Social action as a route to the ballot box

Dr Stuart Fox

Can youth volunteering reduce age inequalities in turnout?

One of the greatest challenges facing modern British democracy (and, indeed, many others) is generational turnout decline i.e., the fact that successive generations of young citizens are less likely to vote and engage with politics than their parents and grandparents were at the same age.

In the 1970 general election (the first after the voting age was lowered to 18), for example, 65% of 18-24-year olds voted, compared with an overall turnout of 72%. In 2017, however, only 52% did so, while the overall turnout was 68%.

Decline in youth voting

What is equally concerning is that this decline in youth voting is concentrated among those from poorer backgrounds. In the 2017 election, for example, 68% of graduates under 35 voted, compared with 42% of non-graduates. This not only means that today’s young people – especially those from poor backgrounds – are under-represented in policy-making (as shown by the two main parties’ support for Brexit despite it being overwhelmingly opposed by younger voters), but it’s problematic because voting is habitual. People who get into the habit of voting during young adulthood are likely to keep voting for the rest of their lives, while those who get into a habit of not voting are likely to be lifelong abstainers. As fewer young people vote in their first elections, therefore, more of them are developing habits that make them likely to abstain in future as well. This will lead to politicians and democratic institutions being increasingly influenced and dominated by older, middle-class and educated citizens, and may even lead to questions about their legitimacy to govern.

Social action as a route to the ballot box

This problem has spurred greater interest in policies that could help more young people (particularly from poorer areas) to vote in their first elections, such as lowering the voting age to 16 or reforming the citizenship curriculum in schools. The purpose of my Understanding Society-funded project Social Action as a Route to the Ballot Box is to determine whether policies and schemes that promote youth volunteering (such as the National Citizen’s Service or the requirement that students in Wales volunteer if they seek the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification) should be added to that list. Governments across the UK already spend millions of pounds every year promoting volunteering, much of it focussed on young people. The consequences of that spending for improving the quality of our democracy and reducing inequalities in turnout between young and old, and wealthy and poor, however, are largely unknown.

Previous research into youth volunteering is almost unanimous that it increases political and civic engagement. There are several reasons for this:

  • it helps develop social networks and so gives young people greater access to resources that make voting easier, such as information or encouragement to vote from friends
  • it helps develop skills (such as communication, leadership, research or team-working) that can be applied to the political arena
  • it brings people into contact with social issues (such as homelessness or pollution) that can motivate them to take more of an interest in politics.

Strength of Understanding Society data

Most of this previous research, however, suffers from two key problems. First, it has tended to rely on outdated measures of ‘volunteering’, usually based around membership of organisations (such as Scouts or Guides) that promote it. While a valid measure of volunteering, it cannot account for the fact that more and more young people are volunteering through schemes or networks that do not imply membership of a formalised institution. Second, it has failed to account for ‘confounding factors’, characteristics that can predispose people to both volunteer while young and vote as adults – such as being interested in politics in childhood or raised by politically and civically active parents. Without accounting for such factors, it is impossible to tell whether someone who volunteered in school, for example, became more likely to vote as a result, or would have voted regardless.

Understanding Society allows us to overcome these problems. It uses a broader measure of volunteering (based on whether respondents volunteered in any way over the previous year) and allows us to track respondents’ political engagement over time, so we can see how it changes after they volunteered.

Robust assessment

We can also match respondents to the political characteristics of their parents, allowing us to account for the effect of being raised in a politically engaged household. In short, Understanding Society allows for the most robust assessment of the benefits of youth volunteering for adult political participation ever attempted. This project will make a vital contribution, therefore, not only to debates about what steps can be taken to help more young people vote in their first elections and start to develop lifelong habits of political engagement, but to government assessments of the values and benefits of their support for volunteering among young people.

The project started in October 2018, and runs for a year. I’ve blogged about some of our findings on the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) website, considering various aspects of volunteering and turnout (and looking at whether there really was a ‘youthquake’ in 2017).


Dr Stuart Fox

Stuart Fox is a Research Associate at the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD), based at Cardiff University