Young politically active

Plenty of young people are politically active on social media and in demonstrations, but a relatively small proportion of them vote.

Why is it that the 18- to 29-year-old age demographic is seemingly the most politically active yet consistently votes the least? The statement may seem to contradict itself, but it’s true. 

Although it may seem to defy common sense, younger people are the least likely to vote in presidential elections. Since voter turnout can only be measured relative to other age brackets, the population over 65 will be compared against the 18-29 demographic to identify and explain the voting patterns of the younger group. 

In the 2016 presidential election, the demographic of 18- to 29-year-olds voted the least, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the 65 and older population voted the most at 46.1% and 70.9%, respectively. This relationship is also true for each age bracket voting more relative to the younger bracket before it. 

While voting habits and statistics are easy to quantify, political activism and interest are much harer to put into numbers. The measure used for comparison here is the percentage of each age group that’s attended a political rally or event in the past five years. The 18- to 29-year-olds top the list at 32% participation with the 65+ age bracket coming in as the least with a 29% participation rate, according to Pew Research Center. 

Even though it may seem contradictory, the age group with the highest in-person political participation has the lowest voting rates compared to all other age brackets.

A possible explanation for young people having a high social activism participation rate and low voting turnout comes from a combination of the diffusion of social responsibility and a high relative opportunity cost. Attending a political event is more time consuming than voting, and young people still go to events more than vote relative to other age groups.

Young people have their entire lives ahead of them. This means that the range of available alternative activities on any given day is broad. Voting for a president may be the most costly forgone alternative to most young people. On any given Tuesday, they have the option to work, go to class, study or pursue some other activity that’s enjoyable or needed. 

Additionally, many people in that age group are away at college and need to send in an absentee ballot to vote, which they may not file in time. On the other hand, the 65+ age group may have little to nothing to do since they’re around retirement age. This can also be explained in part by the bystander effect or the diffusion of social responsibility, which is “the idea that the presence of others changes the behavior of the individual by making them feel less responsible for the consequences of their actions,” according to an article in Oxford Academic Journals. 

With a high time cost to voting, it’s rational for the younger people to not vote and justify it with a diffusion of responsibility. Their rationale may follow that “with millions of people in America, my one vote will not change anything.” 

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While this is true for a single individual, many young people following that same train of thought their rationale makes it invalid. Plain and simple, the opportunity cost of voting is much lower for those 65 and older compared to the 18- to 29-year-old and makes it economically rational for the younger people to not vote in a presidential election.

While a low relative voter turnout is easily explained by the higher opportunity costs incurred by the working-age 18-29 demographic compared to the retirement age 65+ group, it doesn’t explain why there’s such a high political activism rate among the youth. The diffusion of social responsibility plays a role in this phenomenon. While a presidential candidate affects everyone in America, political policy is more acute and affects a much smaller number of people. 

For example, the March for Our Lives demonstration in 2018 had over 1 million people in Washington D.C. to protest gun laws because unlike a president, gun violence is much more direct and compelling to some people. This makes attending the protest the best activity for their time, trumping any other forgone alternative. 

This effect is compounded when a large number of specific special interest groups and causes are taken into account. A low opportunity cost combined with the lack of diffusion of responsibility makes young people more likely to go out and participate in a political event.

The reason that young people have a high social activism participation rate and low voter turnout comes from a combination of the diffusion of social responsibility and a high relative opportunity cost. Because of a large number of alternative activities available to the younger people at the beginning and before their careers, the relative opportunity cost of voting is very large compared to older demographics making it rational for younger people to not vote. 

Political activism doesn’t follow this because the events young people attend are acute and will most likely affect their lives for years to come. This makes the opportunity cost of forgoing the events tremendous compared to older people with their lives behind them. 

Young people don’t vote yet attend political events at the highest rate almost completely due to differing opportunity costs and diffusion — or a lack of responsibility.

Phillip Roth is a sophomore finance major. Contact Phillip at rothpa@dukes.jmu.edu.