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Millennials have allies in the emerging grey vote

Fatima Measham |  17 February 2016

The political behaviour of millennials has recently garnered some attention, given their apparent attraction to disruptive figures. But the boomer generation may prove to be just as interesting in the next few elections.

Religious leaders protest Maules Creek coal mine in northern NSW in 2014. Photo by Tania MarshallSocial researcher Ian Watson found that the cohort that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s in Australia is not as politically homogenous as the pre-boomer generation. He tracked Coalition support from 1987 to 2010 using Newspoll data, which showed that voters aged 40-59 were set to complicate the conservative leanings of the 60-plus bracket.

Coalition support had held up among the older bloc until 2004. But as early boomers approached retirement, their aversion started showing up in the graphs.

For example, the gap in Coalition support between those aged 50-59 and all age levels evaporated in the 2007 and 2010 elections. That is, while the 65-plus cohort still overwhelmingly supported the Coalition, the proportion of Coalition supporters in the group immediately younger appears smaller.

This is borne out in the latest Morgan polls, which show Coalition support at 61 per cent among 65-plus, and 55 per cent for 50-64-year-olds. The Coalition lead over Labor in the next age group, 35-49, is even slimmer at 52 per cent.

If the life cycle thesis, which holds that older voters are authoritarian and conservative, turns out to be unreliable, then political strategists may have to recalibrate, and soon. Based on the latest AEC enrolment figures, voters aged 65-plus account for less than a quarter of the total. Those aged 18-34, who tend to prefer Labor (and lately, the Greens) account for more than a quarter.

The interests of this younger group are already being brought to bear on policy areas. Negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions are primarily seen as fiscal matters, but their structural effects on intergenerational mobility mean that millennials have a vested interest in reform.

They bristle at boomers — perhaps reasonably, given the housing insecurity, work casualisation and economic volatility that they inherit. But what gets missed in anti-boomer sentiment is that on social issues at least, a 21-year-old today might have more in common with a 61-year-old than a 71-year-old.

Pie chart breaking down voters by ageThe formative experiences of Australian early boomers, those born in the decade after 1945, include unprecedented access to university education and health care, immersion in feminist discourse, Aboriginal land rights campaigns, environmental activism, LGBT movements and pacifism. Quite remarkably, it mirrors some of the elements that engage millennials.

Generational experiences have 'cohort effects' on political behaviour. Over the past several years, rallies supporting refugees, Indigenous Australians and same-sex marriage have been attended by a good number of middle-aged men and women. They are involved in sit-ins at offices of members of parliament, advocating for asylum seekers. In rural regions, especially in Queensland, many of them have mobilised against coal seam gas and mining.

In other words, the liberal mindset of boomers seems fairly stable. Quite conceivably, the emerging grey vote and millennial vote would intersect.

In social indices such as housing and health, they already have a mutual interest in securing the universality of welfare. For example, a smaller proportion of boomers own their own home compared to the previous generation. Census data also suggests that more of them are renting or will be retiring with a mortgage debt than older cohorts.

Rather than wholesale resentment against a generation perceived to have had the best economic run, millennials would better target a subset that has accrued and retains wealth.

As economist Saul Eslake points out, '72 per cent of investment property assets are owned, and 52 per cent of investment property debt is owed by, households in the top 20 per cent (i.e. the richest one fifth) of the household wealth distribution'. The top 10 per cent of income earners receive almost 70 per cent of capital gains. Maybe the economic divide isn't generational after all, but class-based.

The boomer generation were characterised in their youth as resisters of the established socioeconomic and political order. Perhaps for the sake of younger generations, they may still be that.


Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Main image: Religious leaders protest Maules Creek coal mine in northern NSW in 2014. Photo by Tania Marshall



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Submitted comments

The economic divide has always been about class and who has the power and control; the business class. As for age related voting many of us in our eighth decade have become more pro-active for years; e.g. marches,voting for the Greens, because we can see the creeping class divide becoming even greater and the new breed of blinkered self-serving 'professional' politician seems to feed off people's fears and greed.

clara butt 18 February 2016

Perhaps more light would be thrown on this matter if analysis were made of who is represented in these various group. The older people were once largely anglophiles, with an assumed or inherited superiority complex, and a determination to preserve their authority and traditions. They were outbred and displaced by Irish and Southern Europeans who do not share their anglophilia, as evidenced by the present membership of the Liberal Party. This paradigm seems likely to be reflected as Muslim Australians increase their numbers and influence.

Robert Liddy 18 February 2016

In a world characterised by division let's not give extra fuel to the artificial nonsense of a so called separation of generations. Additionally the group you describe as boomers were not universally gifted with an easy run and there was much hardship and struggle. It is all the creation of lazy thinking and those who wish to divide us for their own idelogical purposes. I am a "bristle" causing 64 year old who remembers a time when we all had very little materially and our life options were very narrow. Similarly being a conservative, once a value neutral term, the word does not automatically imply I display an absence of compassion or vision. Let's take the politics out of this and call on people to respond to the God given call to love one another. My greatest teacher remains Jesus and the Catholic Social Teachings I learned during my "easy ride" to prosperity.

Martin Loney 18 February 2016

Yes, the comments so far point to just how misleading it can be to calculate by birthdate. It is important to realise that not everyone who was a revolutionary in the 60s is still one today, nor that everyone who was a conservative then is one now. Life experience plays a significant part in one’s evolution of thinking. Also generational experience was not homogenous: class played its part, and class movement since continues to do so. And though I take Martin’s point, citing Jesus and CST is not a simple affair, since both of them are cherry-picked by the various sides. In truth, I think that many of us defy easy categorising.

Stephen K 18 February 2016

I usually enjoy and appreciate Fatima's articles but not this one. Fatima may not be responsible for the pie chart but it doesn't seem to add any value so far as I can see. The age ranges in each slice are not consistent and the % of enrolled figure is not related to anything else. While I accept that birth cohort may have a considerable influence on one politics or the trajectory of ones politics through life, it's not the only factor. I would have thought that the mode of education (state or private) would also affect poltical outlook, for example, and the size and nature of one's sense of 'clan', ie those to whom we have a responsibility and those from whom we can expect support. My gut feeling is that for most Australians the 'clan' is getting smaller and more homogenous, PLUs if you like.

Ginger Meggs 28 February 2016

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