Why should we care about 16 and 17 year olds? Because they are different!

A lot has been written about the newly enfranchised 16-17 year olds who will be able to vote in the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future in September 2014. Comments range from assertions that they would be used by the SNP to boost the Yes vote to allegations that people so young would have too little interest in the subject to bother to make it to the polling station, let alone cast a sensible vote. Meanwhile, they will only constitute about 3% of the total electorate – so seem unlikely to swing the vote anyway.

So why should we care about them?

First and foremost because they will be the voters of tomorrow – and the referendum will be their first experience of exercising their right to vote. That first experience could well be formative; if they vote next September they might well get the habit of voting for life.

And it seems that far from being uninterested in politics in general or the constitutional debate in particular, Scotland’s young people are willing to become involved in the referendum. According to a survey of 14-17 year olds conducted in April and May 2013 (and by next September all of the survey participants will be 16), two-thirds (66%) of the newly enfranchised voters are ‘very’ or ‘rather’ likely to vote in the referendum, while only 13% say they are ‘very’ or ‘rather’ unlikely to vote. Although that suggests young people may be less likely to cast a referendum ballot than voters in general, it looks as though most will be drawn into the democratic process – and perhaps more so than if their first opportunity to vote had been a UK or Scottish general election.

Those who bemoan low turnout amongst young people in elections should regard this referendum as a unique opportunity to instil the habit of voting in a new generation – and to learn what does and does not engage them in the political process, so that lessons can be learnt which will be useful well beyond this particular referendum.

Meanwhile Scotland’s young people do appear to bring a distinctive outlook to the choice Scotland has to make, albeit perhaps not the one many people were expecting. In particular, they appear to be less favourable towards independence than any other age group. Only just over one in five say they will vote Yes in the referendum, while nearly three times as many say they will vote No.

This finding is especially surprising given that 18-24 year olds have consistently been found by the Scottish Social Attitudes survey to be the age group most supportive of independence. However, the 14-17 year olds differ substantially from the 18-24 year olds on one characteristic that we know plays an important role in shaping many people’s views about independence: national identity. Only one in eight (12%) of 14-17 year olds say they are ‘Scottish, not British’ compared with over a third (35%) of those aged 18-24. Nearly half (45%) of all 14-17 year olds say they are ‘Equally Scottish and British’.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Scotland’s young people appear equally comfortable with two identities. They are the first generation to have grown up with the internet as a given and with social networking as a ubiquitous feature of everyday life. Freed from many of the past restrictions of geography, they may simply have less regard for borders and national differences. Meanwhile like most teenagers they seem reluctant to follow their parents’ example. Only half of those with a parent who says they are going to vote Yes say they are going to vote Yes too!

For further information you can read the latest briefing paper from the Survey of Young Scots or see graphs of the main findings from the study on this site. 

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About the author

Dr Jan Eichhorn is a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. His research focuses on issues of political participation as well as subjective well-being.