Young people’s voting behavior in Europe

Nicola Maggini,  Young People’s Voting Behaviour in Europe. A Comparative Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Nicola Maggini, interviewed by Gianmarco Botti

(English translation by Elisabetta Mannoni)


What is your book about and why is it innovative?

The book is about young people’s voting behavior in six European countries – namely Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – in a long-time perspective, from 1981 to the first years of the 21st century. The comparative approach is thus both a synchronic as well as a diachronic one. To be more precise, the book analyzes the determinants of young people’s voting behavior in comparison to the factors influencing adult people’s vote choice. It’s innovative because so far the relationship between young people and politics has been dealt with mainly from a sociological point of view, taking into account cultural gaps or differences in terms of values between young people and adults. There are papers dealing with one specific country, but not so many comparative studies on young people’s vote choices in book-form. Another innovative element lies in the methodology, the so-called stacked analysis, that is a multilevel statistical analysis which lets us consider as voting determinants, not only the traditional individual variables obtained by surveys (gender, age, values, political self-collocation) but also party variables, that is to say variables related to party characteristics and to the relationship between parties and electors (party dimension, distance between parties and electors on the left-right axis, and so on). This kind of analysis allows us to merge into one single model different explicative variables – and therefore different theoretical approaches.

Which different ideas of age did you take into account in your book?

The research questions I tried to find an answer to are basically two. First, what are the voting determinants of young people compared to those of adults? And here the age variable can be operationalized both as mere anagraphic data as well as by looking at the historical period when the subject was born and raised. So the second research question was: is the fact of being young per se influencing voting choices or is it the fact of having been young in a specific period in time? In this case there are two possible approaches. The first one looks at the so called age effect or life-cycle effect; from this perspective it has been stated that young people tend to be more radical than adults, opting for more extreme parties. The second approach is based on the generation-effect: one doesn’t vote the way she does because she is young, but because she was young in a specific historical period; for instance, those who happened to be young during the 60s or 70s and started being politically socialized in those years tend to vote to the left and have generally developed a feeling towards politics common to their peers, a common set of values, and common long lasting vote choices.
What emerges from my findings is that what really matters is rather the generation-effect, that is to say the period when political socialization occurred. However, there is also an age-effect, as we can see from the fact that the generation-effect does not maintains the same weight across the age line: the older the voter the weaker the generation-effect tends to be, with the only exception being those who were born between 1934 and 1943, who were politically socialized between the end of Fascism and the beginning of the Cold War, in a period of significant ideological contrasts and social stratification. In this specific case, in fact, the generation-effect seems to last longer in time.

Putting aside the age and the generation effects, what are the most determining factors in young people’s vote choice and how different are they from those influencing adults?

Besides the age and the generation effects, there is a third one that has already been examined: the so called period-effect, although residual compared to the previous two. What does it mean? It means that, for instance, there might happen to be an event, in a specific year, which potentially influence all the generations regardless of their age. Having said that, what mostly differentiates young people’s vote choices from adults’ ones is the fact that for the young people from my sample traditional sociological variables, in particular those related to the class cleavage, are not statistically relevant (especially with regard to the distinction between white collars and working class) and are less important than those related to values and political involvement, in terms of motivation and interest towards politics. So for young people values and political involvement are more important than the social identities; whereas for adults – this is the main difference – traditional sociological variables still play a significant role, even if a declining one. Now, since the electoral change in the long run is given by the generational turnover, it may be safely stated that as time goes by the importance of traditional cleavages will progressively decrease, as newer generations will replace older ones.

What are instead the commonalities between young and adult people’s voting determinants?

Well, generally speaking were expecting, according to Inglehart’s post-materialist theory, greater differences between young and adult people in terms of voting determinants. Actually there are many similarities, too. Such a traditional socio-demographic variable like church attendance maintains its weight also when it comes to young people’s vote choice, as well as the distance between parties and electors on the left-right axis and the authoritarian-libertarian dimension are important to understand both young and adult people’s voting behavior. To this extent we cannot talk about a proper generational gap. According to Inglehart, during the end of the 60s new post-materialist values emerged, which would have increasingly characterized new generations, distinguishing them from the older ones marked by materialist values. As for the sample of young people I have analyzed, the post-materialism index, that assesses those post-materialist values, appears to be significant only in Sweden, and in general only in 1981 – which is not a mere coincidence, since in that year the post-68 generation still belongs to the young people category (18-35 years old). So it actually proves that there is a specific political generation, namely that which those politically socialized between the 60s and the 70s belong to; whereas for the generations who came after, post-materialist values cease to be significant voting determinants.

In the time frame you considered, did you find any traces of the young people’s disengagement from politics that recent studies describe as increasingly evident?

Yes, this disengagement process can be said to be totally confirmed, even just by looking at the descriptive part of the book. On the one hand, the percentage of disengaged young people increases as time goes by; on the other hand, those among the interviewees who are interested in politics are mostly adults. This reveals a progressive disengagement from politics among young generations, as shown also by the low level of trust towards institutions like Parliament or trade unions, or just by the increase in abstentionism – which is something that does not involve only young people, but can be said to be particularly remarkable among them.

And did you notice any relevant change with regard to self-placement of young people on the self-right axis? Does Italy show any specific features?

Considering all the six countries, young people who place themselves in the centre tend to increase over time and in the last surveys represents the largest category – which was not the case in the first ones, where the largest category was represented by those who placed themselves on the left. The percentage of those placing themselves on the right increased, too. Does this mean that young people have become more moderate and centrist over time or does the self-collocation in the centre mean something different? This is linked to what we were saying before: this tendency to collocate themselves in the centre is an indicator of the fact that young people are getting distant from politics, as the centre is in fact a safe place, one may place herself in the centre to avoid placing herself on the left-right axis – so much so that if we combine this variable with the interest-towards-politics variable and with the abstention variable, we find out that the majority of those who place themselves in the centre are not interested in politics and opt for abstention. This would also explain the paradox for which, as my analysis shows, while centre-placed young people increase, still centric Christian-democratic parties are the least voted by young people in all the six countries. Moreover, many of those who place themselves in the centre are not actually centrists from the ideological point of view, but rather experience a sense of alienation towards politics and therefore decide not to vote. This was generally speaking, across all the six countries I’ve been dealing with. As for Italy in particular, it confirms on the one hand the increasing trend of young people placing themselves in the centre, most importantly it is the country with the highest increase in those who shift to the right over time. The increase in this category, as we said before, is generally spread also in the other five countries, but in Italy this element is more remarkable. This is probably because young generations are those who react first to changes in the political context. If we think about 1981, Italy was fully into its First Republic, and there were few young people on the right side of the axis, as at that time placing yourself to the right was like declaring to be heir of Fascism. After the shift from the First to the Second Republic, Italian political space changed: the right was label-free, competition became a bipolar one, pre-electoral coalitions emerged both on the centre-left and on the centre-right, Berlusconi took the field, the MSI (Italian Socialist Movement) became AN (National Alliance), and all these things had a strong impact on the self-placement of young Italians.

Looking at the future, what kind of perspective arises from your findings?

In a future perspective, we need to highlight this common element, to many countries, of electoral apathy and disillusion towards mainstream political parties. Another point is the fact that young people do not base their vote anymore on traditional social identities related to the class cleavage; and this makes their voting behavior even less predictable than those of older generations and young people in the past. On the one hand this open the electoral market, as political parties should aim at getting the vote of this section of the electorate that is also the most willing to move from one vote choice to another. Yet at the same time, it might be a problem, because as we have noticed lately, this provides for a further increase in electoral volatility, strongly impacting on the stability of European political systems. That being said, there is an optimistic element, too. There exist factors that can shape the vote choice, even among young generations of voters. Left and right (although they mean today something different than in the past), together with the authoritarian-libertarian dimension, are still a determinant for voting choices. Yes, volatility increases but it does within some constraints granted by these factors and others which may arise in the future. So there still exist something that doesn’t make the vote choice completely unpredictable. As for Italy, we saw how disillusion and disengagement patterns are the same as for other countries. And on the other side, the most interested in politics among young people are the most radicals, too and they tend to vote radical parties both on the left and on the right. In the last few years we saw the affirmation of the M5S (Five-Star Movement) which defines itself as neither leftist nor rightist, indeed as something going beyond this dimension, and as an anti-establishment movement-party, instead of as moderate party. This might make it attractive to young generations who feel alienated towards mainstream parties – and as a matter of fact is quite popular among them. So in the end, for what concerns young people’s vote choices, we cannot say yet whether it is a matter of age-effect or of generation-effect. And given the fact that their vote is such a volatile one, we will probably be able to find an answer to this question only in a few years.