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Generational politics is nothing new, but the extent of the profound generational cleavage that has emerged in British electoral politics is. After the Brexit vote and the 2017 general election, generational politics has eroded, and partially replaced, the division that dominated twentieth century British politics: class.

Our two main parties now rely on age‐based coalitions of support – on the votes of the young in the case of Labour and the old in the case of the Conservatives. Both are severely constrained in their ability to spread their support to other age groups and, partly as a result, to form a government with a significant majority.

The risk is that this ‘generational lock’ on our politics blocks a much‐needed progressive governing shift for post‐Brexit Britain. This shift would address two crucial, but generationally charged, economic challenges.

First, the need to support young people’s living standards, because the expectation of each generation doing significantly better than their predecessors is not being met for younger cohorts today.

Second, delivering and paying for the health and care that a growing older population will need as the large baby boomer generation retires. Such a governing agenda will involve trade‐offs that a generationally polarised politics hinders at best, and blocks at worst.

Political divides

Initially, Labour’s success in exceeding (low) expectations in 2017 was explained by a so‐called ‘youthquake’. But this youth turnout‐focussed interpretation didn’t age well. Exit poll‐based estimates demonstrated not a sea change in turnout, but a general continuation of the post‐1992 pattern of higher voting likelihood among older groups. As a result, political parties continue to encourage prioritisation of older voters.

Make no mistake, the age‐related shifts that have been growing from the start of this century are staggering. However, they are not about turnout but about party choice. In 2017 a thirty‐year‐old was almost twice as likely to vote Labour as a seventy‐year‐old, with an opposing shift in Conservative support: a seventy‐year‐old was 2.2 times more likely to vote for the party than a thirty‐year‐old in 2017, compared to just 1.4 times as likely in October 1974.

Class does retain a major role in politics—just that it does not play the same role as it once did. For a useful comparison on the divides in party preference by class, see our full journal article.

Figure 1: Proportion of voters voting Conservative or Labour by age, October 1974 and 2017 general elections.
Source: RF Analysis of British Election Study.
Figure 2: Proportion of thirty‐ and seventy‐year‐old voters voting Labour at general elections since October 1974.
Source: RF analysis of British Election Study.
Figure 3: Proportion of thirty‐ and seventy‐year‐old voters voting Conservative at general elections since October 1974.
Source: RF analysis of British Election Study.

Economic challenges

Big divides in party preferences are far from new, but they can hinder desirable governing agendas – for example when a package of trade‐offs across the very groups supporting different parties is required.

Younger generations today are pessimistic about their prospects. Living standards are slowing or actively going into reverse. The biggest issue is the marked slowdown in home ownership. At the age of thirty, millennials are four times more likely to be renting privately than baby boomers were.

Millennials are also less likely to have access to generous defined benefit pension schemes that form a substantial proportion of wealth in older generations. After the financial crisis unemployment increases were more skewed towards younger people than in the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and young workers were hardest hit by the earnings squeeze that has characterised the decade since. Weak earnings have also undermined common myths that millennials are spending a fortune on avocado toast or city breaks: while young adults were spending the same as fifty‐five to sixty‐four‐year‐olds back in 2000, they are now spending 15 per cent less.

The pay experience of the young is one half of a profound twenty‐first century shift, with pensioner living standards overtaking those of the working‐age population (Figure 7). These welcome improvements for pensioners require us to change how we think about need today. While many (particularly older, female) pensioners remain poor, working‐age and working poverty have grown just as pensioner poverty has fallen.

Figure 7: Median UK household incomes after housing costs, working age and pensioner households, 2016–17 prices.
Source: ONS, Family Resources Survey.

A bad equilibrium

An example of a ‘generational lock’ is the higher voter turnout at older ages, discouraging parties from focussing on younger adults’ needs. But in future, generational locks may operate more broadly, with parties highly reliant on one age group for support finding it hard to ask that group to engage in necessary trade‐offs – after all, the point of winning is that you win. So, the best strategy for voters at the other end of the age spectrum is to wait for their team to return to power.

More recently, two clear examples of generational locks leading to bad outcomes stand out. First is the burden of welfare cuts since 2010. Reliant on older generations’ votes, the Conservatives majored on the protection or enhancement of pensioner benefits, meaning the focus of benefit cuts is on the thirty‐somethings who were worst affected by the financial crisis in their twenties (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Mean change in annual net family income from tax and benefit policy changes implemented during the current Parliament, by age: UK, 2022–23.
Notes: Income is measured before housing costs, and expressed in cash terms.
Source: RF analysis using the IPPR tax‐benefit model.

The second example is social care. All parties accept that the status quo is awful, and yet both have played a role in ensuring that no change takes place. George Osborne labelled Labour’s 2010 proposals for collective insurance drawing on the wealth in older people’s estates a ‘death tax’.

Similar criticisms were then thrown in the other direction by Labour following the 2017 Conservative manifesto proposal that better‐off individuals contribute more towards their care costs from their assets. This was a case of the Conservatives asking an age group it relies on for support to engage in generational trade‐offs (admittedly, with flaws), leaving the party open to criticism from an opposition able to ‘hit them where it hurts’. In both cases politicians were (rightly) not prepared to ask younger voters to pay to resolve the situation. So, the social care crisis has dragged on.

Feeling little threat to their youth support from the Conservatives, Labour may feel worryingly comfortable in this position. On housing, the party went into the 2017 election with a more conservative council tax policy than in 2015, while London mayor Sadiq Khan has explicitly ruled out action on green belt constraints.

Today’s challenge is to give older generations the health and care they need, deserve and expect in a generationally fair way. That is easier said than done technically, and significantly harder politically. The usual approaches of higher borrowing or taxes on working age income would bear down on the same younger generations at the sharp end of recent living standards pressures.

If generational economic challenges continue to be sidestepped, the least well‐off older people suffer most in our broken social care system, and those in younger generations without parental assets face the bleakest housing prospects. The irony might be that a partial shift in political divides from class to age puts locks on policy that mean that class‐based challenges are deepened, as well as generational ones enduring.

Better outcomes

These challenges are not going away, but on the other hand, politics is more unstable than it seemed even a few years ago. Sometimes it feels as though our parties are just hoping something will turn up to break the deadlock. But providing a proactive response to these challenges – with honesty about the give‐and‐take required – may be how a post‐crisis, post‐Brexit political offer with a broader appeal emerges. Our full journal article has more on this.

A proactive response will entail good leadership as well as good luck. That does seem a lot to ask, but then again, big change always does.

This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.

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