The great divide: why are young people less likely to vote?

Several polls suggest that youth turnout surged in June 2017, but why are young people typically less likely to vote?

As final voting data is not published with the inclusion of demographics, there is never 100% certainty over which groups of people turned out to vote at what rates. This is a significant problem for political scientists as survey data can only go so far, however, data consistently notes that young people are proportionally less likely to vote compared to older voters in elections in Britain over time and across much of the wider world.

Even at the 2017 election, during which young people allegedly voted more than they had done in years, there was still a clear age effect. YouGov data suggested that 59% of 20-24-year-olds voted compared to 64% of 25-29-year-olds and 84% of those aged 70 and over. Ipsos-MORI found similar figures.

The question is therefore why?

There are a number of theories in the literature that look at the issue, but the following two complementary theories are the most extensively researched.

The first is the life-cycle theory, which suggests that as young people first enter the electorate they encounter “start-up” problems. On one hand, they are preoccupied with other issues such as settling down, going through training or higher education and thus have other things on their minds, putting them off voting.

On the other, they face the cost of registering to vote and the costs of understanding the political system. Following this, as voters age, voting becomes easier and their commitment to the system through using public services and settling down increases their perceived interest in voting. Lastly, the theory posits that late in life, turnout will decline as individuals withdraw from society and suffer health issues, which makes it more difficult to get to the polling station.

The second theory, which is often linked to happen alongside life-cycle effects, is the idea of differing political generations within an electorate. It goes like this: based of Mannheim’s generations thesis, people in a country at roughly the same period will be affected by the same big political events and will therefore have different propensities to vote. For example, Fox's (2015) thesis found evidence that British Millennials are distinctly unlikely to take part in political activities when life-cycle and generation effects are controlled for. 

For these two theories, there is sufficient empirical evidence for their effects in the political science literature, thus helping explain why young people are less likely to vote than older individuals.