Are political parties facing a demographic time bomb?

Here’s something interesting to consider if you’re into politics or the social sciences at all.

In 1981, Australian pollsters asked their compatriots whether they were an active member of a political party, an inactive member, or not a member at all.The average age of an active Australian political party member in 1981: 36 years.

In 1995, Australians were asked the same question a second time.  The average age of an active Australian political party member in 1995: 49 years.

In 2005, pollsters asked the same question a third time. By this time, the average age of a card-carrying member of an Australian political party was 55 years.*

Had there been a healthy intake of younger people into Australia’s political parties, the average age of an active party member should have only increased slowly over those years, in response to declining birth rates and longer life expectancies.

The average age of a card-carrying partisan shouldn’t have shot up by 19 years in just 24 years — the average 1981 party member having been born in 1945, and the average 2005 party member having been born only five years later, in 1950.

But that average party member age did skyrocket by 19 years between 1981 and 2005, suggesting that the parties’ attempts to engage younger Australians have been decisively rejected.

Not that this will matter much over the course of the brief Australian electoral cycle, where the public typically goes to the polls every three years.  But think ahead 15 years, and you’re looking at a future of shrinking constituency associations, an increasingly limited talent pool, and greater difficulty withholding nominations from fame-seekers who go on to become human train wrecks.

Regrettably, no directly comparable data has been gathered in Canada to determine whether or not we’ve seen the same trend here over time. But there’s little to suggest that Canada wouldn’t follow the same trend.

When the same question finally was asked in Canada in 2006, the average card-carrying member of a Canadian political party was 55 years of age.

Like Australians, we’re neither as civic-minded as the northern Europeans, nor as passionate about politics as the Americans. In both Canada and Australia, federal politicians are often viewed as rude loudmouths or hilariously inept. A TV network that pre-empts a hockey game in Canada or a footy match in Australia for a leaders’ debate or election night results better be ready to see its switchboard light up with calls from angry sports fans.

One wonders what will happen to Australia’s political parties fifteen years from now, when the average active party member will be  about 70 years old, and starting to be slowed down by the effects of age, if the 1981-2005 aging trend hasn’t been reversed by then.

One wonder what will happen to Canada’s parties, if we are indeed seeing the same trend here.

* – Source:  World Values Survey

Updated Sept. 15 at 12:34 p.m. with additional information about Canada.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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