It gets even starker when we look at voter turnout by age. According to Ipsos MORI, 43% of 18-24s turned out at last year's general election compared to 78% of over 65s. In the latter age group, the Tories had a 24 point lead, whereas in the younger cohort Labour had a 16-point advantage. The differential turnout killed the party's chances, to put it plainly. And it's far from a Britain-only phenomenon. About events over the water, we've had people who really should know better moaning about young women (and young people generally) turning their backs on Hillary in favour of Bernie Sanders. In the Iowa caucus, Bernie obliterated Hillary in the under 29s category by 84% to 14%. He also had a 21 point lead in the 30-44 category. Hillary picked up sufficient and commanding support among older Democrats. A very similar pattern was in evidence at last night's New Hampshire caucus. What is happening?
Historically speaking, the (non-Marxist) political sociology of social conflict has identified four cleavages that tend to structure the political culture of various liberal democratic states in various ways. The main contentious points in politics tended to boil down to the conflict between centre/periphery, state/church, land/industry, and owner/worker. In (most of) Britain, the primary tension is the last cleavage, as evidenced by the persistent domination of Conservatives and Labour. Though with a geographically imbalanced economy and London-centric political elites, it could be argued that tensions between centre and periphery are already playing a role - hence the SNP's runaway success. Other countries have cleavages with roots in religion that still play a large role in conditioning their politics, and so on. Can age then be described as an emerging tension set to shape politics?
Of course, to a degree it already has. In Britain, anything that upsets the over 65s is electoral bromide - a lesson the Tories have taken on board. The differentiation of the old and the young is also an outcome of long-standing social policy orientations - it is the young who bear the brunt of the housing crisis, of low wages, insecure work, and debt, of changes to the social security system, of panics around feral youth and criminal gangs. The policies on the other hand that have benefited property owners, the changes to tax, pension credits, and the so-called triple lock, in which the basic state pension is increased by whichever is the higher of growth in average earnings, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), or 2.5%. But why does its political manifestation work through in disproportionately progressive, disproportionately conservative terms. Is it really as simple as the old going for the right because they will protect their hoard of goodies and pensioner benefits?
No, I would suggest it's not that simple. Yes, of course differing material circumstances and perceived largesse by the state heavily conditions things. Just listen to what "millenials" (shudder) have to say about their support for left wing politicians and movements: it's about poverty, about directionless, about competition for scarce decent jobs, about the chances of never owning their own homes. What this is doing, structurally speaking, is locking large numbers of young people out of the social bargain. As the history of the early 20th century shows, radical and revolutionary organisations build mass support up over time because they represent a constituency that is not or is only in part integrated into the social system. If workers have stable jobs with wages sufficient to reproduce themselves and their families, revolutionary politics has little appeal because of the stakes they have in the system. If those stakes aren't there, then social integration is jeopardised and no number of New Labour-style "social exclusion" initiatives are going to paper over the problem. Presently, however, this disaffection of the youth has been filtered to a degree through the established political parties, transforming Labour in the process, for instance. But what happens if Labour doesn't win the election, or Bernie Sanders isn't nominated, or SYRIZA push austerity policies? Social disaffection and anomie is most likely, but other more radical forms of politics cannot be ruled out.
And the old? The kinds of fear-mongering peddled by the Tories at the election plays particularly well among older voters. There's a growing disaffection and cynicism here too, but one with different sources and consequences. The social anxiety one might be tempted to say is being deliberately inculcated is, in the main, is mediated. The ceaseless tales of moral and social collapse found in the press and fanned by broadcast news can make the world look like a terrifying and unpleasant place, confirmed by gay and minority ethnicity visibility, the occasional snippet of a foreign tongue while walking down the high street, and their children struggling to find a decent job and/or getting soaked by ludicrous private rents. Their mediated remove from the direct experience of social anxieties in the here and now leaves them more prey to the appearance of rather than the reality of things. Young progressives are likely to lay their predicament at the door of government and/or business. Their (retired) parents instead connect the surface level dots between poor prospects, wages, and the housing shortage with mass immigration. The greater one is socially distant from a group of people, the greater media opinion conditions the attitudes and meanings associated with them.
This isn't to say all old people are conservative and all young people are nascent socialists, but when attitudes cluster in this way in particular age groups, it makes sense to try and advance a theory that could help to explain why this is the case.