Ageing baby boomers: will they hurt Labor?

August 19, 2013
photo: Peter Boyle
photo: Peter Boyle

In his younger days my friend had voted for the Marihuana Party, the Socialist Party, and the Labor Party. He was once deputy president of a Labor party branch. But in the September 7 federal election he’ll be voting for Tony Abbott; and it won’t be the first time the conservatives get his support. “I felt a bit embarrassed the first time I voted Liberal,” he told me. “I felt as though I was no longer fighting the good fight.” But it’s got easier with practice.

That people get more conservative as they get older is seen as a truism; and my 61-year-old friend seems a case in point. His evolution is not unfamiliar: from student communal households, public service job, and union activism to small businessman, landlord, and family man with hefty private school fees. But how true is it generally of the baby boomer generation? Can we baby boomers be relied on to follow the script as we age and move further to the right? If so, the ageing of the population will be a plus for conservative parties. The huge baby boomer cohort, born between 1946 and 1964, will swell the ranks of the Coalition’s rusted-on older supporters, and in a close contest could make the difference.

But it turns out the evidence for a rightward swing among baby boomers is not at all clear-cut.

We know older Australians – especially those 60 and over – have consistently favoured the Coalition. Newspoll shows first party preferences for this group averaging over 50 per cent. Older people are generally seen as more materialistic and authoritarian and more at home in conservative parties. But is this vote explained by their age – or by the times they grew up in?

Academics who hotly debate the issue have arrived at diametrically opposite conclusionsProfessor Clive Bean, from Queensland University of Technology, examined the vote at federal elections between 1987 and 2004 and concluded in a paper he sent me: “a curious life cycle phenomenon appears to be at work in which once voters pass the age of 45 they become more conservative in their political preferences, rebutting the more left-wing tendencies of their youth.”

But Dr Ian Watson, a social researcher and statistician, having examined the intended vote for the Liberal-National coalition in federal elections from 1987 to 2010, concludes that more recently older voters have turned away from the Coalition, and this is because of the influx of baby boomers into the ranks of those aged in their 50s and early 60s. On his reading, baby boomers have more left-leaning individuals in their ranks than earlier generations, and a significant proportion as they age are retaining the politics of their youth. By the 2007 election, for example, the 50-54 year-olds, a baby boomer group, were more likely to vote against the Coalition than the average voter, the reverse of what used to happen. In the 2010 election, the baby boomer group now aged 60-64 was hardly more pro-Coalition than the average voter – quite a change from earlier patterns. In his view the Coalition could suffer in coming years from the changing demographic as it loses its advantage among older voters.

Yet Labor doesn’t appear to be the beneficiary. Baby boomers might have turned away from the Coalition, but according to Professor Ian McAllister, of the Australian National University, who’s looked at 50 years of voting to 2007, the baby boomers aren’t identifying with Labor in greater proportion than any other generation. But compared to the Depression era and World War 11 groups, higher proportions of boomers are voting for the minor parties.

How we vote is influenced by our parents and by policies or issues that strike a strong chord. But the generation we belong to, and the shared experiences of our young adulthood, can also shape our political leaning. It’s what political scientists call the “generational” effect. The “early” boomers like my friend – and me – grew to adulthood in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. Not every young person went to the Nimbin music festival, smoked dope, or regarded Gough Whitlam as the messiah. But if ever there was a politicised and left-leaning generation, this was it.

That doesn’t mean we’re all the same by virtue of our birth dates – far from it – or that we don’t change with age. My friend who’d felt “very enthusiastic about Whitlam, and enraged in ’75 when he got knocked off” gradually became disillusioned, prompted by his experience of Labor branch politics. Once he set up in private practice, bought investment properties, and began to think like a small businessman he found himself wanting “a larger share of the wealth for my own family as opposed to sharing it with everybody.”

But when I look at social or protest movements today, they’re often dependent on baby boomers who’ve maintained the rage, and their anti-Coalition vote. Membership of GetUp!, the online activist group, is skewed to the over-50s. Ian Rintoul, 60, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, who was radicalised by the Vietnam War and the anti-apartheid movement, told me age had brought him “patience and perspective” but not fundamentally changed his politics.

My own evolution is a mixture. I no longer see things in black and white. I accept now the benefits of privatisation, for example, and would extend it to electricity, a position some would call conservative. But I’m more passionate about the need for higher government spending and the taxes to pay for it to lessen inequalities so that children less privileged than my own get a decent chance. And some would say that’s radical.

Have you become more conservative as you’ve got older or changed your vote? Please Comment.

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