Generation gap for voters makes referenda unsuitable in ageing populations

Older people tend to vote according to their own self-interest; this can be a problem in ageing populations when long-term decisions need to be taken.
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Referenda can favour older voters in an ageing population and are unsuitable for political decisions with longer-term benefits, new LSE research has found.

In a recently published discussion paper, the effect of age on voting behaviour was analysed in 82 referenda on a wide range of issues, such as spending on public schools, political integration, infrastructure projects, energy, and green energy initiatives.

In these referenda, there was an overwhelming tendency for older voters to vote in terms of their generation’s self-interest. In an ageing population, where older people are – or will soon be – the majority demographic group, this means that political decisions that have long-term benefits are less likely to gain majority support.

Due to projections of ageing in populations across Europe, the paper proposes that political decisions with long-term benefits would be better based on social cost-benefit analyses rather than by public referenda – unless governments found ways to compensate for generational differences in net-benefits.

The paper also uses an original case study of a 2011 referendum vote in Stuttgart in Germany, where residents were asked to vote on plans to create one of the largest rail infrastructure projects in Germany’s history. The proposed project would have led to significant disruptions to transport services over the 10-year construction period before any benefits were realised. The timescale of the project meant that the benefits for older generations were relatively limited in comparison to younger generations.

The study found that an increase in the average age of the voter significantly increased the likelihood of their opposition to the project. A one year increase in the average age of the adult population in an area was associated with a 0.91 average per cent increase in the share of votes opposing the project. The study suggests that despite the clear majority vote support for the project in 2011, population ageing would cause a similar referendum to be rejected by the 2030s.

The study supports evidence that elderly voter’s preferences are determined by self-interest. This could increase the likelihood of intergenerational conflict, and of government’s failing to plan effectively in the best interests of society.

Dr Gabriel Ahlfeldt of the Department of Geography and Environment, one of the papers authors, said: “Our study shows that older people tend to vote according to their own self-interest, and this can be a problem in ageing populations when long-term decisions need to be taken.

“While voting by self-interest is common, the direct democratic nature of referenda often presents the electorate with a simple binary choice.  The example of the referendum in Stuttgart and other the 82 other examples analysed in our study show older people are likely to take a short-term view based on their own interests, and this can mean that younger generations lose out.”

“These findings also raise questions on comparable referenda, such as the Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union in 2016. Older voters typically voted largely to leave, while younger voters tended vote to remain. It is likely that both of these generations voted in line with their self-interest, but it may be that the demographic profile of Britain tipped the vote towards leaving the European Union.

“The EU decision will have consequences for decades to come, and will affect future generation’s prospects and lives. Given the evident generational divide, there is a major question over whether we still want to resolve these types of issues by referenda in the future.”

Behind the article

Après Nous le Déluge? Direct Democracy and Intergenerational Conflicts in Ageing Societies by Dr Gabriel M. Ahlfeldt, Dr Wolfgang Maennig, and Dr Malte Steenbeck was published in CESIFO.