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Disillusioned Youth: Young Citizens and Changing Electoral Turnout


A recent paper in The Political Quarterly provides insights into the extent of declining electoral participation amongst young British voters and discusses the need to examine in further detail whether we are witnessing a profound generational shift in youth politics.

The relatively lower proportion of young citizens casting their votes at general elections has previously been attributed to differences in stages of the political life-cycle. However, unprecedented declines in turnout at the last two general elections raise the question: are today’s young citizens politically distinct from their older counterparts, and are their participatory characteristics likely to adhere to them as they age? Research by Edward Phelps indicates this might well be the case.

In this paper, Phelps presents the first stages of a longitudinal investigation into the participatory characteristics of ten age cohorts between 1964 and 2001. This research shows that decline in participation from young voters is due to a generational change, and contests the view that low turnout a result of political apathy and disinterest.

While British citizens as a whole have become significantly less inclined to vote since 1992, this has been most pronounced amongst the younger age groups. Turnout amongst those below 25 and those between 25 and 34, shows unprecedented decline. Contrary to expectations, those aged between 25 and 34 have been even more affected than those under 25 - turnout is falling in an age group where it might be expected to rise after the impact of ‘youth’ on the life-cycle.

Phelps argues that declining levels of participation may be due to the decreasing relevance of electoral activity to young people’s lives. The generational shift identified in this paper represents the disillusionment with a political process that is dated and unresponsive to the needs of modern citizens who are coming to conceptualise politics within a boarder framework of social and political issues, and who are unable to comprehend a system designed to solve the problems of a different era.

The emergence of new and enduring forms of political behaviour has serious ramifications for the future of representative politics in Britain. The evidence presented by Phelps strengthens the case for further research that seeks to examine whether, and in what ways, today’s young citizens are politically distinct from older generations.

Verity Warne | alfa
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