Contrary to widespread perception, the young generation is not necessarily on the losing side in votes. Research in the wake of recent ballot box upsets in Switzerland and in Britain shows that the reality is more complex.
The outcome of the Swiss vote in February 2014 to curb immigration from the European Union didn’t just shock the political and business establishment; it also caused an outcry among the younger generation, notably in the science community.
Many young scientists are concerned that their career prospects could be seriously damaged by the suspension of Switzerland from a prestigious EU research programme.
It did not take long for critics to warn that older – and allegedly more conservative – voters were blocking crucial cooperation between different countries. It prompted an array of reform ideas, including a proposal to prioritise youth votes.
Similar allegations about the voices of youth being silenced by a majority of older citizens were raised again in Britain following June’s Brexit referendum on EU membership.
However, a study by the Centre of Democracy Studies in Aarau found there is no generation gap as such.
“There is no empirical evidence to show that the older generation permanently outvotes the group of young voters,” says political scientist Thomas Milic.
He points out that his research is based on a total of 135 nationwide votes in Switzerland over the past 15 years, and not just a single, isolated case.
Nevertheless, Milic acknowledges that there are cases where the younger generation might feel hard done by. “These are likely to be votes with a big impact where the younger generation is particularly concerned,” he says.
Milic's latest research, which was published in German by the DeFacto platform, found that the voting behaviour of the majority of under-30s and those above 70 is similar.
This leaves 35 nationwide votes in Switzerland where the majorities of the young and old age groups differed. The senior citizen voters had the upper hand in 24 cases, while the younger generation was the winner in 11 votes.
Milic also offers an explanation for the lower success rate of the young.
“They are often more radical in their demands and opinions,” he says.
There is no evidence that the majority of the young generation votes with the political left, while issues typically supported by the political centre or the right would automatically tend to convince the over-70s.
There are also cases – people’s initiatives on the introduction of a paid maternity leave – where the younger generation was initially outvoted (notably in 1999), but was ultimately on the winning side in a ballot five years later.
“This appears to show that it can be a question of the timing,” Milic says.
Milic admits that the amount of data available for individual votes might not always be robust, leaving a rather large margin of error. The figures were taken from Vox analyses by three Swiss universities and the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute.
“But looking at the overall picture, the results are solid,” he adds.
Young Brits for Brexit
Coincidentally, the London-based Opinium institute recently published its findings about Brexit – the referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Challenging previous surveys, the Opinium study says the vast majority of 18 to 39-year-olds did take part in the June 23 referendum. The study focuses on the alleged generation gap in the turnout of voters, but not necessarily on how they voted.
It is generally accepted that the young massively supported EU membership, but the question of youth turnout has been subject to controversy.
The researchers say nearly two out of three people in the registered 18 to 35 age group participated in the consultative referendum, which saw 51.9% voters approving a proposal for Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc.
In their report, the authors say that the British media used outdated figures, apparently for lack of data from an official election study or exit polls.
“The generation gap was really about how people voted, and not about whether they voted or not,” Michael Butler and Sarah Harrison from the London School of Economics conclude.