Young people’s voting behavior in 2018 elections across Europe

Executive summary of the bachelor thesis in International Politics, Law and Economics of Lorenzo Colombo, University of Milano. Accademic year 2022/2023

Supervisor: Dr. Nicola Maggini


This thesis aims to give a brief account of the scholarly debate on the factors that influence the electoral behavior of younger generations in Western Europe. Moreover, it tries to apply different theories that stem from the academic debate to the 2018 electoral cycle in six Western European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, United Kingdom and Sweden) in order to give insights for further research on the topic and to present similarities and differences in voting behavior between younger and older generations of voters.

Theoretical background

Many scholars have conceived different theories on voting behavior without distinctions based on age. In this context, two main lines of reasoning have emerged.

The first one is the “Michigan School”, which demonstrated how socialization is important to understand voting behavior. Indeed, by virtue of this process, people develop a habit and reaffirm their identity through the act of voting. Moreover, voters may become “immunized” to change after voting for the same party for three consecutive elections. According to the theory, then, voting is based on the “psychological identification” of voters to parties, hence people will most likely vote for the same party for their entire life. In this context, then, young voters are crucial in the assessment of long-term electoral trends, due to cohort differences and stable voting behavior in the long run that young people may develop during their political life.

The second one is the “social cleavages theory”, which states that parties represent and politicize social cleavages already present in society that stem from important historical facts. According to this theory, people’s vote is based on membership to a specific social group. For instance, thinking about the owner versus worker cleavage, blue-collar workers will vote for the socialist parties, while white-collar workers will vote for the bourgeois parties. In this context, it’s easy to predict that electoral change is very slow and linked to changes in the profound structure of societies.

However, over the years, scholars have devised three effects that may influence young people’s voting decisions.

The first one is the life-cycle effect which predicts that individuals in different stages of their lives have different political opinions. By virtue of this, we should expect that older people show higher levels of support for conservative parties, while younger generations support more left-wing or radical parties.

The second one is the period effect, which suggests that voting behavior is influenced by the dominant political and cultural spirit in society. In this regard, we should expect that everyone will change their political orientations. For instance, think about the effect that the 9-11 attack has produced on the political opinions of US citizens in regard to defense spending. 

The last one is the cohort effect, according to which political opinions are influenced by the socialization process rather than by the aging process. In other words, young people learn and form their values during years in which there is a dominant culture and then, these opinions are more or less fixed for the lifetime of the individual. For instance, think about the “1968 generation” in Italy which shows a more left-leaning orientation due to the fact that it has been socialized in years of mass movements and protests.

Data and methods 

The empirical analysis is based on data gathered from Module 5 of the Comparative Study on Electoral Systems (CSES). Furthermore, I have classified as “Young people” those individuals who were born on, and after, 1983. Conversely, I have classified as “Old people” those individuals who were born before 1983. I will perform a country-by-country analysis and then I will present the broader picture that stems from it.


Consistent with previous studies, I found that in France younger people disproportionally favor radical left parties like La France Insoumise (LFI) or populist radical right parties like Front National (FN). Moreover, they punish mainstream and centrist parties like the Parti Socialiste (PS) or La République en Marche(LaReM). 

Figure 1: Difference in party preferences between younger and older generations in France

The same picture can be found in Germany, as shown in Figure 2. Indeed, mainstream parties, like CDU/CSU and the SPD, have been punished by younger generations, while the leftist Die Linkeor the environmentalist Die Gruenen have been rewarded. Interestingly, a sui generis populist left party like Die Parteishows higher levels of support among younger people, probably gathering a protest vote against the political elite.

Figure 2: Difference in party preferences between young and older generations in Germany

In Italy, as shown in Figure 3, the picture is more complex due to the fact that, while the mainstream party Partito Democratico (PD) has been punished, Forza Italia (FI), another mainstream party, was not. Moreover, younger people favored the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), probably due to their campaign in favor of a radical change of the status quo, the leftist Liberi e Uguali (LeU) for their anti-austerity policies, and the liberal Più Europa (+E) for their progressive policies about civil rights and a clear pro-European platform.

Figure 3: Difference in party preferences between younerg and older generations in Italy

In Portugal, as shown in Figure 4, the mainstream Socialist party (PS) has been under-represented among younger people. As in other countries, younger generations supported the radical leftist Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and the greens Pessoas-Animais-Natureza(PAN). However, the Coligação Democratica Unitaria (CDU) has been punished due to a conservative platform on civil rights mixed with a radical left political platform on socio-economic issues and environmentalist policies.

Figure 4: Difference in party preferences between younger and older generations in Portugal

In the United Kingdom, as shown in Figure 5, young people have significantly backed the Labour party, while punishing the Conservatives. This was probably due to the radical and anti-austerity electoral campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, named “For the Many, not the Few”. Moreover, minor parties do not differ from the average, most likely due to the effects of the majoritarian electoral system.

Figure 5: Difference in party preferences between younger and older generations in the United Kingdom

Lastly, the Swedish case seems to confirm the literature because younger people punished the mainstream center-left SAP, the Christian Democrats (KD), and the populist radical right party of the Swedish Democrats (SD). Moreover, as in other countries, younger people rewarded the alternative leftist party V and the greens MP. Furthermore, the over-representation of conservative parties like M and C is consistent with an increasing trend of young people’s self-placement on the right, for what concerns socio-economic issues, and progressive stances on civil rights.

Figure 6: Difference in party preferences between younger and older generations in Sweden


This study suggests that, in the 2018 electoral cycle, young people’s voting behavior has been driven by a life-cycle effect, according to which people are more radical when they are younger. In this regard, younger generations seem to favor alternative parties and political platforms which have a progressive agenda for what concerns civil rights and environmental issues. Indeed, parties that are more sensitive to new issues, which campaign in favor of a radical change of the status quo or present a new way of making politics (like the open and bottom-up campaign of Jermy Corbyn) have managed to convince younger generations. These parties are, in the political science literature, usually classified as Green-Alternative-Libertarian (GAL) and are increasingly gaining electoral support in Western Europe, changing the structure of electoral competition in the continent. 

Interestingly, from the Portuguese case, we can suggest that incoherent political platforms, that combine leftist policies on socio-economic issues and conservative stances on civil rights, do not attract younger voters. However, this finding should be scrutinized more in-depth in future research due to the Swedish case, which seems to falsify the Portuguese findings. 

Indeed, the findings of this work should be taken as suggestions for future research because, even if these results are in line with previous research, they stem from very simple analyses and only one electoral cycle has been taken into account. Therefore, due to the simple statistical analyses, we are not able to assess if we are in the presence of a cohort effect or only a life-cycle effect. Indeed, these require a longitudinal approach to be assessed. 

However, I argue that studying young people’s voting behavior is crucial in the prediction of future electoral conflicts in established democracies and, therefore, of the strength and resilience of our democratic systems. Voting is a crucial act in representative democracies because it can change the life of people through the laws made by Members of Parliament. Hence, studying electoral behavior may enhance representative democracies that, during the last years, have suffered from decreasing electoral participation and increasing civil conflicts.

Foto di Arnaud Jaegers su Unsplash