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Paul Fairie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he studies voter behaviour.

In elections, it's more than just the candidates or the issues that can influence a voter's decision. There is a lot of evidence that underlying factors can play a big part, including two outside of a voter's control: their current age and the year they were born.

In an effort to explore how this might work, we can look at data from the Canadian Election Study, which covers all federal elections held from 1965 to 2011 (except for 1972). In these surveys, tens of thousands of voters have been asked a barrage of political questions and we can use these data to look at the differences in voter support by age and generation for the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Conservatives. To make things a little easier to compare over time, we can combine the Reform/Canadian Alliance vote with the Progressive Conservative vote for elections held from 1993 through 2000.

How old are you now?

The first effect that age has on vote choice is the less surprising one: as people get older, they tend to get more conservative. Social scientists refer to these as life cycle effects. The theory goes like this: at different stages of your life your needs and circumstances change and what you need from the government changes, too. With few exceptions, this translates well to party politics: the New Democrats have done well among younger voters, while the Conservatives have won more votes among the older set. This is consistent with patterns that we see around the world, with left-wing parties appealing to younger voters with a focus on education and social program spending, while right-wing parties do better among older voters by focusing on programs like tax cuts for the middle class.

The Liberals are the interesting case here, finding themselves, as they often do, somewhere between the Tories and the NDP. In earlier elections, they did better among younger votes. However, during the 1980s, something flipped and they started doing better among older voters instead. While the reasons behind this require more careful study, perhaps the rise of the NDP on the left pushed the Liberals more towards the centre, making them more appealing to an older voter.

In what decade were you born?

This chart shows the per cent more or less that voters born in a given decade were likely to vote for a particular party, compared to the average Canadian voter. Use the slider to switch between decades of birth.

Voting preferences of voters born in the 1940s
  • Liberal
  • Conservative
  • NDP
%
Election Year
Missing years in chart mean either (i) they weren’t old enough to vote or (ii) there weren’t enough respondents for that election in the survey (a cut off of 100 respondents was used).
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74",3.40,1.50,-2.70
"'79",7.60,1.50,-6.70
"'80","false","false","false"
"'84","false","false","false"
"'88","false","false","false"
"'93","false","false","false"
"'97","false","false","false"
"'00","false","false","false"
"'04","false","false","false"
"'06","false","false","false"
"'08","false","false","false"
"'11","false","false","false"
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74",2.9,-1.9,-0.5
"'79",6.9,-1.2,-4.4
"'80",8.3,-5.4,-2.5
"'84",-3.5,9.5,-3.4
"'88",-1.7,7.2,-4.4
"'93",-4.6,11.8,1.3
"'97","false","false","false"
"'00",12.1,0.3,0.3
"'04","false","false","false"
"'06","false","false","false"
"'08","false","false","false"
"'11","false","false","false"
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74",3.3,3.1,-4.6
"'79",0.2,4.3,-2.5
"'80",3.7,0.8,-2.1
"'84",-2.4,4.5,-1.5
"'88",1.8,6.2,-6.4
"'93",-4.3,10.7,-0.6
"'97",7,-1,-1.6
"'00",-0.3,3.1,0.1
"'04",1.1,12.7,-7
"'06",8.3,10.9,-7.9
"'08",4.9,8.1,-0.7
"'11",4.6,9.3,-8.9
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74",0.10,1.10,-0.20
"'79",3.20,0.20,-1.80
"'80",-1.50,3.50,-1.90
"'84",4.10,0.00,-3.10
"'88",5.70,1.00,-6.30
"'93",0.70,3.20,0.20
"'97",4.80,-1.70,0.30
"'00",3.40,-0.10,-1.90
"'04",9.00,1.90,-4.30
"'06",6.30,3.30,-3.10
"'08",9.20,2.70,-5.20
"'11",10.30,3.70,-9.00
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74",-3.7,-2.6,6.2
"'79",-1.6,-0.7,1.8
"'80",1.6,-3.4,2.3
"'84",2.9,-4.2,1.1
"'88",-1.5,-2.6,4
"'93",-0.5,0.4,-0.1
"'97",1.6,0.5,0.8
"'00",-2.5,-1.4,1.6
"'04",1.2,4.4,-3.8
"'06",1.9,-0.2,-0.8
"'08",4.3,2.7,-4
"'11",2,1.2,-2.1
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74",-6.80,-0.40,2.40
"'79",-7.90,-2.80,7.00
"'80",-8.20,-1.80,6.80
"'84",0.10,-6.30,3.60
"'88",0.40,-4.30,3.10
"'93",2.00,-3.00,-0.40
"'97",0.30,0.20,-0.30
"'00",-0.10,-0.10,0.20
"'04",-5.10,2.20,1.00
"'06",0.40,-1.50,0.50
"'08",-0.60,-0.80,-0.10
"'11",-5.00,0.90,2.50
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74","false","false","false"
"'79",-9.9,6.6,0.9
"'80",-10,12.3,-4.1
"'84",-3.1,5.1,-1.1
"'88",-3.1,1.3,1.1
"'93",2.8,-4.1,0.2
"'97",-3.3,0.8,-0.2
"'00",1.3,-0.6,-1.7
"'04",1.9,-5,1
"'06",-2.4,-1.6,2.3
"'08",-3.2,-1.1,1.1
"'11",-2.4,-1,3.5
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74","false","false","false"
"'79","false","false","false"
"'80","false","false","false"
"'84","false","false","false"
"'88","false","false","false"
"'93",-8.60,-1.00,0.10
"'97",-6.70,-3.10,1.30
"'00",-3.90,0.90,0.30
"'04",0.50,-10.30,6.50
"'06",-5.00,-4.10,0.20
"'08",-3.20,-1.10,1.10
"'11",1.80,-8.00,3.50
year,con,lib,ndp
"'74","false","false","false"
"'79","false","false","false"
"'80","false","false","false"
"'84","false","false","false"
"'88","false","false","false"
"'93","false","false","false"
"'97","false","false","false"
"'00","false","false","false"
"'04",-15.2,0.7,5.8
"'06",-13.3,1.6,8
"'08",-13.2,-8.3,9.9
"'11",-6.7,-1.9,1.8

The second effect of age is one that researchers often call generational effects. Rather than your specific age being important, when you were born and, more crucially, when you were an adolescent provides a generation with a common context where their political beliefs were formed. It’s like how, even if you somehow manage to keep up with the musical trends of young people these days, you’ll always have a soft spot for bands that were popular when you were 14.

In an attempt to figure out these generational effects, we can divide up voters at each election by the decade of their birth to see if different birth decades had different voting patterns. When we do this, we can see some big generational voting gaps. First, voters born in the 1970s and 1980s seem to be more comfortable voting NDP than the general Canadian population. While some of this effect might be written off as an example of the left-wing exuberance of youth, it also suggests that the NDP has been more successful among young people in recent elections than the more traditional governing parties.

A very persistent generational difference also exists between voters born in the 1920s and those born a decade later. Voters born in the 1920s have been quite consistently more pro-Liberal than the population-at-large. However, voters born in the 1930s are much more pro-Conservative than other Canadians. These effects have persisted very strongly to recent elections, when we might have expected their differences in age to disappear, if they were just life cycle effects.

This suggests then that there is a strong generational gap between Canadians born in these two decades. What might explain this? Voters born in the 1920s would have reached adolescence somewhere between 1935 and 1945, the later days of the Great Depression and the period of the Second World War. Growing up through this time they would have seen popular Liberal governments led by prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.

However, voters born in the 1930s would have come of age in a post-war environment, growing up in the economically exuberant times of the 1950s, at the end of the Liberal era, being in their mid-20s at a time when Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker won a huge majority in 1958.

None of this is to say that your age or when you were born determines how you vote. Voter choice is a complex process that takes into account many factors ranging from your ideology to your parents’ party affiliation, from your religion to your evaluations of government performance. However, it’s important to recognize that age isn’t just a number. It can help to explain not only the small stories of politics about how voters’ politics change with their life cycles, but also the big political narratives of how important events and historical context can influence whole generations of electors.

We can also use this to gain some understanding of the future of politics. It’s a good sign for the NDP that the youngest generation of voters is leaning towards them, as at least some of these voters will carry their partisan identity with them. Similarly, the consistent Conservative strength among older voters – who also happen to turn out to vote – suggests that if they are able to continue convincing these voters to support them, they can have a strong base going forward. Finally, the Liberals might also see an area for growth in some of their challenges: if Justin Trudeau can build strong youth support on top of an older-skewing base, he might be able to successfully use age to become a second-generation prime minister.

Graphic by Jeremy Agius. Produced by Chris Hannay.

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