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Electoral Insight – 2004 General Election

Electoral Insight – January 2005

Missing the Message: Young Adults and the Election Issues

Elisabeth Gidengil
Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University

André Blais
Professor, Department of Political Science, Université de Montréal

Joanna Everitt
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of New Brunswick (Saint John)

Patrick Fournier
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Université de Montréal

Neil Nevitte
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto

Voter turnout in last June's federal election confounded optimistic predictions that a close election would reverse the decline in electoral participation. Even though the outcome of the election remained uncertain, Canadians stayed away from the polls in record numbers. Since the 1988 election, turnout has dropped 15 points to reach a historic low of 60.9% in 2004. Detailed analyses of electoral participation since the 1968 federal election indicate that much of the decline has been driven by generational replacement. Footnote 1 Today's young Canadians are much less likely to vote than their parents or their grandparents were when they were in their twenties. Indeed, according to our survey results, turnout in the 2004 federal election was 15 points lower among those aged 18 to 29 than it was among those aged 30 and over. While no single factor explains this trend, Footnote 2 many young Canadians seem to be tuning out of politics altogether.

Low voter turnout on the part of young Canadians has generated a great deal of concern. Indeed, it was one of the most talked-about facets of the 2004 election. And yet very little is known about how this disengagement is affecting electoral representation. We address this question by asking whether – and how – the opinions of young Canadians on a variety of topical issues differ from those of older Canadians. Our data come from the 2004 Canadian Election Study. Footnote 3

Do young Canadians have different priorities?

Popular commentary on youth disengagement suggests that young Canadians are turned off electoral politics because party platforms and party leaders pay too little attention to the issues that really concern younger citizens. But this hypothesis does not seem to hold water when we examine one of the issues that is commonly assumed to be important to this generation, namely the environment. When Canadians aged 18 to 29 were asked to select the issue that was most important to them personally in the election, only 7% selected the environment from among the five possible choices (see Figure 1). Indeed, the environment was the lowest-ranked of the five issues in this age group, as it was among older Canadians. And only 16% of those under 30 named the environment as their second most important issue.

The number one issue for Canadians of all ages was health. In every age group, approximately half identified health as their number one issue and another quarter chose it as their next most important issue. Indeed, a striking finding from the survey data is how similar are the priorities of Canadians, regardless of their age. This makes it difficult to attribute the decline in youth voting to a neglect of the issues that matter to young people. The only appreciable difference among age groups is in the relative importance people attach to the issues of corruption in government and taxes. The corruption issue was the second-ranked issue for Canadians 30 years and older, but ranked third, just behind taxes, for those under 30.

The similarity in priorities is surprising in light of conventional wisdom about the impact of the life cycle on voting. The likelihood of voting typically increases by about 15 points between the ages of 20 and 50. Footnote 4 One explanation for this phenomenon is that there are age-related variations in the personal relevance of the issues that typically dominate the political agenda. Health care, for example, is assumed to matter more as people get older and they have to worry about the health of their children, then their aging relatives, and finally themselves. Similarly, taxation is assumed to be more salient to people during their peak earning years. It turns out, though, that the life cycle had rather modest effects on priorities in last June's election.

Are young Canadians more critical of business and government?

Another recurring theme in discussions about young adults concerns their disaffection with corporate Canada and big government alike. Certainly, young people are more skeptical about the free enterprise system than are older Canadians. They are the most likely to reject the notion that everyone benefits, including the poor, when businesses make a lot of money. And they are the most likely to disagree with the idea that people who don't get ahead should blame themselves, not the system (see Figure 2). However, this is not the majority view: more than half of this age group agreed with the statement that people have only themselves to blame. And the young were actually the least likely to think that spending on welfare and/or social housing should be increased.

Young people were also the least likely to want to see corporate taxes increased: 38% of the under-30s favoured higher corporate taxes, compared with 52% of those aged 30 to 59, and 44% of those aged 60 and up. And they were no more likely than Canadians at large (32%) to think that business should be less powerful (28%), though they were the least likely (31%) to think that unions should have less power. In short, it is difficult to detect in these data any particular hostility toward business on the part of Canadians in this age group. True, the under-30s seem reluctant to leave job creation entirely to the private sector, but they are not very different in this regard from those aged 30 to 59 (see Figure 2).

Evidence of particularly strong disaffection with government and politics on the part of young Canadians is also hard to find. Certainly, there are indications of political disaffection among this age group, but levels of disaffection among the young are no more profound than they are among older Canadians. Young people turn out to be close to the Canadian average when it comes to believing that politicians are ready to lie to get elected (86%) or that political parties hardly ever keep their election promises (51%). In fact, if anything, they express less frustration with politics than do older Canadians. People aged 18 to 29 are the least likely to think that all federal political parties are basically the same, that there isn't really a choice (33%). They are also the least likely to believe that the government does not care much what people like them think (53%), and they are actually the most likely to say that they are at least fairly satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada (63%).

Are young Canadians more open to diversity and new lifestyles?

So far, this portrait of attitudes and views about politics reveals surprisingly few differences between young Canadians and those aged 30 and over. The picture begins to change, however, when we turn to attitudes toward such social issues as race, gender and same-sex marriage. Young people, for example, are the most likely to say that more should be done for racial minorities (see Figure 3). This is very likely a generational difference. These young adults were socialized in a Canada that was far more multiracial than the Canada that their parents or their grandparents experienced during their formative years. Consequently, it is plausible to suppose that they are more likely to have friends and acquaintances that have had personal experience of racial prejudice and discrimination. And, of course, young people themselves are more likely to be members of a racial minority.

Younger Canadians are likely to have had different formative experiences on other fronts, too. For example, they were born into a society where unprecedented numbers of women are working for pay outside the home and barriers to entry into many professions have been falling away. As a result, they are much more likely than previous generations to have fathers who took an active role in raising their children and running their homes. It is hardly surprising, then, to see substantial differences in views about gender roles from one age group to the next. The under-30s are much more likely to disagree with the notion that society would be better off if more women stayed home with their children. In fact, they were twice as likely as people in their sixties and older to reject this traditional conception of gender roles. The young are also more likely than their older counterparts to believe that it should be easy for women to obtain an abortion. In this respect, though, their attitudes were not so different from those of Canadians aged 30 to 59.

Today's young adults have also grown up in a society that increasingly accepts diverse lifestyles and sexual orientations. This is reflected in their significantly higher levels of support for same-sex marriage. Fully half of 18- to 29-year-olds declared themselves to be in favour, compared with only 14% of those aged 60 and up. Underpinning these differences are very different feelings about gays and lesbians (see Figure 4). When asked to rate their feelings on a 0 to 100 scale, young people typically gave gays and lesbians a positive score, and so did those aged 30 to 59. Notice that those aged 60 and over were much more likely to provide negative (that is, less than 50) ratings for these groups.

Indeed, young people were more likely to have positive feelings about a number of minorities. In each case, however, Canadians 60 and over typically expressed the least positive feelings, regardless of whether they were asked about racial minorities, Aboriginal peoples, feminists or, most especially, gays and lesbians. The feelings of those aged 30 to 59 were not that different, on average, from those of their younger counterparts.

Are young Canadians more opposed to the use of force?

Canada's decision not to participate in the war against Iraq was endorsed by a majority of Canadians in every age group (see Figure 5). However, young people were even more clearly inclined to believe that this was the right decision. Similar age differences are apparent on a variety of outlooks concerning the use of force. These differences show up particularly strongly on the question of defence spending. A clear majority of those aged 18 to 29 were opposed to any increase in defence spending.

Young people also hold somewhat different views on questions of law and order. Unlike older Canadians, for example, they are more likely to oppose the death penalty for people convicted of murder. This is actually the majority position among those under 30: those opposed to capital punishment outnumber those in favour by a margin of 15 points. Opinions among the older age groups are much more evenly divided. Young people are also a little more likely to believe that spending more on rehabilitation is a better way than tougher sentences to deal with youths who commit violent crimes. But, the most striking age difference emerges on the issue of Canada's gun registry. Just over half of young people are opposed to doing away with the gun registry entirely. That position is very much a minority opinion among older Canadians, especially those aged 60 and over.

Are young Canadians getting the message?

The 2004 Canadian Election Study found health care was by far the most important 2004 election issue for electors of all ages.

This overview of age differences in attitudes toward a number of current political issues offers some reassurance. Young Canadians appear to have a set of priorities that are surprisingly similar to those of older Canadians. Health was clearly the issue in the last election for a large number of Canadians, young as well as old. Moreover, there were relatively few issues on which the opinions of young adults diverged markedly from those of their elders. Instead, the differences were typically ones of degree. Young people, for example, tend to be more critical of the free enterprise system, but quite a number of older people share their skepticism. Spending priorities are not appreciably different, either, though predictably many more young people want spending on education to increase. In the one exception, defence spending, a majority of young people opposes any increase. However, there are some issues on which generational divides do appear, namely gender roles, same-sex marriage, and race. To the extent that young people are less likely to vote, there is a risk that their voices will not be heard on these particular questions.

Based on the evidence presented here, it would be premature to talk of a crisis of representation. The fact that young people tend to be the most satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada and the least likely to have negative feelings about the political parties and their leaders is encouraging. Even so, there is no reason to view low turnout on the part of the young with complacency; not least, because it is symptomatic of a broader disconnection from politics.

The 2004 Canadian Election Study provides abundant evidence of this disengagement. Young and old may care about some of the same issues, but the under-30s are much less able to name a political party that would be best at dealing with their number one concern. This finding is not attributable to the fact that many of them see little to choose among the contenders; people in this age group are actually the least likely to think that there is not really a choice. Rather, it signifies a lack of political awareness on the part of many young people. Young people rated their interest in politics at only 4.5 on a 0 to 10 scale (where zero indicated no interest at all), compared with 7.5 for those in their sixties and up.

Even near the end of the 36-day campaign, many young people could not name the prime minister or other party leaders. Pictured at a television debate (left to right) were Conservative leader Stephen Harper, N.D.P. leader Jack Layton, Liberal leader Paul Martin and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.

Some of the gaps in young people's knowledge of current Canadian politics are truly striking. During the final 10 days of the campaign, 40% of young people were still not able to come up with Paul Martin's name when asked to identify the leader of the Liberal Party. Lack of knowledge of the other party leaders was even more widespread: the figures were 53% for the Conservative leader, 66% for the leader of the New Democratic Party, and (in Quebec) 36% for the leader of the Bloc Québécois. Young people found it harder still to correctly match up which promises were made by which of the political parties. Health may have been a priority issue, but even in the closing days of the campaign, fewer than one in three knew which party was promising four billion dollars to reduce waiting times for surgery. Taxes were more important than the environment to young people. Even so, only 28% knew which party was promising to do away with the goods and services tax on family essentials. Most young people opposed increased spending on defence, yet only 40% knew which party was promising to increase military spending by two billion dollars a year. Similarly, a majority of young people opposed scrapping the gun registry, but fewer than one in three knew which party was proposing to do this. It is hard to cast an informed ballot if you do not know who the potential prime ministers are or what their parties are promising.

Issues that concern many young people are on the political agenda, and the political parties are taking positions on these issues. The problem seems to be that too often these messages are just not registering with a significant proportion of younger Canadians.


Footnote 1 André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil and Neil Nevitte, "Where does turnout decline come from?," European Journal of Political Research Vol. 43, No. 2 (March 2004), pp. 221–236. See also Elisabeth Gidengil, André Blais, Neil Nevitte and Richard Nadeau, "Turned Off or Tuned Out? Youth Participation in Politics," Electoral Insight Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2003), pp. 9–14. This was a special issue of Electoral Insight devoted to the topic of youth participation in elections.

Footnote 2 See Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, "Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters" (Ottawa: Elections Canada, 2003). Available at

Footnote 3 The 2004 Canadian Election Study involved a rolling cross-section campaign survey with a representative sample of 4,323 Canadians, a post-election survey, and a mail-back questionnaire. The campaign survey response rate was 55%. The Institute for Social Research at York University conducted the field work. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, with additional funding from Elections Canada. The data reported in this article are taken from the campaign survey and from the second release of the post-election survey. Copies of the questionnaires are available at

Footnote 4 See Gidengil et al., "Turned Off or Tuned Out?"


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.