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21 November 2017

No, it’s not the housing crisis dividing baby boomers and millennials

There’s a little something called Brexit. 

By John Curtice

“A nation of home owners” has long been a Tory aspiration. But for many young people today, owning their own home has come to seem a pipedream. It is little wonder, then, that Wednesday’s Budget is expected to include significant new measures designed to boost housebuilding. After all, the Conservatives are all too well aware that one of the key reasons why they lost their majority in June is because they performed so badly amongst the under 40s.

However, it is far from clear that attitudes towards housing account for the sharp generational divide in political preferences that was evident in June’s general election. Concern about housing is indeed widespread – but is just as evident amongst older people as it is amongst their younger counterparts.

According to a survey conducted by NatCen Social Research shortly after June’s election, 54 per cent of all voters agree that “there is not enough housing for people like you in your local area”, while as many as 73 per cent agree that “young people in your local area agree will never be able to afford a home”.

However, younger and older people are largely at one on this issue. As many as 49 per cent of those aged 60 and over think there is not enough housing in their area, while 73 per cent reckon young people in their area will never be able to afford a home. The equivalent figures of 56 per cent and 70 per cent amongst the under 40s are little different.

The same NatCen survey also found that, while 46 per cent of those aged under 40 believe that it should definitely be the government’s responsibility “to provide decent housing for those who can’t afford it”, as many as 51 per cent of the over 60s also hold that view. Meanwhile, even Labour’s proposal in June to cap increases in private sector rents “so that they can only rise in line with inflation” is not particularly popular amongst younger people. YouGov reported during the election that although 63 per cent of those aged 18-24 thought this was a “good idea”, so also did 68 per cent of those aged over 65.

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Young people may be at the sharp end of the current housing “crisis”, but there is seemingly plenty of sympathy for their plight amongst voters of all ages, not least perhaps because young people’s housing difficulties affect mum and dad – and grandma and granddad – too. 

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The sharp age divide in the election was not a reflection of an intergenerational conflict between younger and older voters about policies that affect them differently. Even on the vexed issue of university tuition fees, the difference of view between younger and older voters, although apparent, is far from stark. NatCen found that although only 19 per cent of the over 60s think that no student at all should have to pay tuition fees, only 28 per cent of the under 40s adopt that view too.

The key source of the sharp political divide between younger and older voters lies not in the “retail politics” of age-specific policies, but in a difference of outlook above all about immigration and Brexit.

During the election campaign, YouGov found that while 80 per cent of those aged 65 and over backed the Conservative policy of “reducing net migration to the tends of thousands”, only 39 per cent of those aged 18-24 did so. There was much the same division over Theresa May’s proposal that non-EU migrants should have to pay more to use the NHS.

Younger voters are less concerned about the cultural consequences of immigration. According to NatCen, as many as 54 per cent of those aged under 40 are inclined to the view that “Britain’s cultural life is generally enriched by migrants coming to live here from other countries”, whereas only 34 per cent of the over sixties take that view. Some older voters may feel that immigration means that Britain no longer feels to them like the country in which they were brought up, but that outlook is much less widespread amongst those for whom “multicultural Britain” has always been a fact of life.

It is not surprising then that in NatCen’s post-election survey, as many as 64 per cent of those aged under 40 said they would vote Remain if the EU referendum were to be held again, while only 43 per cent of the over 60s take the same view.

A successful initiative on housing might prove popular amongst voters in general. But it seems unlikely to overcome the Conservatives’ difficulty in winning the support of younger voters in particular. To achieve that, the party will have to secure a Brexit that does not offend the markedly more liberal outlook of Britain’s younger generations. And at present that looks like an even more difficult task than goading the country’s housebuilders into action.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research and The UK in a Changing Europe initiative.