The June 8 poll in the UK has been called “the intergenerational election”. This is because young people came out in record numbers to vote. What’s more, the majority of them voted for the geezer on the ballot.
Oldest UK leader wins youth vote
The latest British election set a new trend towards political cooperation between young and old. British youth overwhelmingly threw their support to the oldest leader of a UK party to lead a general election bid in nearly 35 years.
In 1983 it was Labour leader Michael Foot vs. Margaret Thatcher. This year it was Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn vs. another slightly younger female Tory: Prime Minister Theresa May. (At 68, Corbyn is eight years older than her.) He and his party performed much better than expected, eroding her party’s parliamentary majority.
A British post-election survey showed that two-thirds of 18-24-year-olds voted for the Labour Party, as did more than half of 25-34-year-olds. That is in sharp contrast to the referendum a year ago on whether or not the UK should leave the European Union. The slim majority for Brexit has been seen as a consequence of low voter turnout among young people.
Youth voter apathy exaggerated
It later emerged in an analysis of the election data by the London School of Economics that reports of young people not bothering to vote had been greatly exaggerated. Voter turnout among 18-24 year-olds last year was found to be 64% – nearly twice the level that had been reported.
“A revival is under way in political participation among young people, which could help to reverse the growing gap in turnout between young and old that has opened up over the previous few decades.”
– Intergenerational Foundation, UK
Corbyn compared to Bernie Sanders
There is another notable case of an older politician who has galvanised support from the youth. US Democratic Party contender Bernie Sanders, aged 77, won more votes from young people in the 2016 presidential primaries and general election than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. The other candidates’ slightly younger ages did not seem to be an issue.
Sanders and Corbyn’s popularity among younger voters is in large part due to their youth-friendly policies. Both these older men have proposed abolishing university fees. Bernie and Jeremy also embraced social media and won endorsements from celebrities popular with young people.
Sanders commends UK youth turnout
Sanders has gone on record to commend the upsurge in voter turnout among UK youth, and the way Corbyn’s Labour Party handled the recent election. He believes that the Labour Party’s campaign offers some lessons for the Democratic Party.
“There is widespread agreement that momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers. The Democrats must develop an agenda that speaks to the pain of tens of millions of families who are working longer hours for lower wages, and to the young people who, unless we turn the economy around, will have a lower standard of living than their parents.”
Sanders also commented on the increased enthusiasm among youth for voting – for candidates of any age. Noting that America has the lowest voter turnout of any major country, he predicted that the Democrats will not win next year’s midterm elections if voter turnout is as low as it was in the 2014 elections: less than 37% of eligible voters.
Concerns over youth apathy eased
Europe has long been concerned about low voter turnout among youth. In 2011 the EU described it as “worrying for the future of democracy” and investigated lowering the voting age. The idea of granting the franchise to teenagers has particular resonance in this month commemorating South Africa’s June 16th student uprisings. It was teenagers who led the protests against inferior black education, rekindling the anti-apartheid struggle when Mandela and the older generation of leaders were jailed and silenced.
The new generation of South African activists that emerged in the 1970s and 80s fought and even died for the right to vote. Yet today many young South Africans are sceptical about the value of voting.
This kind of cynicism about politics is common among youth all over the world. This is despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that young people are better informed than ever before.
“Our current generation of teenagers, owing to the proliferation of high-speed interactive media, is the most politically aware and educated ever.”
– EU study on youthful apathy
It will be interesting to watch these aware, educated and connected teens as they become adults and start to engage politically, all over the world. The challenges they will face in their lives are daunting: climate change, income inequality and worse economic prospects than their parents. And another problem on their list is… an ageing population.