The UK is increasingly becoming an ageing population. People are living longer, and birth rates are falling. This has led to a demographic imbalance. The result is that effective political power is almost solely concentrated in the hands of older age groups.


More skewed than it seems

According to data from 2019, there are roughly 25.22 million adults aged 50 and over, and only 21.48 million aged between 18-50. This numerical imbalance however doesn’t paint the whole picture.

On average only 89.33 per cent of those aged 18-44 are eligible to vote in the UK, compared to 96.97 per cent amongst those aged 45 and over. Using the figures from earlier, that means roughly only 19.19 million people between 18-50, and 24.67 million over 50 are eligible to vote.

Voter turnout

It is no secret that youth voter turnout has been steadily declining for the last few decades.

This means that despite having only 39.9 per cent of all eligible voters, the over 55s made up 48.45 per cent of all voters in the 2017 General Election.

If both turnout, and the proportion of those ineligible to vote remained constant, over 55s will have constituted over half of the voting public in 2020 as a result of projected demographic change.

Why aren’t the young voting?

Apathy is often mentioned, but only as a passing remark which is usually meant to signify something like ‘laziness’.

The apathy however stems from a well-founded sense of powerlessness. To understand this, we need to look at the current economic climate.

Money is power. The young have neither

In the paper, ‘My Generation, Baby: The Politics of Age in Brexit Britain’, the point is made that ‘young people are experiencing capitalism without much capital’.

Since the 2008 financial crash, for the first time in recorded history, the median UK household income (after housing costs), has been higher for pensioners than for those of working age.

There are complex reasons for this but, as the report says ‘older wealth insiders [are] benefitting from policy shifts when they happen, but also benefiting from the status quo’.

For example, there has been no growth in wealth taxation since the 1980s, and a post-crash austerity regime protected the wealth of the elderly whilst squeezing incomes for the young in the decade since.

How did we get here?

Economic policies, such as the ones mentioned above, help to explain some of the vast generational wealth disparity we’re seeing. It is our economic system more generally however that is the real driver.

In post-war Britain, inequality greatly decreased and remained pretty constant for a few decades. Subsequently, the ability and opportunity to accumulate wealth was a lot more equal than it is now.

From the 1980s onwards, with the advent of neoliberalism, Levels of inequality saw a distinct and rapid increase. This has remained at a relatively high rate ever since. As a result, it has become harder for those without capital to gain more, and far easier for those with it to grow and maintain their wealth.

Self-fulfilling wealth and apathy

I saw an astonishing fact that partly influenced this article in the first place:

‘The average 33-year-old will have experienced 5 major UK-wide polls in their adult life. If they voted like the majority of their age group, they will have lost every single one.

The average 66-year-old has witnessed 13 such polls. They have won *every single one*.

— James McAsh (@mcash) January 20, 2021

Not wanting to believe whatever I read on the Internet, I did some research looking at data from Ipsos MORI. This tweet isn’t fake news. The evidence shows that the situation of younger generations right now is rather unique. 

It is no coincidence that those aged 66 — the age cohort that have seen their political will granted in every election they’ve been able to vote in — are also part of the wealthiest age group in the UK.

More wealth grants the older generation more resources. Resources enable them to shape the society and politics of the world around them, which in turn means being able to protect or increase their wealth.

It is this seemingly never-ending cycle that has left the young so disillusioned and disengaged with politics. Unfortunately, this ‘apathy’ only adds to the problem.

Closing thoughts

This article is not intended to incite an ‘age war’, and we must not ignore the disturbing number of elderly people still living in poverty. The issue is economic; the fact that it largely follows generational lines isn’t as significant.

We shouldn’t see this issue as a zero-sum game. Better economic conditions for the young shouldn’t mean depriving the elderly of strong and secure pensions, or well-funded social services — especially when the former usually ensures the latter.

Generational power and wealth disparity can only increase so much before society and the economy implodes on itself. Culture wars between generations, stoked by the media, also shouldn’t be viewed as separate to this economic issue — often, these divisions are used as ways to double-down on the current imbalance of power distribution.

Lastly, blaming the young for their apathy is to only see the symptoms and not the cause.