The Political Impact of the UK’s Ageing Population
Author: James Breckwoldt
The UK has an ageing population. The Office for National Statistics (2018) projects that in 50 years’ time, there are likely to be an additional 8.6 million people aged 65 years and over, which will make up 26% of the population – up from 18% in 2016. This will mean a changed electorate with a greater percentage of older voters and a decrease in younger voters. How this might manifest itself in electoral politics, and what the potential effects of the current wealth inequality between generations are, is the focus of this blog.
In general elections, the UK has gone from a situation in 2010 where 18-24 year olds voted 31-30 Labour-Conservative and 65 and over voted 44-31 Conservative-Labour (Ipsos MORI 2010) to the 2019 General Election where 18-24 year olds voted 56-21 Labour-Conservative, but those aged 70 and above voting 67-14 Conservative-Labour (McDonnell and Curtis 2019). 2017 saw similar age divides and the increased youth support for Labour was described as a ‘Youthquake’ (Sloam, Ehsan, and Henn 2018) – although the extent of how much turnout increased was disputed (Prosser et al. 2020). This evidence led Loughran et al. (2021) to conclude that ‘age has become the primary demographic explaining voter choice within the British electorate.’
This rising level of electoral polarisation between age groups has been picked up by the British media, headlines have included:
- Boomers vs millennials: the defining schism in UK politics (Eaton 2018)
- Class war may largely be behind us but the generation wars are just beginning (Littlewood 2021)
- Respect your elders? Why the generation wars feel worse than ever (Aron 2021)
- Baby boomers are the winners who have taken it all – now it’s time they gave some back (Hutton 2021)
The UK’s ageing population may be having the effect of creating ‘gerontocracies’ where older voters are able to realise their own material interests through the ballot box at the expense of the young’s interests, due to their larger percentage of the electorate (Mulligan and Sala-i-Martin 1999).
In the UK, the differences in preferences between young and old are shaping the coalitions of support for Labour and the Conservatives Nevertheless, this is a ‘bad generational equilibrium’ (p. 140), because different generational blocs’ hold on the two main parties limits their flexibility in creating policies to remedy generational social and economic imbalances (Bell and Gardiner 2019). Given that younger people tend to live in a concentrated number of constituencies, whilst older voters tend to be more dispersed throughout the country (Commons Library 2021), the UK’s majoritarian system could further give older voters disproportional power in upcoming elections.
In the 2010s, a number of books were released exploring whether younger generations have been economically disadvantaged by older generations. The titles of these books give a sense of which side of argument they come down on: Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted Its Youth (Howker and Malik 2013); The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future (Sternberg 2019); The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give it Back (Willetts 2019); OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind (Filipovic 2020). These views are not universal, and a number of works have disputed this Manichean view of differences between generations, whether because it distracts from the wider economic system which is to blame (Bristow 2019) or because differences in political preferences between age groups have been ever present since WWII (Duffy 2021).
One of the most prominent sources of economic division between young and old in the UK has been unequal homeownership rates. In the 21st century, the price of British housing has far outpaced rises in wages (Knoll, Schularick, and Steger 2017). Homeownership rates for cohorts that entered adulthood during this time have been far lower than earlier birth cohorts at the same ages (Cribb and Simpson 2018). Previous literature shows that homeownership is associated with voting for right-wing parties (Verberg 2000; Ansell and Cansunar 2021) and holding right-wing economic beliefs (Kemeny 1981; Ansell 2014)
Therefore, these differences in wealth may be driving political polarisation between age groups, where the non-homeowning young vote for parties that have policies to increase their chance of owning, and older homeowning voters vote for parties that will protect their wealth.
Whilst young and old currently have different financial positions, there is likely to be an upcoming ‘inheritance boom’ (Resolution Foundation 2017) in which today’s younger generation will receive the housing and investment wealth of their deceased parents. Around £5.5 trillion of wealth could be passed down between 2020 and 2050 (Kings Court Trust 2022). Given this, younger people who are currently railing against the economic system may soon – completely coincidently – change their mind about the utility of taxing wealth and begin to hold economic preferences suspiciously similar to the ‘Boomers’ that ‘stole’ their economic future.
Rather than manifesting itself in an age/generation divide, the ‘inheritance boom’ may lead to a renewed class and racial cleavage in politics, given the systemic differences in the ‘Millennials’ who stand to inherit wealth, and those that are not (Nolan et al. 2020). In the US, Levitz (2021) suggests that these inequalities could trigger a ‘Millennial Civil War’ in politics:
The millennial rich and upper-middle class will be the wealthiest America has ever known. Working-class millennials, meanwhile, are poised to enjoy less economic security than their parents, as their wages fail to keep pace with the rising costs of housing and health care.
Therefore, the current intergenerational political and economic conflicts could change into an intragenerational once these inheritances are received.
None of the potential effects of an ageing population are inevitable. Whilst demography – who are the largest groups in society – clearly has a large impact on electoral outcomes, it is not destiny. The political and economic divides outlined in this blog will be contested in the democratic process, which will determine outcomes. If people want to change the current intergenerational or future intragenerational wealth differences, then voters can do this at the ballot box. If they don’t, wealth and political divides will continue, just in a different form in the future from the age divides we see today.
Ansell, Ben. 2014. “The Political Economy of Ownership: Housing Markets and the Welfare State.” American Political Science Review 108 (2): 383–402.
Ansell, Ben, and Asli Cansunar. 2021. “The Political Consequences of Housing (Un) Affordability.” Journal of European Social Policy 31 (5): 597–613.
Aron, Isabelle. 2021. “Respect Your Elders? Why the Generation Wars Feel Worse Than Ever.” Independent, March. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/millennial-gen-z-generation-war-b1823071.html.
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Nolan, Brian, Juan Palomino, Philippe van Kerm, and Salvatore Morelli. 2020. “The Wealth of Families: The Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth in Britain in Comparative Perspective.” Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School.
Prosser, Christopher, Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green, Jonathan Mellon, and Geoffrey Evans. 2020. “Tremors but No Youthquake: Measuring Changes in the Age and Turnout Gradients at the 2015 and 2017 British General Elections.” Electoral Studies 64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2020.102129.
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Sternberg, Joseph C. 2019. The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future. PublicAffairs.
Verberg, Norine. 2000. “Homeownership and Politics: Testing the Political Incorporation Thesis.” Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie, 169–95.
Willetts, David. 2019. The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give It Back. Atlantic Books Ltd.
James Breckwoldt is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, supported by the North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (NWSSDTP). He holds a MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in History & Politics from the University of Warwick. His research interest covers new voting cleavages, particularly age divides, homeownership and ‘culture wars’.
LinkedIn: James Breckwoldt
Author: Matthias Zomer
Permission: open source, free to use