Millennials and Gen Z have deserted the Coalition – this could be dire for the opposition

<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Support for the Coalition is at historic lows among younger people according to the 2022 Australian Election Study released on Monday, which paints a dire picture for the Liberal and National parties.

It is almost always the case that younger voters tend left/centre-left and voters become more conservative with age; the aphorism about being a socialist in one’s 20s but not by middle age is modestly supported by data. Each Australian Election Study conducted since 1987 finds older voters more likely to support the Coalition and reveals a modest decline in Labor’s support over the age distribution of the electorate.

The 2022 Australian Election Study adds a dramatic exclamation point to this longstanding truism of Australian politics. 2022 was a shocker for the Coalition, its vote share falling in almost every age group. But the Coalition’s standing among younger Australians has fallen to historic lows. Only about one in four people under the age of 40 reported voting for the Coalition in 2022. At no time in the 35-year history of the Australian Election Study have we observed such a low level of support for either major party in so large a segment of the electorate.

Figure 1: Age and reported House of Representatives vote in AES surveys from 1987 to 2022; 2022 results are highlighted with a bold line in each panel

These historically low levels of support for the Coalition among younger generations of voters are as much about the likely future of Australian politics as the 2022 election itself. Will younger voters trend back towards the Coalition over their life cycle, as new leaders and issues replace those of the 2022 election?

The reservoir of data accumulated over the Australian Election Study’s 35 years can help us answer this question. We consistently observe “life cycle” effects in political loyalties; for instance, becoming more conservative as one ages. But the AES data shows these effects to be mild.

Large, enduring changes in levels of political support over the life course are unusual in Australian politics. Of more importance is a form of “generational imprinting” or the effect a specific election or leader can have on the trajectories of voting preferences within generations as shown in graph two.

These patterns provide important context for the decline in Coalition support observed in 2022. Between 2016 and 2022, millennials record a large fall in Coalition support, dropping from 38% to 25% in just two election cycles. Changes of this magnitude and pace are rare in Australian electoral history, perhaps rivalled only by the greatest generation’s drift to the Coalition between 1987 and 1996.

Figure 2: House of Representatives vote choice, by generation and survey year, AES surveys 1987 to 2022

Generation Z, born after 1996, generate meaningful quantities of data for just the 2019 and 2022 elections. But in these two elections, just 26% of this group reported voting for the Coalition and 67% voting either Greens or Labor.

No other generation records such lopsided preferences at similarly early stages of the life course.

Millennials entered the electorate in the early 2000s, with about 35% of this generation supporting the Coalition, a level that has now fallen to 25%. Gen X first appear in the AES in 1987, with 40% reporting support for the Coalition and a slight trend away from this level in the 35 years since. Labor’s vote has waned somewhat among gen X, but almost entirely made up for in two-party-preferred terms by gen X’s turn towards the Greens.

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If and how the Coalition addresses this overwhelming deficit of support among younger generations is perhaps the single biggest question in Australian politics. Conversely, how stable is the ensemble of voting blocs (Labor, Green and independents) that drove the Coalition’s seat share in the House of Representatives to levels not seen since 1940, but delivered Labor a governing majority with fewer than one in three first-preference votes?

The AES does find some exceptional factors specific to the 2022 election that will not be as relevant in the next federal election. In particular, Scott Morrison was the least popular prime minister or leader of the opposition to contest an Australian election since AES started measuring leader popularity in 1990.

Morrison rated 3.8 on a 10-point dislike-to-like scale. Figures for other losing prime ministers include Kevin Rudd (4.0 in 2013), Paul Keating (4.2 in 1996) and John Howard (5.1 in 2007). How much anti-Coalition sentiment in 2022 was driven by Morrison’s historic unpopularity can’t be known precisely. But the AES suggests that 2022 was less of an issue-based election than 2019, with 53% of voters saying their 2022 choice was driven by policy differences, compared with 66% in 2019.

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Macroeconomic management, climate change and energy policy, industrial relations, the national integrity commission and the voice to parliament make up the substantive terrain over which the parties will compete for votes in 2025.

With Morrison presumably in the rear-view mirror by the next election, Labor’s performance on these issues will determine whether it can capitalise on the historic opportunity before it, imprinting loyalty to Labor on gen Z and millennials over the course of their lives.

  • Simon Jackman is one of the principal investigators of the 2022 Australian Election Study and an honorary professor at the University of Sydney