Courtesy of Shaun Ratcliff, University of Sydney and YouGov alumnus now at Accent Research, a study on political attitudes and voting behaviour across the generations offers a detailed look at the exacerbating tendency of younger voters to favour the left and its future implications. This scaled new heights at the 2022 election, for which survey research cited in the report shows gaps between Gen-Z (born 1996 and after) and baby boomers (born 1946 to 1965) of 23 points in support for the Coalition, four points in support for Labor and 26 points in support for the Greens.
What this means for the future depends in large part on whether the gap bespeaks life-cycle effects, in which conservatism is encouraged by personal and economic circumstances that tend to apply later in life (notably home ownership and family formation), or cohort effects, in which variations in political attitudes reflect divergent historical experiences. Contrary to common belief (Ratcliff notes it being expressed by former Liberal Senator George Brandis), it is plainly not the case that life-cycle effects consistently manifest as stronger support for the left among the young, as the current tendency to that effect has only been evident since the 1990s. However, proponents can argue that the gap at least partly reflects the fact that emerging generations are reaching life-cycle milestones later in the game.
For conservatives, the life-cycle thesis holds out hope that younger voters will adopt the attitudes currently associated with baby boomers in due course. The implications of cohort effects are more troubling, at least for conservatism as presently understood, as they are less likely to change over time. The manifestations of cohort effects tested by Ratcliff’s study are possession of a university degree (22.1% among boomers, 40.2% among the millennial cohort born 1981 to 1995), non-identification with a formal religion (54.7% among Gen-Z, 31.3% among boomers), LGBTQ+ identification (17% among Gen-Z, 4% among boomers) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identification (5.4% among Gen-Z and 1.8% among boomers, which is presumably not entirely down to health outcomes).
Ratcliff’s analysis reaches something of a split decision: life-cycle and cohort effects each explain five to six points of difference in Coalition support between boomers and Gen-Z, and eight points each for the Greens. However, life-cycle effects do little to explain the smaller but still substantial gaps between boomers and millennials, whereas cohort effects explain three points in the difference for the Coalition and six points for the Greens.
In any case, progressives should be warned against triumphalism, at least with respect to the immediate future. As the greying of the population continues to play out, the 70-plus cohort is increasing as a share of the overall voting population – a point illustrated in a Grattan Institute report noting its 13% increase between the 2016 and 2019 elections.