It has been common practice for some time – and perhaps now more than ever – for journalists to emphasise the political differences between young and old in areas such as voting preferences or political agendas, and to frame those differences in terms of generational ‘conflict’ or ‘war’.
With the exception of electoral turnout, however, the differences between young and old are usually very limited. The preferences of young people when it comes to who they want to form a government, what the most important political issues of the day are, or how they judge the performance or scandals of politicians’ are far more similar to those of their elders than they are different. Instead, characteristics such as education, gender or place of residence are usually far more influential predictors of differences in political preferences and judgements.
In the last year, however, the differences between young and old ion terms of their political agendas and ideologies have become more noticeable, and there is evidence that they are starting to manifest themselves in national political decisions – such as elections. In the 2015 general election, for example, young people outside Scotland were far more likely to vote for the Labour Party than their elders, who tended to opt for the Conservatives. There are also differences in how young and old assess the performance of party leaders: the young are generally optimistic about Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, while their elders are overwhelmingly critical of him. None highlight the growing divergence so well, however, as the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
Research conducted by the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD) has shown just how extensive this gulf is ahead of the referendum on the UK’s EU membership on 23rd June. The graph below shows a summary of some of that research, showing a comparison between 18-25 year olds and over 65s in terms of: support for remaining in or leaving the EU; being likely to vote in the referendum; and trust in the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns. The differences between young and old are extensive. Two thirds of 18-25 year olds, for example, support the UK remaining an EU member, compared with one third of the over 65s; conversely, more than half of over 65s want to leave the EU, compared with less than a fifth of 18-25 year olds. While the majority of all age groups suggest that they are likely to vote in the referendum, the over 65s are substantially more likely to do so than the young: 90% of over 65s are likely to vote, compared with 71% of 18-25 year olds. The over 65s are more likely not to trust the messages they are hearing from either the Remain or Leave campaign, whereas about as many 18-25 year olds trust the Remain campaign as do not trust either side. For those older voters who do trust one of the campaigns, they tend to have faith in the ‘Leave’ campaign: almost one in three over 65s trusts Leave, compared with only 13% who trust Remain.
Source: WISERD. Note that ‘likely to vote’ refers to people who gave a score of at least 7 when asked to rate their likelihood of voting in the referendum on a scale from 0-10, with 10 meaning certain to vote.
Young and old approach the EU referendum with very different perspectives. The young are overwhelmingly pro-EU, most are likely to vote and they tend to trust the messages from the Remain campaign more than Leave (if they trust a campaign at all). Older voters, in contrast, are overwhelmingly anti-EU, are even more likely to vote, and are less likely to have faith in either campaign. These differences are far from trivial, and are likely to have a substantial impact on the referendum outcome. It’s clear that younger people are more supportive of EU membership than their elders – but they are also less likely to vote, meaning that their support for the EU will be less well represented in the ballot box than will their elders Euroscepticism.
The differences highlighted above, however, relate primarily to the specific context of the referendum. When younger and older voters are asked about the successes and performance of the EU more generally, we see that the gulf goes much deeper. The polling company YouGov asked voters, for example, whether they felt that the EU had been a major factor in maintaining peace in Europe – one of the key objectives of the European Coal and Steel Community when it was first established in 1952. They also asked whether it was ‘hopelessly inefficient and corrupt’, and whether membership of the EU gave Britain more influence on the global stage. Only 27% of 18-24 year olds felt that the EU had not helped maintain peace in Europe, while 42% disagreed with the suggestion that it was inefficient and corrupt, and more than half felt that Britain’s global influence was amplified through membership. In contrast, 44% of over 60s felt that the EU had not contributed to peace in the EU, only 23% did not feel that it was inefficient and corrupt, and 52% felt that it did not help Britain’s global influence.
In addition, while the survey found that the majority of voters – including 70% of 18-24 year olds and 78% of the over 60s – agreed that Britain’s economy was facing deep rooted problems, there was further disagreement over the cause. The over 60s were most likely to blame rules and regulations from the EU, with 47% citing this as the source of Britain’s economic woes. This was followed by immigrants working for low wages (39%), and the decisions of the last Labour government (37%). In contrast, only 11% of 18-24 year olds blamed the EU; they were instead far more likely to blame British banks (38%), growing inequality (33%), and the decisions of the Conservative-led governments since 2010 (32%).
The characterisations of the EU, and indeed of the challenges facing the British economy and society, from younger and older voters are almost polar opposites. The young tend to view the EU as a successful, effective institution, promoting security and economic success in Europe and amplifying Britain’s influence in international affairs. Their assessment of the source of Britain’s problems is very similar to the economic critique being outlined by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in which they emphasise the excesses and irresponsibility of bankers and the lack of attention of the Conservative government to growing economic inequality. Older voters, in contrast, view the EU as a key source of the country’s problems: it is an administrative burden and a cause of large scale immigration from low skilled European workers, and one that has failed to achieve its central objectives of securing prosperity in Europe and providing a prominent platform for its members in world affairs.
The EU referendum is but the latest in a series of recent events in which the differences between young and old in terms of political ideology, values, priorities and judgements have been exposed, but it highlights those differences to a thus-far unseen extent and forces them to the centre of national decision-making. Young people and older people have fundamentally different views of the challenges which face British society and the steps needed to overcome them; for the young, the EU can help deal with these problems, while for the old it is a cause of many of them. It is highly unlikely that this generational divide will dissipate once the referendum is over. On the contrary, it has the potential to prominently manifest itself in future political events and judgements, and to become a key feature of modern British politics.
Dr Stuart Fox and Dr Sioned Pearce
WISERD (Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods)