The average voter is getting older and older, and younger people are going to the polls less and less often. There is growing concern about a so-called “pensioners’ democracy” in which parties make policies at the expense of intergenerational justice. But the older generation thinks in a more future-oriented manner than is often assumed.
According to the findings of a study jointly conducted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Rheingold Institute, older individuals are more future-oriented than younger individuals when it comes to political decision-making. While older people tend to take a long-term perspective, such as during elections, the younger generation makes decisions based on concerns that are more pragmatic and dependent on their current situation in life. The reason for this is that older people are more firmly anchored in a political worldview as a result of their political socialization. When it comes to making decisions, this takes precedence over current individual needs.
The study found that 19- to 32-year-olds make decisions based more on specific issues and situations, with political decisions resulting more strongly from individual needs. "Instead of the much-discussed pensioners’ democracy, it is actually the short-term decisions of the younger generations that are posing a challenge to the long-term orientation of the democracy," said Jörg Dräger, a member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Executive Board. For this reason, the authors of the study have called younger individuals members of the "Wahl-O-Mat" ("Vote-O-Mat") generation after an online tool that helps them find their bearing by comparing their political preferences with the policy stances of the various political parties.
The Parents of Small Children Are More Present-Oriented
The generation one belongs to is not the only thing that influences one’s political behavior. Children also change one’s perspectives – and in a surprising way: Although parents claim to want their political behavior to be more strongly oriented toward the future, that is not the way they actually behave. In the group of parents with children younger than 10, 74 percent said that policies should be geared toward solving today’s problems. However, only 63 percent of all respondents agreed with that stance. The in-depth psychological interviews forming the core part of the study display a certain paradox: The challenges of everyday life lead to an orientation more geared toward the needs of the present even though parents would generally like parties to pursue policies that are geared toward the long-term well-being of their children.
Generally speaking, when it comes to the future-orientation of policies, there is a major gap between what one claims to want and what one actually does. While almost two-thirds of citizens would like to have policies that have a long-term orientation, the decisions they make are becoming more and more geared toward the short-term and day-to-day concerns before an election. In the 1970s, 65 percent of the population still said that they would vote for the same political camp or the same party at every election. Today, only 42 percent still says this.
General Expectations Regarding Political Policies: A Long-term Orientation
The study found that external influences were the main factors behind the decline in future-oriented action across all generations. Many people claimed to be worried about the global economic and financial crises as well as about how they would negatively impact Germany. A feeling of being overwhelmed gives rise to a desire to preserve the status quo. More and more votes perceive the world as being too complex for them to feel confident about judging whether decisions regarding which future course to take are right or wrong.
Instead, they prefer to concentrate on the immediate present. However, the desire for long-term stability and security across all generations remains unaffected by this trend: Citizens expect that politicians will work toward finding solutions to long-term problems. They feel uneasy when they sense that parties and governments are only reacting to the problems of the day and are not conveying any visions for the future. "Politicians cannot neglect being oriented toward the future in favor of securing more votes at the next election," Dräger says. For this reason, the study's authors recommend having a debate about whether having politicians make voluntary commitments to intergenerational justice and sustainability could strengthen the future viability of our democracy.
About the "Generation Vote-O-Mat" Study
The study is primarily based on the findings of 54 in-depth psychological interviews conducted in the spring of 2014 by the Rheingold Institute, a renowned provider of qualitative psychological research. The goal of these two-hour interviews was to learn as much as possible about the political attitudes of the interviewees as well as their degree of orientation toward the present or future as expressed in the interview. Furthermore, it aimed to examine whether and to what degree the various grades of future orientation could be explained by age/generational affiliation or by having children. Interviewees were divided into three age groups: 19- to 32-year olds, 33- to 49-year-olds, and 50- to 70-year-olds.
Moreover, the selection of interviewees also ensured that other relevant explanatory factors – such as income, gender, place of residence (urban vs. rural) and education – were similar within the age segment, and that party preferences were representatively distributed across the overall sample of all interviewees. These findings were complemented by the results of a representative survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute, a leading opinion and market research organization in Germany. This survey of 1,621 people, conducted orally and in person in July 2014, mirrored some of the key findings of the qualitative part of the study.
Please note: The "Wahl-O-Mat" ("Vote-O-Mat") is an interactive, online voting-advice tool designed by the German Federal Agency for Civil Education. Since its introduction in 2002, it has been used some 48 million times. For more information, click here.