Young people seem to get a raw deal. But what should they expect? Only half of 18-24 year olds vote while 75% of those 65+ vote (2010 UK General Election figures).
One cannot really blame the politicians; they respond to incentives. As John Stuart Mill noted (in a slightly different context)
‘however honestly disposed [the ruling classes are], they are in general too fully occupied with things which they must attend to, to have much room in their thoughts for anything which they can with impunity disregard.’(105)
But there are solutions.
How raw is the deal?
In 2012, university tuition fees were tripled. Students benefit from university and repayment is income-contingent. Isn’t that fair?
Yes, but who will pay unpaid student debt? Not universities, and not current taxpayers. Future taxpayers – that is current young people – will pay that as well.
There is also a proposal to make under-25s ineligible for housing benefit. A generation ago a politician told unemployed people to get on their bikes to look for work. Should under-25s leave home and find employment, they may have to sleep on their bikes as well.
While many old people face significant financial hardship, as a generation, the baby-boomers do quite well. Many have retired with defined benefit pensions while insisting such schemes are too costly for the next generation.
None of this is intrinsically bad but it is odd. Two dominant themes of 21st century politics is that public money should be ‘invested’ on things that improve economic growth (e.g., education) and that people should be helped only if they cannot help themselves.
So, why spend so much money on those less likely to be economically active and more likely to be responsible for their poverty? This second point needs care. There are many pensioners who are in poverty through no fault of their own. Perhaps this is true of most.
But if you randomly selected one poor 20 year old and one poor 65 year old and had to bet on which was responsible for her poverty, where would your money go? (Hint: on the one who has been an adult for more than two years.)
Baby-boomers are not selfish but their moral concerns tend to favour their own. As David Willetts noted in The Pinch, baby-boomers have been ‘better parents than citizens’. But not everyone can rely on a previous generation.
What can be done?
One – largely ineffective – solution is to implore the young to vote. They are young. It is hardly a surprise that more of them (though not all) don’t think long-term or have the settled lives that encourage long-term planning.
But we could give the young who do take an interest more political power. If the young lose out because fewer vote, and the interests of the young are similar, then we should increase the voting power of those people whose interests are most similar to the non-voting young, i.e., the voting young.
More voters for the young
Let’s assume that there are one hundred 18-24 year olds but only half vote. To ensure that the total political power of the young is realized we double the votes of those who do vote.
We can apply this idea to all age-groups. But as long as fewer young people vote their voting power will increase more (see below).
|Age category||A: Assumed number of eligible voters||B: %-age who actually vote||C: The increase in voting power of each voter (A * B =C, e.g., 100*0.518 = 1.93)|
(NB: the voting percentages are taken from the 2010 UK general election.)
This proposal is a form of plural voting. Plural voting was made (in)famous by Mill.** Fearing the great unwashed Mill wanted to give more educated citizens more votes. My proposal is very different: it is based on shared interests not a better education or greater intelligence.
The proposal is also sensitive to the numbers of people who actually vote. As more people in each age group vote, the voting power of each vote declines. And the total voting power of 18-24 year olds can never be greater than the total number of 18-24 year olds.
There are moral objections. But none, in my view, are serious and all are too complex to address here. So, would giving the young more votes improve their lot?
Let’s test it
Researchers could stratify constituencies by age and see whether election results would be different if the young had more votes. Where results would change we can see whether the hypothetical winner has more young-friendly policies.
These results would not settle the question. In the longer term, politicians – knowing that the political voice of the young would be louder – would compete more for their votes. This might correct some distortions.
The democratic state must treat the interests of the rich and poor, old and young with equal seriousness. Where politicians compete for votes and where older people vote in larger numbers this does not happen.
In difficult times, more votes for the young is one way to correct for this. Let’s at least do the experiment and see what we learn.
**My proposal also owes a lot to Philippe Van Parijs’s magnificently entitled ‘Disenfranchising the Elderly’.