As time goes by

Kingsley Purdam and Harry Taylor assess what’s behind the voting patterns of older people

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A range of factors are thought to be linked to the likelihood of voting in an election. Some are about individuals, such as their age, qualifications, household type, social class and social networks. Other factors are external including the closeness of the election, the weather and, in the past, even what is on TV.

On demand TV has probably lessened the impact of TV schedules, but back in 1964 the prime minister Harold Wilson reportedly asked the BBC to delay a screening of an episode of the popular comedy Steptoe and Son, thinking it would deter Labour voters from going to the polls.

In recent years debates have centred on age being a key factor. Older people are much more likely to vote than younger people. Even in the 2017 general election, when it was thought there had been an increase in young people voting, it is estimated that 87 per cent of people aged 65 years and older voted, compared with 61 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24.

The age differences in turnout have led to concerns about an inter-generational divide. The older generations, including the so-called Baby Boomers, are said to have benefited from social and economic change, including the welfare state but failed to tackle the long-term problems faced by future generations.

In the European Union referendum, evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey suggests that 63 per cent of people aged over 65 years voted to Leave, compared with 28 per cent of 18-24 year olds. However other factors were also identified as being important, including qualification levels, social class and attitudes towards immigration.

Manchester University research using survey data and in-depth interviews is exploring these issues. The children and grandchildren of the first generation of women to vote are still driven to vote by their parents and grandparents’ historical struggles to win that right. For many older people aged 70 years and older the habit of voting was learnt in the generation when there was a strong sense of having a duty to vote. As one 75-year-old woman we interviewed recalled from when she had first voted: “I had it drummed into me at an early age that you vote. I went with my mum, dad and gran.”

The issues facing older people today and the policy challenges given an ageing population are considerable and include: health and social care, poverty, housing and pensions. Even though many older people have been less affected by the recent recession than younger age groups, in part because of the triple lock protection for pensions, 1.6 million pensioners live below the poverty line of 60 per cent of median income. There are stark inequalities in life expectancy and years of healthy living. In some areas life expectancy has started to decline. Older people also experiencing high levels of social detachment and loneliness, and research has highlighted how 1.4 million people aged 65 and older have unmet social care needs.

Older people are frustrated at the lack of interest in voting amongst young people. As one 82-year-old woman we interviewed commented: “It was a big thing when I voted for the first time in the 1950s. I told my grandchildren off for not voting last time. They just say: ‘We’ll go if we get time.’”

It is also important to consider whom older people are voting for. Older people are voting in part on behalf of the younger generations. Along with younger people many older people are concerned about education, crime, climate change and homelessness. Older people themselves want young people to be more politically engaged.

In late old age the voting rates of older people start to decline as health problems increase and older people become more disconnected as social networks become harder to maintain. It is notable that the latest data reveals only 50 per cent of people aged 75 years and older use the internet. Although evidence from the Electoral Reform Society suggests there has been an increase in young people registering to vote this has been linked to social media campaigns by high profile figures such as Stormzy.

Elections, as they have always been, are about who gets what, when and how. At the last local elections turnout was lowest in areas where socio-economic deprivation was high. Yet such areas are often in the most need of political policy interventions and democratic accountability.

What it means to be old is constantly changing and younger and older generations alike can experience long-term poverty and a lack of opportunities. People of all ages on low incomes and those living in areas of socio-economic deprivation are less likely to vote. Both Steptoe and his son lived in poverty. The upcoming election is again about the haves and the have-nots.

Kingsley Purdam and Harry Taylor are academics at the School of Social Sciences, Manchester University

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