The Generational Divide and How We Can Empower Young People

In the second article of a two-part series, Sam Dalton discusses some of the ways we can better empower young people and engage them in our political system.

The generational chasm in attitudes

It is not only different economic conditions that differentiate the young and old in today’s UK – as explored in Part I of this series. We also see vast differences in social and cultural outlooks between different generations. It has been well documented that a growing generational divide has opened up in our country’s politics, with younger people much more likely to have voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum and for The Labour Party in subsequent general elections. The reasons for this are complex, and The Labour Party’s more radical economic agenda in countering the challenges faced by young people surely has something to do with it.

But so too do different cultural attitudes. Research for the parliamentary group on social integration’s inquiry into intergenerational connection showed that younger people are more likely to hold socially liberal, ‘progressive’ values, and to regard multiculturalism, feminism, sexual equality, the gay rights movement and the green movement as positive forces. Immigration and tackling crime are often bigger concerns for older people.

The argument is not that young people are more likely to vote Labour, so let’s find any way possible to give them more political power so we have a better chance of winning. The argument is simply about restoring balance and fairness between generations. If younger and older people have been shown to experience very different material circumstances in their lives, and to hold different social and cultural values, then it is not the case that older people are objectively more experienced and wise individuals who we should entrust with political power.

Yes, older people are more likely to have worked for longer outside of Parliament and may be better able to bring an understanding of ‘real life’ into their political work. That is definitely something we should value. But so too are the other forms of ‘experience’ that younger people are more likely to have, and their fresh perspectives on the world.

‘Twenties Targets’ and votes at six?

The question is: what practical steps can we take to improve access to politics for young people? There is a crucial role for political education at an early age so young people have the tools and knowledge to get involved. There are organisations already doing great work in this area. Shout Out UK have developed a political literacy course for secondary school students to study UK and world politics, and develop skills in debating, giving speeches and writing to politicians. My Life My Say bring diverse groups of young people together for ‘Democracy Cafés’ and, during the pandemic, ‘Quarantine Question Time’, to discuss the most pressing issues of the day and policies to help improve society.

To strengthen the impact of initiatives like these, political literacy should be given a more prominent place in the mainstream school curriculum, so that all young people get to learn about our political system and how their voice can be heard in it. And the Government plus trusts, foundations and other organisations should consider ways to give more funding to organisations boosting access to politics for young people.

But we should be more direct about this. To ensure young people are getting into Parliament now, parties should set youth quotas or ‘Twenties Targets’ for 2024, aiming for a certain percentage of their candidates to be young people. Changes in Parliament need to be accompanied by changes at the ballot box. The voting age needs to be lowered so that older people aren’t gifted with their current levels of demographic dominance. The head of politics at Cambridge University suggested in 2018 that the voting age should be lowered to six. Votes at 16 is likely to be a more realistic aim in the near term, but that shouldn’t be the limits of our ambition. Widening the franchise would encourage young people to see themselves as political voices in our society and develop their views. Democracy has an educational impact. 

Power to the young people

When you think about the big national challenges our country faces over the coming years, from re-building our economy after Covid-19 in a way that is fairer and better promotes our wellbeing, to tackling the climate emergency, we are going to require diversity in experiences and outlooks to come up with the best solutions. It’s going to be no good trying to create a society fit for the future with such a measly number of young people in positions of power.

Yes, older people have a huge amount to bring to politics and gaining experience of ‘real life’ should always be valued before entering Parliament. But young people have lived through unique circumstances and bring new perspectives on the world. Let’s get more of them in the House of Commons. And fast.


Sam Dalton works in policy and public affairs, and has focused on intergenerational issues, including writing a report on 'Healing the Generational Divide' for the parliamentary group on social integration. He is Vice Chair and Campaigns Officer for his local Labour Party branch in Southwark. He tweets at @Sam_Dalton_1

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