The EU Referendum highlighted a dramatic difference of opinion regarding the most important decision facing the British electorate for a generation, with younger voters overwhelmingly supporting EU membership while their elders voted to leave. This ‘generational divide’ has been a prominent theme in the media, which has repeatedly documented the anger and sense of ‘betrayal’ felt by young people (occasionally spilling over into sensationalist and even ridiculous accounts).
However, the idea of a ‘generational divide’ is about far more than a simple difference of opinion between young and old; it suggests much deeper, fundamental differences in the political values and beliefs that shape the way people of different ages engage with politics. Our research has explored how deep this generational divide is with regard to EU membership, and what causes it.
Using data from the British Election Study (a nationally representative survey conducted every general election), we looked at how attitudes have evolved since the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The graph below shows the proportion of voters in each political generation who believe that EU membership is bad for the country (ie the Eurosceptics). There is a clear decline in Euroscepticism over time: the oldest generations (pre-war and post-war) have consistently been the most hostile towards EU membership, with each successive younger generation being more supportive of it. Today’s youngest generation – the Millennials – are the least Eurosceptic generation ever to have entered the British electorate.
The divide was evident in referendum results: 60% of Millennials supported remaining in the EU, compared with 46% of the 90s generation, 39% of the 80s generation, 40% of the 60-70s generation, and 29% of the pre- and post-war generations. Clearly, younger generations have grown up developing political values and beliefs that make them more supportive of EU membership, and of the EU as an institution, than their elders.
So what causes this generational divide?
Our research suggests three key causes. The first is the weaker attachments today’s young people have to the traditional institutions that have shaped British politics and society in the post-war era, such as political parties, religion and social class. Political scientists have shown for some time that younger generations are developing weaker attachments to these institutions than their parents and grandparents, and are instead developing stronger attachments to newer institutions that are more influential and/or relevant in their daily lives and modern politics, such as the media or the European Union.
The second is the fact that today’s young people have access to more high-quality education than previous generations, and grow up in (relatively) more economic security and comfort, which they can take for granted. They also develop higher levels of political sophistication through increased access to political information and skills than previous generations. Consequently, young people place less emphasis on political issues relating to economic security and become more interested in issues relating to quality of life and individual freedom. These ‘post-materialist’ issues include a focus on environmentalism and climate change, poverty in developing countries, human rights, consumer protection and individual liberty. The European Union plays a leading and prominent role in addressing such issues, and so many young people become more supportive of EU membership as they see it as a way of promoting their political agenda and priorities.
Finally, younger generations are considered less likely to embrace traditional conceptions of national identity than their elders. One of the most influential drivers of Euroscepticism is concern about the impact of EU membership on the national identity and culture of one’s country, as a result of migration and the influence of EU institutions over domestic governments. Voters holding more traditional conceptions of what it means to be ‘British’, ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’ are typically more likely to be Eurosceptic, while those without such conceptions are less concerned about the impact of EU membership and so less likely to be hostile towards it (see here for a more detailed assessment of this relationship).
What does the generational divide mean for Brexit?
The obvious implication is that younger voters are far less likely to support Brexit than their elders; multiple opinion polls have already shown that young people are more hostile to Brexit and tend to support a second referendum. If there are more protests against Brexit, perhaps as the government triggers Article 50, it is likely they will be disproportionately supported by Millennials. Young people’s hostility to Brexit is also likely to be apparent in future opportunities to influence politicians and governments: by-elections, devolved elections, local elections and the 2020 general election could all see young people support parties that are opposed to Brexit (such as the Liberal Democrats or the Greens), and abandon parties that support it (such as Labour and the Conservatives).
There is also a possibility that the process of Brexit will damage the relationship between Millennials and the British political system, if they blame the political system for imposing a decision they are strongly opposed to. While claims that today’s young people are alienated from British politics are often exaggerated and rarely supported by evidence, there is a possibility this might become the case if they feel they are being unfairly treated and their wishes are ignored as the UK leaves the EU.
Finally, we should also consider the opportunities for the government and politicians to increase support for Brexit amongst young people (or at least dampen hostility towards it). While the vast majority of Millennials oppose it, there is a minority who support Brexit, meaning there are some young voters sympathetic to the process that the UK government can appeal to. One of the key distinctions between Millennials who supported Brexit and those who wanted to remain in the EU was their economic precocity: Millennials from poorer social classes with lower incomes were roughly 13% more likely to vote leave than those in middle class occupations. This is suggested to reflect the frustration they felt towards a political system that is failing to provide economic security for them, of which the EU was a part. A potential way for politicians to build support for Brexit amongst the young, therefore, is to address the distinctive economic challenges young people face (such as their difficulties in finding secure housing and employment after leaving full-time education) as the UK’s new relationship with the EU is negotiated.
 Data from WISERD’s Young People and the EU Referendum survey
 Analysis based on data from WISERD’s Young People and the EU Referendum surveys, analysis available on request from WISERD.