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There are a lot of older people in politics who presume to know why younger people vote the way they do.
After the last election, the received wisdom has been that young people are mostly socialists – put off capitalism by the financial crisis and hardened to public service reform by years of austerity. In the media, millennials have acquired a reputation for avocado profligacy and virtuous protest, rather than pragmatism and common sense. The Corbynista hipster narrative writes itself.
Younger people do indeed have more left wing views on many social issues. When forced to choose, they are more likely to favour privacy over law and order; they want fair leaders over strong leaders; they care more about the environment and reducing inequality than economic growth. So far no surprise.
But on many economic issues, today’s youth are to the right of their parents’ and even their grandparents’ generations. They do not want Swedish style taxes: nearly two-thirds of 18-24s want to keep more of their own money over spending money on reducing inequality, the highest support for low taxes of any group. Nor do younger generations buy Corbynomics: nearly three fifths of 18-24s favour a government that lives within its means to one that borrows to invest in the economy. And a majority prefers making public services more efficient to spending more money on them. This is not the politics of an austerity-weary generation.
What is clear is that younger generations view the economy in distinctly moral terms. A clear majority of young people want the government to penalise firms that behave badly, for example by not paying enough tax or not treating their workers well. They think protecting the environment and reducing inequality are more important priorities than jobs and growth. Nearly two thirds of 18-24 year olds want businesses to retrain existing workers already here rather than hire from overseas. The message is clear: markets have lost their social purpose.
More than any other factor, this disenchantment with the economy is driving the age gap. Our report reveals that a voter now needs to age to 51 years old before they become more likely to vote Conservative than Labour – up from 47 just two years ago. Mathematically, economic views and housing tenure account for around half of this growing age gap. The road to winning back lost generations of young people will be in restoring responsible capitalism, not overthrowing it.
On other issues, there is a clear landing zone for centre right policies. Younger generations want policies to drive up the quality of housing, including forcing developers to contribute more to local schools and GPs surgeries, stricter design codes for new build development and mandatory registration for landlords. Many no longer believe university is worthwhile, and support the expansion of technical education and retraining schemes – and, while they want lower interest rates on student loans, there is weak support for a return to free higher education. On immigration, all age groups support conditional policies like English language training and longer routes to citizenship and most support immigration reduction overall.
If the centre right gets the policies and values right, the target market for centre right rejuvenation is considerable. There are 3 million voters under the age of 35 who would consider voting Conservative, but would not do so if an election were called today. In an age of hung parliaments and contested politics, that is the difference between a working majority and defeat.
Will Tanner is Director of Onward and author of Generation Why?