An Old Country Goes to the Polls
On September 24, 61.5 million Germans will be entitled to vote. More than a third of the electorate will be aged 60 or older. By contrast, no more than 15 percent of the electorate will be aged 30 and younger. While most Western societies are struggling with the effects of aging populations, there are few countries with an electoral imbalance quite like Germany’s. With the median voter 52 years old, Germany has the oldest voting population in Europe. The disproportionate impact of 60 and older voter is further amplified by their turnout. In fact, the people most keen to cast their votes in the 2013 election were between 60 and 70. Their turnout rate was roughly 80 percent. Younger voters, by contrast, were much less eager to participate, with turnout rates of 64 percent at most.
The election campaign has mirrored this bias in favor of the 60 and older group, with the chancellor’s Christian Democrats (CDU) party emphasizing stability and continuity (under Merkel) over innovative ideas for the future. Issues that appeal to older people — pensions in particular — are much more prominent than those affecting younger people or future generations. Education and environmental protection are just two topics that have largely vanished without trace. Recent efforts to address them — like the Green Party’s pledge to make coalition talks contingent on ending the combustion engine, or Martin Schulz’s promise to invest an additional 12 million euros into schools — may not be enough to make up for the parties’ overall neglect for the youth vote.
How do younger voters cope with their lack of electoral power and the absence of any lively debate about the future? Disillusionment is certainly part of the answer. A climate of disaffection with the traditional political participation channels is evident in young people’s turnout. Yet, there is another, more surprising aspect of how younger people view this elder-centric campaign, which makes no attempt to appeal to the change agents of tomorrow. Many young Germans do not aspire to change; they, too, desire continuity. More than half of first-time voters (those of ages 18 to 21) support Merkel as chancellor. In 2013, thanks to Merkel, the CDU won the vote of those aged 18 to 24 — a rather unusual win, given that young voters usually prefer progressive parties to conservative ones. These first-time voters have grown up with Merkel; they have no memory of any other chancellor. But their preference for continuity is not just home-grown. It is closely tied to another election and the discontinuity it stirred: the U.S. election that brought Trump into power.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.