rising youth unemployment, an increase in unpaid internships and apprenticeships, and rising house prices have made it harder for young people to get qualifications, get a job and buy a house. This has left young people in a disadvantaged position relative to older generations and earlier generations of young adults. While it is difficult for governments to influence the pace of maturation in broad terms, assisting young citizens to become stable and independent earlier in life would have a positive impact on young adults’ turnout levels. Tackling youth unemployment, assistance for first-time homebuyers, and sufficient childcare facilities, are examples of measures that would facilitate the transition to adulthood for young citizens and increase their levels of political engagement.

However, there are other ways in which young people can be re-engaged. Recent research suggests that civic education enhances future levels of political engagement even after finishing high school (see Niemi et al. forthcoming). Formal civic education classes and the inclusion of group projects in the curriculum seem particularly useful in fostering political interest, political discussion and a habit of following the political news.

While younger people are sceptical about political institutions, politicians and political parties, research suggests that this age group is nonetheless committed to the democratic process and certainly not as apathetic and disinterested as often thought to be. Young people, however, seem increasingly interested in issues that may fall outside the political sphere per se, such as moral, life-style, environmental and international issues. It seems that young people are not so much apathetic from and disinterested in politics in general, but more that they are sceptical toward, disengaged and alienated from electoral politics.

In this respect, the simultaneous decline in birth rates and increasing proportion of older cohorts in many Western European democracies is leading to a larger political weight of elderly. Their large numbers make older people more visible to political actors and institutions, which, in turn, puts an emphasis on the issues that older cohorts find important. Young people and the issues they are interested in appear to be increasingly overlooked as a consequence of this trend and qualitative research seems to confirm the consequences of this change in the demographical composition of the electorate. Young people characterise the contemporary political style as slow, formal, distant, and uninspiring. If we want to re-engage young citizens politicians and/or officials should reach out to them more. We know that such contact activities, in quantitative terms, are particularly low amongst younger citizens. Policy-makers should see such a lack of contact between young people and politicians as both a cause for concern and an opportunity.


21 February 2014





Gidengil, E., N. Nevitte, A. Blais, and R. Nadeau (2003). Turned off or turned out? Youth participation in politics. Electoral Insight 5(2), 9–14.


Johnston, R., J. S. Matthews, and A. Bittner (2007). Turnout and the party system in Canada, 1988-2004. Electoral Studies 26(4), 735–745.


Levine, P. and M. H. Lopez (2002). Youth voter turnout has declined, by any measure. College

Park, MD: The Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE).


Lopez, M. H., E. Kirby, and J. Sago H. (2005). The youth vote 2004. College Park, MD: The Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE).


Niemi, R. G., A.Neundorf and K. Smets (forthcoming). ’The Compensation Effect of Civic Education: How School Makes Up for Missing Parental Socialisation’ in M. Hooghe and E. Quintelier (eds.) From Adolescents to Full Citizens. A Longitudinal Approach to Political Socialisation (London: Routledge).


Pammett, J. H. and L. LeDuc (2003). Confronting the problem of declining voter turnout among youth. Electoral Insight 5(2), 3–8.


Smets, K. (2010) A Widening Generational Divide? Assessing the Age Gap in Voter Turnout Between Younger and Older Citizens. PhD thesis (Florence: European University Institute).


Smets, K. (2012), ‘A Widening Generational Divide? The Age Gap in Voter Turnout Through Time and Space’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties, 22(4), pp. 407-430.


Smets, K. (2014), ‘Revisiting the Political Life-Cycle Model: Later Maturation and Turnout Decline Among Young Adults’, Unpublished manuscript.


About the author


Dr. Kaat Smets is Lecturer in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her main research interests include political behaviour, generational differences, the development of political attitudes and behaviours over the life span and the role of deliberation in attitude change. Her work appears in international peer-reviewed academic journals such as European Journal of Political Research, Electoral Studies, Acta Politica, Parliamentary Affairs, and the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties.