Exploring the age gap: Why are the young so pro-EU?


Since David Cameron announced the date of the EU referendum, the gulf in support for EU membership between young and old – not to mention the gulf in the likelihood of voting – has featured heavily in media coverage and opinion polling about the referendum campaign. An explanation for that gulf in support, however, still eludes us. Two recent surveys, however, have shed some light on the attitudes and perspectives of younger and older voters which may underpin this unusually stark age divide in public opinion. The data suggests that rather than reflecting a fairly straight-forward difference of opinion regarding the consequences of EU membership, this divide is indicative of a much deeper difference regarding the challenges facing Britain, how they were caused and how they should be addressed, which is apparent not only in support for EU membership, but in other political decisions such as support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Evidence of a generational divide of sorts in terms of attitudes towards the EU have been identified in previous research; younger voters are, for example, less likely to feel that the EU has much influence in their daily lives, and are less hostile towards the higher levels of immigration EU membership produces. A recent survey by YouGov shows that the differences are apparent in other areas as well, specifically in assessments regarding the successes and operation of the EU (and which have featured prominently in the referendum campaign so far). YouGov asked respondents whether they felt the EU had been successful in securing peace within Europe. 48% of the under 25s agreed, and 27% disagreed; this compares with 42% and 39% respectively among the over 25s. Respondents were also asked whether they felt the EU was hopelessly inefficient and corrupt, a frequent charge of the Leave campaign. Only 26% of under 25s agreed, compared with 57% of the over 25s. Finally, when asked whether they felt Britain had more influence in the world because of its EU membership, 56% of the under 25s felt that it did, compared with 42% of the over 25s.

In other words, younger voters are less likely to feel that the EU has failed to keep peace in Europe (or possibly are less likely to blame the EU for conflicts that have erupted in Europe, such as that in the Ukraine), and are more likely to feel that it is an efficient and honest organisation which boosts Britain’s voice on the global stage. In addition, YouGov also found that they are less likely to blame the EU for domestic problems the country faces. Three quarters of respondents (and 70% of under 25s) agreed that Britain’s economy faces serious, underlying problems. When asked who or what was most responsible for this, young people are most likely to blame banks (38%), rising inequality (33%), and the policies of the Conservative government (32%). Older voters, on the other hand, while agreeing that the banks play a major role (identified as the main cause of Britain’s economic problems by 34% of the over 25s), are more likely to blame immigrants (37%), the EU (33%), and the last Labour government (30%). In contrast, only 11% of under 25s blamed the EU, 13% blamed migrants, and 17% the last Labour government.

This data points to two fundamentally different understandings of the problems facing Britain’s economy, the causes of those problems, and more specifically the role of the EU in causing those problems. Younger voters are far more likely to agree with the economic critique being developed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which focusses on inequality and Conservative policy and assigns little blame to the EU for Britain’s problems. Older voters, meanwhile, tend to agree with David Cameron and Nigel Farage in assigning responsibility to the EU and the immigration it causes (as well as the last Labour government). It is little wonder that young people are so much more supportive of EU membership.

Finally, we see further evidence of this generational divide if we look at the justifications being offered by young and older voters for why they will vote the way they plan to in the EU referendum. ORB asked their respondents to identify from a list the most important drivers of their referendum vote decision. The dominant concerns for the over 25s were the economy and immigration: just under half identified securing the UK’s borders or securing the economy as the main justifications for their vote. These issues, while still important, were less prominent among the young; only 37% identified immigration or the economy as the main justification. Instead, many young people pointed towards strategic considerations regarding how to get the best relationship between the UK and the EU, or to a desire to express symbolic support for the UK’s EU membership. A total of 35% cited these as the key motivations behind their votes (compared with 24% of the over 25s). Finally, for a notable minority, voting in the EU referendum has little to do with the EU but is rather a tool for expressing discontent with domestic political issues: 13% of the under 25s plan on voting in the EU referendum in order to protest against David Cameron’s Conservative government (compared with just 5% of the over 25s).

Young people’s support for EU membership, therefore, seems to fit in with a wider array of political issues around which a growing divergence between the preferences and judgements of young and old is apparent. Young people strongly support EU membership, and see it as a way of furthering Britain’s interests in the world; older people are more likely to view it as a hindrance. Young people are more likely to view the EU as a successful, honest organisation; their elders tend to see it as an inefficient, corrupt failure. Young people are more likely to see rising inequality and Conservative government policy as the key causes of Britain’s economic problems, and attribute little fault to the EU; older people tend to blame either the EU directly, or the immigration that stems from EU membership. Alongside support for left and right leaning parties in the 2015 election, and assessments about the politics and performance of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, the EU referendum is likely to be the latest in a series of events in which the divergence in political preferences and values between young and old are laid bare.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to www.wiserd.ac.uk/eureferendum/