When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, 70 percent of voters under the age of 24 backed Remain, compared to 40 percent of those aged 65 and above. Three years later, according to a BBC survey, the imbalance between the young and old continues. If there was another referendum tomorrow, though very unlikely, data suggests that there would be more young than old people to vote Remain.
Is it fair to address eligible voters of all ages on an issue that paves the way for the next decades? Or is this a flaw of democracy? That’s at least what some asked after the 2016 vote, with Brexit potentially affecting the British economy not only in the short but in the long run. With the upcoming European Parliament elections, the question whether everyone should have the same vote is on the table again.
“I don’t see any way of disqualifying old people from having the influence they have,” says Nobel Laureate Robert Solow. “If they’re smart and if they have children on their own, they may learn to pay attention to what the needs of other people are, but that’s not an easy thing to fix in a democratic society.”
I don’t see any way of disqualifying old people from having the influence they have.
“The point about democracy is one person, one vote, that’s the way it is. If it’s a disadvantage, it’s one of the flaws of democracy,” Solow continues. Fellow laureate Oliver Hart is not so sure. “The future is with the young,” says Hart. “It’s one person, one vote, but it doesn’t have to be. Young people are gonna experience this for longer. Maybe they should have more than one vote.”
He admits though that this idea isn’t more than a mental game. The way current voting systems work is not likely to change. Still, he sees Brexit as a good example of flaws in the system. “There was evidence that people didn’t really know what they were voting for,” he explains. Google data showed that searches for “What is the EU” and “What is Brexit” climbed in the UK after the polls had closed.
Can a government leave a decision to the public if people can’t grasp the complexity of their choice and, even worse, the information they get is filled with fake news? Many newspapers, for example The Guardian, frequently commented on the anti-EU lies that surrounded Brexit before and after the referendum.
Daniel McFadden has worked extensively on choice models, and he explains how people often make poor decisions because they don’t have good information. “They don’t process information well and they don’t think things through.”
People don’t process information well and they don’t think things through.
“Concentrating too much on what’s going to come right now without looking into the future to see what the consequences will be, or paying too much attention to the things that are easy to see, the shiny parts of the car and not the stuff that’s under the bonnet, all those things are systematic biases in the way people make decisions,” explains McFadden.
Economists can draw an even darker picture, pointing towards the fact that a majority of young people don’t seem to think that democracy is absolutely essential for their lives. A study that was published in the Journal of Democracy in 2016 states that those born since 1980, the so-called millennial generation, have grown much more indifferent to the political system they live in. In the United States, for example, only 30 percent say that democracy is absolutely essential, compared to more than 70 percent of those born in the 1930s. “It’s a worrisome feature,” says Bengt Holmström. “Maybe they have in mind something more brilliant than democracy, or they are just so used to this and taking it for granted.”
What happens though if young people feel alienated from the democratic system? They are less likely to exercise the power they have as citizens by voting. The authors of the study explain that voter turnout among the young has declined in many democracies of North America and Europe, as has trust in the political institutions.
According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of the so-called baby boomers reported voting at the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, compared to 49 percent of millennials. Taking into account that 55 percent of millennials identify themselves as Democrats, compared to 46 percent of baby boomers, it becomes evident that voting results could change if more votes were counted. The disparity was even stronger in the Brexit vote, says The Guardian. While 90 percent of people aged 65 and above cast a vote, only 64 percent of those under 24 did.
In the European Parliament elections in 2014 turnout was highest among the oldest voters, with 51 percent of people aged 55 and above voting, compared to only 28 percent under the age of 24. According to the Public Opinion Monitoring Unit at the EU, those numbers were more or less unchanged from the 2009 elections, and there’s little reason to believe it will dramatically change in 2019.
McFadden remains optimistic. “Young people have the power to take control if they recognize what their interests are and they speak up and they participate. One would hope that in the future, young people will not sit on the sidelines but rather think seriously about what kind of future they want for themselves and try to achieve it.”
Especially with aging societies across the 28 European member states, young people are needed at the ballots to make sure their voices are heard. “One of the things that joins this generation is what’s happening to the planet,” says Holmström. “It’s an existential question that brings a lot of meaning to life, that you have something to fight against. That makes me optimistic.”
One of the things that joins this generation is what’s happening to the planet.
It’s clear that in democratic societies, all citizens are responsible for the policies that a government takes, and the more informed each and everyone of us is, the better. Maybe we should all think about becoming better citizens, understanding voting as our obligation.