Economic prosperity is the best recipe for an incumbent government to be re‐elected. However, the financial crisis was significantly more consequential for governing parties in young rather than in established democracies. This article introduces the age of democracy as a contextual explanation which moderates the degree to which citizens vote retrospectively. It shows a curvilinear effect of the age of democracy on retrospective economic voting. In a first stage after the transition to democracy, reform governments suffer from a general anti‐incumbency effect, unrelated to economic performance. In a second step, citizens in young democracies relate the legitimacy of democratic actors to their economic performance rather than to procedural rules, and connect economic outcomes closely to incumbent support. As democracies mature, actors profit from a reservoir of legitimacy, and retrospective voting declines. Empirically, these hypotheses are corroborated by data on vote change and economic performance in 59 democracies worldwide, over 25 years.