The widening age gap at UK elections

By Dr Laura Serra Winner of the McDougall Trust Academic Prize 2023-24 for best dissertation “The widening age gap at UK elections”

Implications for parties and avenues for change

Age has long been a strong predictor of British voting behaviour: younger people identify more with the parties on the left, and older people with the parties on the right. This gap in preferences was relatively small and stable over the last few decades, but it has become remarkably wide since 2015, and was also well-evidenced at the EU referendum – a change that has led scholars and polling agencies alike to consider age the new distinctive cleavage of British voting behaviour. 

While the age divide is not unique to the United Kingdom, the UK is the country where the increase in its magnitude is most striking. This is illustrated in the figure below, which displays the probability of choosing the Labour party over the Conservative party for voters aged under-35 and over-65, at every election since 1964. The figure shows how since the early 2000s, older voters are becoming increasingly less likely to support Labour over the Conservatives, whereas Labour youth support has experienced a sharp increase since 2015.


Intergenerational value change

A common misconception about the partisan age divide is that it’s driven by increasing ideological polarisation between younger and older citizens, and a growing body of research attributes this supposed ideological divide to the different levels of education held by the two groups. The syllogistic reasoning behind this claim is that (1) today’s young adults are more highly educated than any previous cohort, (2) higher education has a well-established link with social liberalism, and (3) higher education hence explains young voters’ preference for socially liberal parties. However, a recent publication by Dr Tom O’Grady, as well as my own analysis of British Election Study data, reveals that ideological polarisation between older and younger generations has always existed and, rather than increasing, has remained stable over the years. What has changed is the impact these sociocultural values have on voting. The electoral significance of progressive and conservative values has grown, and was especially relevant at the last two general elections for both younger and older voters alike. But there is little evidence to suggest that these effects will be permanent. As the salience of these values in political discourse decreases, so will the impact they have on voting.

Delayed maturation

An alternative and arguably more convincing explanation for the age cleavage pertains to the so called ‘delayed maturation’ thesis. Besides being better educated and holding stronger socially liberal values than older generations, today’s young adults are fundamentally different from their predecessors insofar as they take a significantly longer time to reach a series of developmental milestones known to influence political attitudes and behaviours. The transition into adulthood is typically marked by a series of life events such as leaving the parental home, completing full-time education, starting a full-time job, getting married, buying a house, and having children. The timing of these events for younger generations has become increasingly protracted, and many do not experience some of these events in early adulthood at all. The financial ramifications of this delay, compounded by rising living costs and a challenging housing market, mean young adults are less inclined to start a family at an early age. These interconnected factors have notable implications for individuals’ roles in society, including their political engagement and attitudes. The lack of these experiences in early adulthood could therefore be contributing to shifting young adults away from right-wing parties. This is confirmed by my analysis of British Household Panel and British Election Study data, which reveals that young adults who achieve the life-events described above by the age of 35, become more likely to support the Conservative party, while the same life-events do not exert any influence on voting for other parties.

Party appeals

The explanations behind the widening age gap offered so far pertain to changes in individuals’ characteristics and behaviours. But these overlook the role that parties themselves play in shaping issues and attracting voters. In this view, a further reason why the age divide has become so stark in recent years is the renewed focus that left-wing parties, and Labour in particular, have placed on the youth cohort. This was well-evidenced in both political communication (cue Corbyn’s appearance at the 2017 edition of Glastonbury) and policy offerings. In the run-up to both the 2017 and 2019 general election, Labour was the party who offered the widest range of policies close to the interests of young adults, from scrapping tuition fees to measures addressing mental health, housing, the environment, and employment.

A survey experiment I ran in May 2022, found that if Conservative party candidates were to match Labour policy proposals on ‘youth-friendly’ economic and sociocultural issues (scrapping tuition fees, raising the minimum wage for people aged 16 and over, and investing more in youth services), they could effectively close the support gap with Labour across this cohort without alienating older voters. Yet while the problem of low youth support has been recognised by Conservative MPs as well as think-tanks, and Prime Minster Rishi Sunak has been urged to focus tax cuts on Millennials, the party is doing virtually nothing to attract these new generations of voters. Over the past two years, the government has reconfirmed the pensions triple-lock and allocated £4.8 billion to this same group to help with energy costs. No comparable policy has been implemented or even considered when it comes to younger citizens. Instead, the government has rejected a deal to allow young Britons working visas in the EU, cracked down on immigration and asylum, climate protection, and sexual minority rights – all aspects where younger voters have distinctive preferences.

Overall, these research findings suggest that if the Conservative party is serious about avoiding an electoral wipe-out at the upcoming general election, it should start by winning back the support of young voters. This would require taking concrete steps to make the transition into adulthood easier for young people via policies aimed at making the housing market more accessible, as well as measures to support families with children, such as increased financial assistance for childcare and education.


At the same time, the parties on the left and Labour in particular should not take youth support for granted. As denoted by the figure above, young people have displayed historically low levels of turnout since the late 1990s, and while their turnout rates seem to have picked up again after 2017, they are still much lower than those of older age groups. Millennials have replaced Baby-Boomers as the largest voting generation, and Gen Z are on track to surpass them over the next 15 years. It is therefore paramount for all parties to engage these younger generations of voters with policy proposals that are close to their necessities and interests.



Author’s biography

Dr Laura Serra is a postdoctoral researcher at the Electoral Psychology Observatory (LSE Department of Government). Laura’s research focuses on how demographic characteristics, particularly age and generations, affect political behaviour and attitudes. Before joining the LSE, Laura was a Lecturer in Politics and Research Methods at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she also completed her PhD in Political Science. Her doctoral research examined the age-gap in British partisanship through the perspective of intergenerational value change, the expansion of higher education, the effect of targeted partisan appeals, and the increasingly delayed transition into adulthood. Laura’s thesis was awarded the PSA 2024 McDougall Trust Prize for the best dissertation in the field of elections, electoral systems, and representation.


Twitter / X: @Laura__Serra