Political Participation and Canadian Millennials – What Gives?

A lot of ink has been spilt on the subject of youth political participation.

Elections Canada estimates that youth voter turnout in the last federal election (2011) “was considerably below the average – just 38.8 percent of Canadians aged 18-24 and 45.1 percent of 25-34 year olds voted.”  This is pathetic and alarming.

Moreover, this phenomenon is not just a life-cycle effect.  It seems to be a deeper, more troubling cohort effect (that is, it is not related to age alone but other factors).

Many hypothesis have been put forward to explain this decline in political participation.

Some focus on apathy and being turned off from the political system.  Young Canadians simply don’t care about politics, government and public affairs and therefore do not participate. This may be true but some research has found that young Canadians are less cynical about politics than older Canadians.

Others argue that political participation is lower in Canada because the political actors ignore young Canadians and turn us off from politics.  The negativity of our politics along with a focus on issues that matter little to young Canadians leave us uninterested the process.

Another hypothesis focuses on young Canadians’ lack of political knowledge, which in turn lowers participation.  Henry Milner, an academic at the Universite de Montreal is perhaps the most prominent scholar in looking at this relationship.

Still another explains declining turnout among all age groups by arguing that citizens are increasingly becoming citizen-consumers and treat politics like any other interaction.  They only interact when there is something in it for them, supposing that public affairs is less about civic duty and more about rugged individualism.  This thesis makes a lot of sense to me.

On Sunday, I interviewed Geoff Sharpe, a digital media strategist who has been involved in politics for a while and worked on Kathleen Wynne’s digital strategy on her campaign to become Ontario Liberal Leader.  I asked him why he thought young people were so disengaged from politics and his points are similar to this citizen-consumer argument.

Take a look at what he had to say:

My sense is that declining youth voter turnout and lower overall political involvement is likely affected by all of these explanations. I don’t think that there is one single answer to explain why so many young Canadians choose not to participate in the political life of our country.

The Responsible Citizen Thesis

But indulge me for a moment as I flip some of these arguments on their head.  Instead of looking at disengagement as a negative, I believe many young Canadians consider their lack of participation in politics as a positive.

How so you ask?  Well, I call it the Responsible Citizen Thesis.

This thesis, which I admit still needs some work, does not apply to all non-voters.  There are definitely some young Canadians, like those from other age groups, who are apathetic.

But in the research I’ve done and young Canadians I’ve spoken with, it’s clear that the reason many young people don’t vote or participate in politics is not because they don’t care, but because they feel they don’t know enough about the subject to make an informed choice on Election Day.  They feel it would be irresponsible for them to vote with the limited knowledge they have.

This idea takes its basis from the political knowledge arguments made by Milner and other scholars but takes it a step further by showing how a lack of political knowledge leads to a lack of political participation.

Now many of you will argue that its still not appropriate for citizens to be uninformed.  That a “responsible citizen” has a duty to be informed and to participate.  Part of being a responsible citizen means engaging in politics to the extent that one can make an informed vote choice, right?.  Well sure, but that’s not how things work in the head of a Millennial.

For some Millennials, political participation is a duty of citizenship.  But on a practical level, it ranks much lower on what matters to many young Canadians’.

Most of our lives are so busy already – some of what we do isn’t as consequential as engaging in public affairs – but we’re are busy nonetheless.  If the return on our time to learn about politics and become inform is less than the return on other uses of our time, many people will simply let others do the heavy lifting for us.

Why engage in political debates and stay informed when the stakes seem so low?

Why participate in public affairs, when for the most part, things in Canada are pretty good?

We have an excellent standard of living.  We have access to the most advanced technology, post-secondary education, while not as affordable as it once was, is still pretty good compared to our neighbours to the south.  Our health care system, while becoming increasing expensive, works pretty good for us since we don’t need nor use it as much as older Canadians.  That seems like a reasonable explanation to some young Canadians, especially those who would rather spend their energy on other matters that are more interesting.

Moreover, young people are far more mobile and the permanent voters list can’t keep up with where we might happen to call home at any given time.

Why political participation matters for Millennials, not just for Canadian democracy…

Declining youth vote turnout and an increasing politically disengaged generation is troubling for Canadian democracy.  We don’t know whether Canadian Millennials will become more engaged as they get older.  One would assume that as people get jobs, start paying taxes, and need to worry about things beyond themselves that many will at least take enough interest in politics to feel that they can make an informed choice.

But as a Millennial, there are many reasons why we should be active in public affairs now, not later when it may seem to matter more.  Politics and the policies it produces matters now and young Canadians should not sit on the sidelines and allow others to make decisions for us.

Think about this: When all those baby-boomers (our parents) retire and need access to more health services, long-term care, and pensions, who will pay for them?

For those of us working full time, if you think we pay a lot of taxes now, just wait until your parents retire.

These are big policy questions that we need to be part of it now, before it is too late.

And let’s face it – if we want to, we can be a powerful political force.

Canadian Millennials Could Be a Powerful Political Force

The 2011 Census found that those aged 18 to 29 represent about 20% of the voting aged population in Canada.   By 2020, Canadian Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000 will make up about 35-38% of the voting aged population:  a major voting block that rivals the political power of Baby-Boomers today.

Source: Statistics Canada

Despite being 20% of the voting age population, only about 35% of us bothered to vote in the last federal election.

In the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, according to exit polling, voters aged 18 to 29 made up 19% of the electorate, a one point increase from 2008 and two points higher than 2004.  There’s no doubt that Millennials were critical to Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012.  CIRCLE estimates that about 45% of Americans aged 18 to 29 voted in the 2012 election, four points higher than the 41% turnout in 2000 but a five point drop from 2008.

In Canada, I estimate (using Election Canada’s own estimates) that Canadians aged 18 to 29 accounted for only 14% of the electorate yet represented about 20% of the population.  Our voice is being drowned out by those older than us and it is having an effect on the tone and policy choices that our political leaders make in Ottawa.

% of Eligible Voter % of Electorate in 2011 Difference
18-29 20% 14% -6.0%
30-44 25% 22% -3.0%
45-54 20% 22% 2.1%
55-64 17% 20% 3.4%
65-74 10% 13% 2.9%
75+ 8% 9% 0.5%


Using data from the 2011 Canadian Election Study I estimated what might have happened had Millennials voted according to their proportion of eligible voters in the population.  Obviously a problem with the estimation is that it assumes that non-voting Millennials would have voted in the same proportions as those that voted (which is not necessarily correct, I know) but it is all I can base the estimation on.

According to the 2011 Canadian Election Study, voters aged 18 to 29 were more likely to have voted for the NDP than older voters.  Thirty-seven percent of Millennial voters cast a ballot for the NDP compared with 31% of those aged 30 and over.  Younger voters were also much more likely to vote Green than those 30+.


Using the Election Study data weighted by Elections Canada estimates on voter turnout by age group, my model produces election results very similar to the actual results.  When I change the composition of the electorate and run a scenario where Millennials represent 20% of the electorate as opposed to 14%, the results of the election do not change significantly (3rd column in the table below).  The Conservative Party still gets 39.8% of the vote, a decline of 0.7 percentage points while the NDP vote rises by 0.4%.  In other words, the impact of more voters doesn’t seem to be that significant overall but could influence the results in some close ridings – especially where there are more younger voters (ridings with large educational institutions etc).


Again, we need to keep in mind that the model assumes that the vote choice of non-voters is the same as those who actually voted which may not be accurate.  In that case, the impact of more Millennial voters could have been more significant on the overall results.

Can we Get More Millennials to Vote?

It’s not easy to change habits and for many Millennials, not voting and being disengaged from politics has become a habit.  But with changes in technology and political mobilization, there are some things that can be done to increase youth political participation.

Improve civic education

I think the most important thing we can do to encourage young Canadians to get involved in politics is to enhance civic education in elementary and high school.  One or two classes is not enough.  We should be requiring students to read the news, engage in discussion about policy and political issues, and to stay informed.

If a lack of confidence and knowledge is preventing youth from participating in public affairs then the responsibility to change that starts with parents and our education system.

Use technology the way we use technology

As political parties, government departments, and advocacy organizations adopt new advances in technology, younger Canadians will be more likely to participate.  When we advise commercial clients about marketing to Millennials the most important advice we give is that you have to go where the consumers are.  Consumers are now online.  They have endless choices to occupy their time.  Political parties and election administrations have to demonstrate that becoming informed and participating in politics is worth the time and the effort.

Simply reverting to the notion of civic duty will not be enough.  We are less deferential.  We are the “do it yourselves” generation.

Ask us to get involved

Millennials need to be asked to participate.  We will participate when we are asked to.  But the invitation has to be genuine and meaningful.

Will we see an increase in political participation?

Well that depends on many factors.

It’s like a  game of chicken:  many Millennials won’t engage in politics until politicians and political parties engage with them.  But politicians won’t engage Millennials until there is a clear return on their investment in time and political capital.  Millennials are unreliable voters – why court them if you can’t count on them showing up on election day.

Online voting, expanded use of social media, and a focus on youth issues might help to increase interest and therefore participation.  But until young Canadians feel comfortable enough with the topic, feel confident to participate, I expect that youth political participation will remain low.

David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data and leads its Public Affairs research practice. He has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.  He’s an avid road cyclist.

Contact David Coletto:

T: 613-232-2806 x. 248

E: david@abacusdata.ca

W: http://www.abacusdata.ca

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