From the pensions triple lock to the cost of mortgages, Brexit to tuition fees: many of the biggest political questions of recent years have been framed as a contest between the often-conflicting interests of younger and older voters.
The intergenerational friction has come to the fore this week amid the debate about the pensions triple lock and speculation about benefit cuts, with renters and mortgage holders counting the cost of soaring interest rates which typically benefit older savers.
With the UK population ageing rapidly – and pensioners generally so much more enthusiastic about voting than other groups – many believed mainstream policy would increasingly be skewed towards those positions which benefit older generations.
But is there really such a lack of empathy between different age groups.
‘First political survey of its kind’
New research by the Nuffield Politics Research Centre challenges that assumption, arguing older voters with financially struggling younger relatives – the so-called “family fortunes voters” – are more likely to support parties with policies that are in the best interest of their children and grandchildren.
The researchers carried out a new survey in August 2022 of 6,021 adults which they claim is the first inter-generationally focused political survey of its kind.
The study found around one in four (24%) people aged 40 and over – including 19% of the over 60s – have close younger relatives who are struggling financially.
The team argues that that equates to 17% of the overall electorate – around 7.9 million voters.
The researchers went on to ask whether those aged 60 or over would back increased spending aimed at helping younger adults, even at the cost of higher taxes.
A majority of those asked – regardless of their family situation – supported doing so, particularly in terms of free vocational education and housing.
Some 61% backed providing more local affordable housing and 57% more council housing.
But among members of that age group with struggling younger relatives, support was substantially higher – 72% backed more affordable housing, and 70% more council housing.
This survey was carried out in August 2022 – when Labour were ahead by 14 points among middle aged adults over 40 (42%-28%), but trailed the Conservatives by 20 points (28% versus 48%) among older adults over 60.
However, for middle aged voters who felt their young relatives were struggling financially, Labour’s lead increased to 26 points – 47% to 21%. Even for older voters, Labour had a two point edge – 37% compared to 35% for the Tories.
The researchers claim the differing levels of support can’t be explained away by differences in the financial situation of the survey respondents.
For Professor Jane Green, co-author and Director of the Nuffield Politics Research Centre, there are clear lessons for the political parties.
“Our findings should act as a warning to the Conservatives,” she says. “A failure to raise the average level of wellbeing among younger adults may not just harm the party among Millennials and Generation Z: it might also cost them votes from their parents and grandparents.”
The difficulty with this research is that it’s the first time this survey has ever been done, so we don’t know whether the feeling of intergenerational sympathy is a new phenomenon, or has always been the case.
It’s also worth noting that the initial survey was carried out in August 2022 and the political situation has clearly changed significantly since then.
While Labour are now even further ahead in the polls – 20 points ahead according to the most recent YouGov survey – there are relevant policy positions which have changed on both sides.
Sir Keir Starmer has U-turned on his pledge to scrap tuition fees, for example, and the Conservatives have ditched mandatory housebuilding targets for local authorities. We can’t know how much of an impact these specific policy issues would have had on respondents’ overall voting intentions.
The question of whether people generally vote on the basis of their own self-interest, to help their loved ones, or indeed as a result of ethical, altruistic or politically tribal principles – is a question for the ages.
But all the parties will surely take note of this report’s conclusions – that the harder it gets for younger people, the more likely older voters will attempt to correct the imbalance at the ballot box on their behalf too.