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Gen-Z are different

23 November 2023

Explanations for the growing generational gap in Australian politics

An Accent Research White Paper

Conservative political parties in Australia face a dilemma: young voters are increasingly unwilling to vote for them.

What explains this partisan age gap?

There are two main explanations of this phenomenon: lifecycle and cohort effects. The first of these is the idea that voters age into conservative politics. Each generation has different politics at a given point in time, but broadly similar politics at the same age (ie, left-leaning when young, right-leaning when older). The other is that due to variation in lived experience and socialisation, generations will have different political preferences, even at the same age (cohort effects).

Using several decades worth of survey data, this paper explores these two explanations for the growing partisan age gap in Australian politics. In doing so, it helps us better understand the potential political implications of generational shifts in political preferences and partisan support.

Key findings:

  • The partisan age gap is not a permanent reality of Australian politics. In the 1960s and 1970s younger voters were as likely to vote for the Coalition parties as they were to vote Labor. The trend of younger voters significantly favouring parties of the left appears to have only emerged in the 1990s, and has continued to grow since.

  • While Baby Boomers and Gen-X have become more likely to vote for the Coalition as they grow older, Millennials and (particularly) Gen-Z are less likely to do so at the same age.

  • This lower level of support for the Coalition from Millennial and Gen-Z voters has driven the emergence of the partisan age gap. However, the main beneficiary of this since the 2000s appears to be The Greens, not Labor.

  • The political divergence between the generations has been driven by real social and material differences. Millennials are more likely to have a university education than older cohorts, and fewer are hitting the milestones in their 20s and 30s that may have been associated with increasing support for conservative parties as voters age, such as home ownership and family formation.

  • On some of these measures, the differences between Gen-Z and older generations in particular are colossal: 56 per cent of Gen-Z voters say they have no religion, compared with 38 per cent of Gen-X and 31 per cent of Baby Boomers; 17 per cent identify as LGBTQ+, compared with eight per cent of Gen-X and four per cent of Baby Boomers; and Gen-Z are three times more likely than Baby Boomers to identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

  • Likely linked to these different lived experiences, a larger share of these younger generations tend to hold left of centre political preferences, particularly on social issues. Generational differences are especially large on questions about help for Indigenous Australians and immigration.

  • If current trends hold (and it should not be assumed they will indefinitely), as the generational composition of the electorate changes in the future, the left-leaning politics of Millennial and Gen-Z voters may have significant electoral ramifications.

Read the full paper here.

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