Hard Evidence: are Gen Y really Thatcher’s children?

Party politics? No, thanks. Manny Valdes, CC BY

Generation Y, the youngest adult generation, have recently been called Dave’s No 1 Fans, Thatcher’s Children, The Boris Generation or just plain Generation Right.

Much of this discussion draws on an analysis we made at Ipsos MORI. There is some truth in the conclusions, but it paints a picture of party political allegiance that is not quite right – and more importantly, risks missing the much bigger issue of a frightening generational shift away from any sort of party political engagement.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest an outlook among the young that could be described as more right-wing. They are less in favour of more redistribution through welfare. They feel very little connection to big government institutions like the welfare state. This reflects a greater sense of personal responsibility and individualism than we’ve typically seen in other generations at a similar age. They are also focused on the importance of personal contribution in a way that you may not expect from a generation which is starting out in particularly tough economic conditions.

As noted in much of the commentary, this is combined with more liberal attitudes on a wide range of social issues, including gender roles, homosexuality, immigration and diversity.

So economically and institutionally right-wing, but socially liberal – a generation for austere but open times?

Leaving aside the obvious issues with generalising about a whole generation, this does seem to fit the data. It’s true that it’s not a particularly new insight about the young – there were, for example, very similar observations in 1960s America.

But it’s in trying to relate this to support for the Conservative Party where this characterisation of Generation Y in the UK breaks down.

Party poopers

First, there is the simple fact that Generation Y are still vastly more likely to say they will vote Labour than Conservative – as shown in the chart below, which includes new analysis from our 2014 surveys. Generation Y are also more likely to say they will vote Labour than any of the older cohorts – which would be difficult to guess from some of the commentary on their political views.

It is true that the proportion saying they would vote Conservative has increased markedly from the mid-2000s – but this group still only makes up 18% of the Generation Y population.

Instead, it’s disengagement with party politics as a whole that’s the bigger story here.

We’ve seen in previous work that barely 20% of Generation Y say they identify with a particular party, compared with 70% among the pre-1945 generation. This is the biggest gap between old and young of any European country we’ve looked at.

And our new analysis of the Audit of Political Engagement shows how this translates directly to certainty to vote, in the chart below. Barely 20% of Generation Y say they would be certain to vote in an immediate election, compared with 70% of the pre-1945 generation.

And the lines are very flat: there is little sign over this ten-year span of generations growing into greater electoral engagement.

Given the stability of the generational trends we’ve identified, it is possible to predict future engagement with reasonable certainty. Generations seem stuck with a level of party political attachment – elections cause blips, but there is little sign of systematic increases in engagement among younger groups as they grow older.

Individualistic, not selfish or lazy

Using relatively simple statistical models (the Holt-Winters method) we can roll the pattern forward, as in the chart below; as older groups die off and the population is replaced with younger groups, there will be a relentless fall in attachment to parties. In ten years’ time, by 2024, only 24% of the whole population will feel attached to one particular party, compared with around 50% in the early 1990s.

As we and others have outlined, this does not mean that the youngest generations are uncaring or inactive on the political issues they think are important – far from it. It is more that buying into one particular all-encompassing party manifesto is much less appealing or relevant for a generation that is used to a highly filtered, responsive and individually targeted world.

This leaves the most important question of what to do – and there seem to be few (if any) convincing answers. The more concrete actions focus on getting younger cohorts to fit into the political system, through encouraging voter registration and turnout. But it gets much trickier to think of practical ways the system can fit with these coming generations. The need for new ideas is only going to grow – and the worst thing we can do is to reduce the debate to party political terms that are part of the problem, not the solution.