News & Events

August 26, 2013

The youth vote is key for today’s Trudeaus

Michael Adams published the following commentary in the Globe and Mail on August 26, 2013

Justin Trudeau, leader of a Liberal Party that many recent polls have found nudging ahead of the Conservatives, is fond of describing his growing army of young volunteers across the country. This bragging about youth support hints at a bold claim: young people have never really been disengaged; they have simply been waiting for the right leader—and Trudeau is it.

Maybe.

 Environics Research Group’s social values research seeks to measure the orientations that underlie Canadians’ attitudes on issues of the day: to probe beyond party preferences and current affairs to examine deeply held convictions about concepts like authority and fairness. Our values surveys find young people to be strong on the value Rejection of Authority and weak on Duty. In short, Millennials are less willing than older Canadians are to defer to institutions, parties, or leaders. No coincidence, then, that only about a quarter of Canadians aged 18 to 29 (24%) say they identify with a political party. By contrast, the proportion among those aged 60 or older is four in ten (41%).

To the extent that young Canadians find a leader compelling, it is likely to be because of a sense of affinity or even emotional connection with that individual rather than a sense of hail-to-the-chief allegiance. Young people score high on a number of values associated with social and emotional connection, such as Social Intimacy and Introspection and Empathy. These values, combined with a relative aversion to duty and authority, suggest that Millennials’ attachment to leaders may be less a matter of dutiful deference and more a matter of simply liking, trusting, or relating to another human.

The alchemy of personal connection—whether through mass media, social media, or even real-life contact—can be powerful, but it can also be fleeting. As a result, young people’s attachment to leaders may be intense but changeable. Idealistic young people who are really turned on by a public figure may be motivated to use their social and online influence to shore up that person’s support; 18- to 29-year-olds are slightly more likely than other cohorts to say they have persuaded others on how to vote. But leaders may or may not be able to keep the love alive over the months leading up to election day, let alone years in government. Indeed, even candidates who seem to hold strong appeal for young people can have trouble getting them out to mark a ballot.

In the 2011 federal election, 39 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 45 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds turned out to vote—rates well below the national average of 61 percent. And these numbers are by no means anomalous; youth voting is in long-term decline.

Low youth turnout is not equally damaging to all political parties. According to the most recent Environics Research Group vote-intention survey, just 16 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 29 would support the Conservative party if an election were held today, while 34 percent would support the NDP and 32 percent the Liberals. When young people stay home, Conservatives suffer least. Justin Trudeau has brought the Liberals into the overall lead in many polls, but in order to convert this support into seats, he must get youth to vote. If not, his party risks meeting the same fate as the NDP in British Columbia,          

who showed a steady lead in the polls but were thumped on election day; one part of the BC NDP’s problem was that youth “support” evanesced.

One clear area of divergence between the young and others is the extent to which young people view voting as a duty or a personal choice. Most Canadians (57%) see it as their duty to vote. But those aged 18 to 29 disagree: only a minority (44%) see voting as a duty,  as compared to 49 percent of 30-to-44-year-olds, 58 percent of 45-to-59-year-olds, and 60 percent of those aged 60 and older.

It won’t be easy getting young people to the polls—but harnessing the electoral power of the most diverse, socially liberal, and world-connected generation in our history is a vital task for centre-left politicians. Part of the recipe will surely be channeling the frustration of the majority in areas like the environment, crime and justice, inequality, and Canada’s defence and foreign policy. But harnessing public dissatisfaction with the government is not enough: a plurality of voters must be persuaded to choose another party. Targeted appeals in areas of special concern to the young will help win over the engaged, but for a generation that tends not to parse the news too closely, a grab bag of specific policy ideas won’t work. More promising may be rekindling the sensibility (not necessarily the policies) of happy Jack Layton. Right now it looks like Mr. Trudeau may be the leader to represent the values of openness, empathy, and idealism as we head toward our 150th birthday in 2017. As the party approaches, Trudeau must warmly invite everyone, including Boomers and Elders—and hope like mad the cool kids show up.

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