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Age and political participation in Germany, France and the UK: A comparative analysis

Abstract

In this article, we evaluate the relationship between age and three types of political participation: voting, demonstrating and signing petitions. Our comparative analysis of individual-level data from the three largest European countries – Germany, France and the United Kingdom – reveals three interesting findings. First, we find that younger generations are less likely to vote than their older counterparts. Second, our results indicate that those trends are reversed for unconventional participation. Individuals born between the late 1970s and early 1990s are significantly more likely to engage in forms of direct action, such as demonstrations and petitions. This suggests we are experiencing changing patterns of participation for young adults, rather than declining civic engagement. Third, we discover that the relationship between age and various forms of political engagement is frequently not linear. While some forms of political involvement are strongest among the elderly (that is voting), other types are more pronounced among individuals between the ages of 34 and 65 (that is signing petitions) or the young (that is participation in demonstrations).

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Notes

  1. Norris (2002, pp. 16–17) shows that in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, protest and petitioning activities have been on the rise since the 1980s. Between the early 1980s and the early 1990s, the three countries had an average increase in adherence to petitioning from 50.6 per cent to 60.3 per cent. In demonstrations, the average increase was from 16.4 per cent to 21.4 per cent. Dalton (2008b, p. 90) also finds that ‘signing petitions and participating in more challenging protest activities display a marked increase from 1975 to the present’.

  2. For instance, Germany has the highest showing at the poll booths (83 per cent), but the lowest levels of petition signing (32 per cent). Alternatively, the United Kingdom has the greatest levels of participation through petitions (37 per cent), but the lowest showing for demonstrations (4 per cent). Finally, France's citizens are the most likely to participate in demonstrations (15 per cent).

  3. Some authors are very skeptical about the tendency of older generations to vote at higher levels than the younger generations. For example, Kotlikoff and Burns (2004) express a fear that the ‘grey generation’ will be overrepresented in the political system because they constitute a large (and growing) share of the voting population. This, in turn, could lead this generation to pursue its interests at the expense of the younger generations, particularly in areas such as access to welfare benefits, like pensions and health care. Writing about the impending dangers of Germany turning into a gerontocracy, Sinn and Uebelmesser (2002, p. 157) conclude that, ‘only the fear that the young might emigrate – or an altruistic attitude towards their own descendants – will then prevent the old from exploiting the young’.

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Correspondence to Daniela F Melo.

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Melo, D., Stockemer, D. Age and political participation in Germany, France and the UK: A comparative analysis. Comp Eur Polit 12, 33–53 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/cep.2012.31

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Keywords

  • political participation
  • age
  • Germany
  • France
  • United Kingdom