What makes Millennials less likely to vote – low interest or loss knowledge?

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.


As the official referendum campaign gets underway, polling continues to highlight the vital role Millennials will play in deciding the outcome. They are becoming (albeit slightly) even more supportive of EU membership, even though overall levels of support have remained relatively stable, and young people who support EU membership are – unlike their elder counterparts – more likely to vote in the referendum than those who wish to leave. The evidence continues to suggest that if the Remain campaign are to keep the UK within the EU, the votes of young people will be essential.

The drawback for the Remain campaign, of course, is that Millennials are by far the least likely to actually vote. In our initial survey, we found that only 49% of Millennials are ‘certain to vote’ on 23rd June, compared with an average of 67% among older – and more Eurosceptic – voters. Surveys from YouGovORB and MORI among others consistently show that the proportion of young people who are ‘certain not to vote’ in the referendum is much greater than that of older people.

In recent weeks efforts have been made to explain this generational divide with reference to a series of other differences between the young and their elders. The Electoral Reform Society and scholars such as Matt Henn and Darren Sharpe have highlighted that Millennials feel they know little about the issues at stake in the referendum campaign and that this is undermining their confidence in voting. The BBC and some of our own research has shown that a lack of interest in politics, or in the referendum in particular, or both, are also potential obstacles. The two alternatives (which are not, of course, necessarily exclusive) pose different challenges to the campaigns in their efforts to mobilise younger voters. If a lack of confidence in knowledge of the EU lies at the heart of Millennials’ reluctance to vote in the referendum, then the campaigns need to focus on providing information about the issues at stake (and potentially spend less time slinging mud at the claims of their opponents). If, on the other hand, a lack of interest in the referendum (or politics more broadly) is more important, the campaigns need to focus on engaging the Millennials and highlighting the relevance of the referendum to the issues they care about. Thanks to the Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement (APE) survey, we are able to compare the impact of a perceived lack of knowledge and a lack of interest on the Millennials’ chances of being likely to vote in the referendum, and so identify which characteristic has the most substantial role in explaining the Millennials’ reluctance to vote in the referendum. The APE’s data was gathered in December 2015, a couple of months before the referendum date was announced, and so tells us about the effect of low knowledge and interest on the Millennials’ likelihood of voting before the more intensive campaigning started.

Using a series of statistical analyses, we can identify the likelihood of APE respondents identifying themselves as being ‘likely to vote’ in the referendum i.e., giving a score of at least 7 when asked to rate their chances of voting on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 10 meaning ‘certain to vote’).[1] We can then ‘control for’ the traits we are interested in – in other words, account for the difference between the Millennials and older generations in terms of their perceived knowledge of the EU and interest in politics and the referendum – and see what happens to the Millennials’ chances of being likely to vote.

The table below shows a summary of the results. The first column shows which trait we accounted for: interest in the EU referendum, perceived knowledge of the EU, interest in politics more broadly, and perceived knowledge about politics. The second and third columns show the probability of the Millennials and the older generations identifying themselves as likely to vote in the referendum, and the final column shows the difference between the two.

The initial analysis did not account for any traits and provides a baseline. The Millennials were shown to be 21% less likely to be ‘likely to vote’ than their elders. When we controlled for interest in the referendum or perceived knowledge of the EU – or both together – this difference fell by just 1%. In other words, differences between the Millennials and their elders’ perceived knowledge of the EU or interest in the referendum itself don’t appear to have much to do with explaining why the Millennials are (relatively speaking) so unlikely to vote. Accounting for differences in interest in politics more broadly, on the other hand, had a more substantial impact, reducing the difference by 5%. Controlling for confidence in political knowledge had a more modest effect of 4%, and accounting for both together produced essentially the same effect as controlling for interest in politics alone.

Table One: Summary of Analyses of Difference between Millennials and their Elders in Probability of Being ‘Likely to Vote’
Controlled Trait Average Millennial Average probability Difference
Probability of being of being ‘likely to vote’
‘likely to vote’ for older generations
None 56% 77% -21%
Interest in EU referendum 61% 81% -20%
Knowledge of EU 59% 79% -20%
Interest in referendum + Knowledge 61% 81% -20%
of EU
Interest in politics 66% 82% -16%
Knowledge of politics 62% 79% -17%
Interest in + knowledge of 66% 82% -16%

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 2016

While a lack of confidence in their knowledge of the EU and the issues at stake in the referendum certainly play a part in explaining the Millennials’ reluctance to vote compared with their elders, it is their lack of interest in politics more generally that is the more serious obstacle. This suggests that, at least as recently as December of last year, the EU referendum is not perceived as a distinctive event that might engage people who would otherwise have little to do with politics; rather, it is seen as another event in the world of politics with which many Millennials have and desire little contact. The key to getting more Millennials to the polling stations in June seems to lie, therefore, in overcoming their lack of interest in politics more generally and persuading them that this particular political event really does matter for the issues and agenda they care about, even if they cannot be convinced to engage with politics more broadly as a result.

[1] Specifically, these calculations were made using logistic regression analyses predicting the likelihood of APE respondents giving a score greater than 7 on a 0-10 scale of how likely they are to vote in the referendum. For more details please contact foxs8@cardiff.ac.uk.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to www.wiserd.ac.uk/eureferendum/