Is Europe threatened by a gerontocracy, rule by the elderly? Are young people’s concerns being sacrificed at the ballot box? Are the Millennials apolitical? Political scientist Thomas Milic has investigated the generation gap in politics. His conclusion is surprising.

Mr Milic, you have done research into the battle of the generations when it comes to elections. Are young people in Switzerland being increasingly outvoted?
The generation gap at the ballot box is narrower than is commonly believed. Our studies have shown that there has been no appreciable deepening of substantive differences in Switzerland over the past 35 years. On the contrary, while the 1980s saw significant differences between the generations at nearly every other election, the new millennium has only seldom produced such values. 

A surprising conclusion. Why is that? 
"Young people" do not constitute a political monolith. Age is just one among many structural features of relevance to the outcome of elections – like educational attainment, or whether one lives in the city or in the country. So age has to date not been truly polarising. Indeed, often it isn’t even the most important factor at all.

What do old and young disagree on the most? 
The army, above all, where the average deviation on referenda is 18 percentage points. Immigration policy and socio-political topics are also areas where preferences diverge quite widely on average. 

How much is the debate about pensions dividing the generations? 
So far we have seen no division that cannot be overcome, even though you might expect that the "distribution conflict" between the generations would be more virulent here than anywhere else. The average difference in voting behaviour between the two age cohorts is just 14 percentage points. On the other hand, the elderly deserve some praise on this score. Our analysis of the AHV Plus referendum in 2016 found that many older people voted against a pension increase, reasoning that it would not be good for their children and grandchildren. So seniors are indeed displaying inter-generational solidarity.

The generation gap at the ballot box is narrower than is commonly believed.

Then why are many European governments having such a hard time with pension reform?
Because the parties in power orient their policies to the older majority. Seniors are bribed for their votes. It is entirely possible that governments are proceeding from a false premise, and that results of the relevant referenda would be other than expected, as the Swiss example suggests. 

According to a Swiss Life survey in Germany, France and Switzerland, 52 percent of Millennials believe that older people today are living at the cost of the young. Is this manifesting itself politically? 
Not yet. Young people doubtless suspect that pension provision could become a problem someday, but the issue is not susceptible to mobilisation. It’s too remote from their current situation. Whether or not a voter is personally affected, and how distant issues are from his or her contemporary reality, are of central importance to behaviour at the ballot box. 

Europe’s youth is considered apolitical. Is that merely a prejudice or are young people in fact abstaining from voting? 
Turnout has not collapsed, so there can be no question of a retreat into the private sphere. A study carried out in EU countries in 2014 showed 63 percent of respondents between 15 and 30 years of age voting in local, regional, national or European elections, which is in fact 4 percentage points more than in 2013. Voter turnout among the young in Switzerland, too, has remained quite stable over the last two decades. At the same time, it is also true that the ranks of the elderly are not only steadily growing; older people also turn out to vote more dependably. Over-55-year-olds account for more than half of the voters in many European countries.

What are young people concerned about? 
The main issue is foreigners and refugees. The increasingly precarious lot of young people, along with youth unemployment, is also a concern in Southern Europe and France, as well as in Germany, where young people are getting some stiff competition from the older generation on the job market – and it is young people who often find themselves in the weaker position there, since older people are protected by labour law in many countries.

The main issue is foreigners and refugees. The increasingly precarious lot of young people, along with youth unemployment, is also a concern in Southern Europe and France, as well as in Germany.

Are there any signs of a new youth movement?
Not on the order of the international mass movement we saw in 1968. But there are indications of a certain protest potential, as for instance the Occupy movement following the financial crisis, the anti-Brexit demonstrations or the "Nuit debout” assemblies in France, which grew up in 2016 to protest the Hollande government’s attempted reforms of the labour market. All of these, of course, dissipated pretty quickly.

Are the radical parties benefiting from young people’s lack of perspective?
Yes they are, and at both ends of the political spectrum. In the European elections in 2014, 30 percent of those under 35 voted for the Front National, while in Germany the AfD is attracting many young men in particular. On the other hand, left-wing parties like Cinque Stelle in Italy or Spain’s Podemos are also enjoying popularity amongst the young. 

According to the Swiss Life study mentioned, 46 percent of Millennials today believe that older people enjoy undue influence at the ballot box. Is a reform of voting rights required to counter the veto power of seniors?
Not at the moment, no. If the situation were to be aggravated by demographic change and young people find themselves outvoted, however, we will no doubt have to think about it. The current formula, "One man, one vote", is brilliant in its simplicity and considered fair. If we were suddenly to say that the votes of parents with children count double, or that the older one is, the less one’s vote is worth, we would be asking for trouble. At any rate, there is no sure-fire solution.

Thomas Milic


Political scientist

Thomas Milic (45) is a political scientist at the Centre for Democracy Aarau (ZDA) and head of the referenda and elections section at Sotomo, a polling institution.

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