At its annual Progress Summit this past weekend, the Broadbent Institute released a study that was interesting for its data—and fascinating for the way data serves political ends.

The document, funded by a Social Sciences Research and Humanities Council grant, explored the political preferences of Canadians under 35 years of age. Political scientist David McGrane, of the University of Saskatchewan, led a team that mined a dataset of responses from more than 8,000 "young" Canadians. 

Not surprisingly, both as a study presented by a "progressive" institute and as a general observation of life, more "young" Canadians than "older" Canadians support the agenda of the Broadbent Institute. This led to the question posed by the title of the report: "Could a Progressive Platform Capture Canada's Youth Vote?" For the folks at the Broadbent Institute, including former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, the answer is a resoundingly (hopeful) yes.

After all, the data showed, for example, that:

  • 77 percent of younger Canadians disagreed that government should leave job creation entirely up to the private sector
  • 82 percent of younger Canadians said government should see to it that everyone has a decent standard of living
  • 72 percent of younger Canadians believe morality should follow modernity; that is we should adapt our view of moral behaviour to what is acceptable at the moment rather than hewing to some unchanging standard
  • 56 percent of younger Canadians place environmental protection ahead of job creation

Those are the highlight reel stats. There are many more such statistics in the study. I leave it to my qualified Cardus colleagues Ray Pennings, Brian Dijkema, Milton Friesen, Beth Green, and others who know how to handle the slippery fish of research numbers to interpret whether the data, qua data, is meaningful and methodologically valid.

What struck me was less the statistics themselves than the unanswered assumptions underlying them.

The first was this: how came it to be that 35 is the now the dividing line between "younger" and "older" in Canada? Why 35 and not 36? Or 34.5? 31.2?

If the answer is that this birthdate generally captures the so-called "millennials", then it is really a non-answer. Or, at best, it's a marketer's response, not a social scientist's, or at least not a social scientist's who actually believes in empirical research. Tying one's political opinion at a specific moment to the date of one's birth shows, at the outside, correlation not causality. And even the correlation is effectively meaningless because it posits the belief as constant across the individuals in the age cohort without ever proving that is true, or even could be true.

And that leads to the second intriguing assumption; that someone aged 35 years and 11 months and 29 days stands on the other side of an intellectual divide from someone aged 36 years and one minute. The idea on offer is that we somehow wake up manifestly different in our political thinking in the hour between saying farewell to 35 and blowing out the candles on our 36th birthday cake. The absurdity of this was actually made manifest during a panel discussion the Progress Summit called "Fickle Millennials? Progressive Values and Political Engagement." One of the panelists, David Kitching, felt obliged to apologize for appearing on the panel. "I'm 37," he said. "I'm old." He then went on to espouse every hoar-frost-covered progressive shibboleth imaginable, all of which had the grey-haired veterans of the movement nodding in delighted agreement.

Bad ideas in young heads are as bad as bad ideas in old heads. The issue is not the age at which those ideas enter our heads, but whether they become ideologically fixed and impervious to contradictory reason or experience. The question to be asked is not so much about the beliefs that those under 35 hold, but how, why, and when they give way to a more nuanced and more realistic understanding of the world.

From that perspective, the truly good news of the Broadbent Institute's study is that, over time, the enthusiasms of youth are let go, the counterbalance of age takes effect, and something creeping on its hands and knees toward wisdom is born. That, in the real world, is the way politics progresses.

It does not, however, fit the needs of the "progressive" movement which must, by its nature, present itself always as modern, energetic, forward-looking, change-oriented and, above all, forever young. The data, then, must be shaped to the need rather than being permitted to deliver its inherent truth. If truth were paramount, after all, the answer to the study's question, "Could a Progressive Platform Capture Canada's Youth Vote?" would be: Perhaps, but only briefly—until the wisdom of age takes hold.