The peer-reviewed research, published in Social Forces, analyzes the data from 1664 respondents to measure the impact of family background on young people’s political involvement between the ages of 11 and 25.
Data was collected from the British Household Panel Study and Understanding Society cohorts.
The research team investigated the impact of socioeconomic status, as determined by parents’ levels of education, on levels of political interest and voting intentions.
The study discovered that, in a relatively short period of time, parental education progresses from an insignificant factor at the age of 11 to a strong predictor of political engagement and a stable influence by the age of 16.
Professor Jan Germen Janmaat (UCL Institute of Education), the study’s lead author, stated:
“We found that at the beginning of adolescence there were no social differences in political engagement, but these differences soon start to appear and to grow wider at ages 14 and 15.”
“After age 16, levels of engagement stabilise with young people from more educated families showing consistently higher levels of interest in politics than those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Participants were asked questions like, “How interested are you in politics?” and “Who would you vote for in an election?” The education of the mother and father was then ranked on a scale of 1 to 7 and divided into two parental education groups (the top 50 percent based on the rankings and the bottom 50 percent ).
Political interest was measured on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 representing the most interested. The findings show that at age 11, children from the two parental education groups show little difference in their interest in politics, with children from less educated families showing a slightly higher level of interest.
Overall, the average scores of the two groups are closer to 1 (not interested) than 2 (fairly interested), indicating a general lack of interest in politics among 11- to 15-year-olds from all backgrounds. However, by the age of 15, there is a clear gap between the groups based on social background: the political interests of children from the 50percent most educated parents had remained stable, whereas those of the 50percent least educated had declined.
By the age of 25, the level of political interest in children whose parents were in the more educated group was more than twice as high as in children whose parents were in the least educated group.
The study also looked at the evolution of young people’s voting intentions in relation to parental education and political engagement. It discovered that, as with political interest, the gap between children from the most educated parents and those from the least educated widened during adolescence.
Those from the most educated families were nearly twice as likely to vote by the age of 25. Overall levels of voting intention for a political party, however, remain quite low (between 25 and 60 percent), implying a continuing disengagement with mainstream UK party politics throughout adolescence and early adulthood.
Professor Janmaat added:
“Our findings suggest that early adolescence is the key stage where social disparities emerge. Possibly the impact of parents is indirect in this life phase in that they shape the educational experiences of their children. Such experiences in turn are important drivers of political engagement. For instance, schools offering plenty of opportunities for student voice and an open climate of discussions are known to make young people more engaged.”
“If well-educated parents are more likely to send their children to such schools than poorly educated ones, schools can unintentionally amplify the social gap in political engagement.”
Bryony Hoskins, Professor of Comparative Social Science at the University of Roehampton and co-author of the study, added:
“With voting amongst the UK’s youngest cohort in the last general election falling to 47%, these findings highlight the critical influence parental education has on shaping early political interest in our youth.
“Of particular concern is the marked decline in interest from those children whose parents are less educated by the time they are 15 years old, providing vital evidence as to why those from disadvantaged backgrounds are politically disengaged when they can first vote. We would urge the government to review their approach to gather young people’s interest in politics in light of our findings.”
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