Wednesday 10 February 2016

Is Age a Social Cleavage?

As we grow older, we become more conservative - so goes the adage. And observations of politics tend to bear this out. The average age of a Conservative was 68, as of 2013. Compare this with Labour, which presently stands at 42. Gatherings of UKIP find an over preponderance of the middle-aged to the elderly. The youthful, it appears, have better things to do with their time.

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.


Speedy said...

There's a cleavage between Labour and Tories because of the electoral system - under PR things might look very different.

UKIP for example - just because they are of the right doesn't make them "conservative", anything but. Their solution is radical, and wrong, obviously.

I think you need to look at psychology too: the young view a life without consequences, of infinite length, the old understand the consequences all too well, and see the end fast-approaching.

The young see change as an inherent good, the old as an inherent bad - not least because, in their experience, "nothing ever changes", and better the devil you know. Also the old are much more vulnerable to change. I will never forget wading my way, literally, through masses of elderly folk selling off their final belongings on a visit to Moscow in the early 90s. Change killed them off, while for many young people it was an opportunity.

Igor Belanov said...

Change in Russia in the early 1990s was hardly an 'opportunity' for young people unless they were a potential gangster. There were fewer jobs and educational opportunities for one, and greater uncertainty affects all ages.

David Timoney said...

Re differential voting between age groups. Bear in mind that turnout declined from 84% in 1950 to 66% last year. While some of this may be attributed to neoliberal hegemony (i.e. "they're all the same" being inccreasingly true), it may also indicate a peak of democratic engagement in the mid-20th century, following both the relative novelty of universal suffrage (1928 in the UK) and the normative impact of the Second World War ("we fought for your right to vote").

We know that voting is habituated, so the higher turnout among the elderly may simply be a learnt behaviour from this era of democratic popularity. 18-20 year olds did not get the vote till 1969, and while this appears to have increased turnout from 1974, the trend remained downwards. It's worth noting (for those who bang on about Tony Blair being a serial winner), that the decline in turnout accelerated after 1997.

The longer-term worry is not that the old will always enjoy disproportionate electoral power relative to the young, but that current turnout levels among the young will eventually become the norm for all age groups. In other words, general elections will be decided by a majority of a minority. You can expect that prospect to encourage both managerialists demanding compulsory voting (which, along with PR, will privilege centrists) and taxpayer groups demanding property qualifications.

PS: I suspect "bromide" should be "suicide".

BCFG said...

It is good that you are beginning to see a cleavage between the centre left and the left. And it is good to see that the age patterns of votes tends to back my assertion that the centre left and conservatives can be broadly treated as identical. And moreover that the main enemy of progress are the centre left, who effectively act as the main political stabilisation force in society. I.e. they are the main servants of the bourgeoisie.

Still, all this didn't stop you voting for Yvette Cooper. Just remind me, how old are you again?

I would also describe UKIP as being classically conservative, just as Thatcher was in remodeling the entire British economy and as Cameron is by dismantling the welfare state as we know it, and as Blair was by helping him do it! Though maybe reactionary is a better word.

Anonymous said...

How are the categories derived?

What do under 29's have in common?

Why are 30 to 44 in the same category?


Phil said...

Of course, they are arbitrary categories. There will be people more mature at a subjective level in a younger age group than in an older group. But when you split up the age of the population in this way and you find persistent differences, then something is going on.

wahiba said...

Never has an older generation screwed the younger generation as much as the current one. Now retired I acknowledge my low cost higher education, house long paid for and decent pension. I hope the younger generations rise up and make us all pay proper taxes rather than cruising the 7 seas.

Ken said...

Nope, I still don't get it. Are today's over 65's who vote a cohort which has voted Tory in the past and continue to do do so? Are they just committed voters who still vote the same way? Or, have Tory voters been joined by a cohort of voters who used to vote for others, mainly the Labour Party, but whose experiences of ageing have changed their votes. I couldn't spot anything in the article which addressed this point, or, is that the effect of ageing on the ability to process information?