One problem in researching inter-generational differences in political behavior is that age and cohort differences are interrelated. Once we know someone’s age (at a given time) we can easily work out which (birth) cohort this person belongs to. To illustrate this problem, let’s take the example of turnout. If we were to research voter turnout from this perspective, three questions would be central. Is turnout affected by one’s age at the time of the election (age effect: e.g., are older voters more likely to vote than younger voters?) Is overall turnout likely to be higher because it is a pretty exciting election (period effect)? Or do citizens decide to stay at home because they came of age during the a period of scandal and thus tend to find politics unappealing (cohort effect)? Of course, each of these effects impact our decision of whether to vote; he challenge is to try to disentangle them.
We will first look at the age effect. It is common to blame young people for being apathetic, lazy, and not having strong civic values. In politics, for example, young people are often blamed for having very low turnout levels or trust in institutions and political processes. But what happens if these youngsters grow into middle-aged voters? Do they remain disengaged or do they become more active? Figure 1 plots the average turnout by age in presidential elections between 1972-2008. The figure clearly shows that young people are indeed less likely to take part in presidential races than older voters. This is the “age effect” according to which levels of political participation change with the life experience that comes with getting older.
According to Figure 1, turnout rates especially increase between the age of 20 and 40, rising from below 40 percent to 70 percent participation. Interestingly, the low turnout rate among young people was just as much of a problem in the 1970s (among the baby-boomers) as it is today (among the millennials). In 1976, 50 percent of the 18- to 28-year-olds turned out to vote in the Carter election. In 2008, 51 percent of the millennials age 18 to 28 voted in the Obama election.
Figure 1, however, does not tell us anything specific about the millennial generation, which includes only those born after 1980. We hence replicated the average turnout by birth years rather than by age. As Figure 2 shows, all generations born after about 1930 are less and less likely to participate in presidential elections, with a particularly sharp decrease for those born after 1980. The youngsters born in the late 1980s show a very low and worrying level of turnout of only around 20 percent. These are the Obama kids, as the 2008 election was the first presidential election in which they were eligible to vote. Figure 2 confirms the negative picture about the millennials painted in research reports and in the media.
However, this picture of the millennials needs to be put into perspective by taking into account the trends that we observed in Figure 1. After all, the millennials are still young. The key to understanding turnout among different age groups (Figure 1) and voters born at different point in time (Figure 2) is to combine the two insights. The difference between age and cohort/generation effects is best illustrated with an example. Figure 3 tracks the average turnout for people who first voted under different presidents. Respondents who voted for the first time in the 1948 election of President Harry S. Truman show the highest average turnout of up to 85 percent across the entire time period for which we have survey data (1972-2010). The Kennedy generation – who first voted in the 1960 election – slowly seems to catch up with this cohort and turnout levels across these two cohorts appear equal today. The Nixon, Reagan and Clinton cohorts are tracked through time from the election in which they were first allowed to vote. Their turnout levels are on the increase.
Two observations can be made from Figure 3. First, for each group of voters, turnout increases as people grow older (analogous to figure 1). While turnout levels increase as all groups of voters age, Figure 3 also shows that the starting levels of voter turnout are different for groups of voters coming of age under different Presidents. For example, turnout among first-time voters was much lower in Reagan’s 1980 election (36 percent) compared to Clinton’s 1992 election (42 percent). This points to a cohort or generation effect.
Newly eligible voters do not all face the same political context. In a recent article, we find that the character of the first elections an incoming group of voters faces is crucial to this cohort’s future turnout levels. For example, the 2008 election was a high-stake election characterized by generally high turnout levels. Moreover, Obama’s relatively small victory margin and the polarized policies of the two parties both boosted turnout. In contrast, Clinton’s landslide victory (379 electoral votes) in the 1996 election had a relatively low turnout of 49 percent; the generation that got to know electoral politics in this relatively “boring” election may respond differently in the future.
This leaves us with the question of whether the millennial generation is expected to pick up political engagement or not. First, the millennials are (still) growing up in a politicized environment, which should make them more likely to develop a habit of voting. Second they still need to make the transition to adulthood (i.e. the aging effect still needs to take place). At the moment, it is “too close to call” how this generation will turn out.
- There is a host of new academic articles available on the topic in the special issue of the journal Electoral Studies mentioned above.
- Larry Bartels and Simon Jackman employ a mathematical model of political learning to partisanship to estimate the critical years of heightened impact of period-specific effects or historical shocks on a citizen’s party attachments.
- Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua Tucker categorize relative historical periods that identify aging and generational effects of experiences during communism on people’s democratic and economic attitudes.