The remarkable result of last week’s EU referendum was ultimately based on a relatively close result, with 52% of voters backing Leave and 48% backing Remain. As has become all too clear since, however, this fairly small difference in vote share masks much bigger political and social divides. Socially liberal graduates, professionals and voters living in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly backed Remain, while non-graduates, those in working class and manual occupations, and those who lived pretty much anywhere else in Britain tended to support Leave. A further difference, however, and which has been the source of much speculation (sometimes seeming to verge on hysteria) in the media, is that between the pro-EU younger voters and their Eurosceptic elders.
Young people, as was widely anticipated, voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, with 61% of the under-30s backing Remain and 24% supporting Leave. Older voters, also as anticipated, preferred to leave, with 59% of the over-65s supporting Leave versus 34% backing Remain. Our study of ‘Young People and the EU Referendum’ has shown that this divide reflects more than a simple difference of opinion about policy, but rather reflects a deep rooted generational shift in attitudes towards not only the EU, but towards issues connected to EU membership, such as immigration. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that there was such a difference between young and old in the final result.
Using data from our latest survey which examined how voters were engaging with the referendum, we can assess the extent to which young and older voters were different for more than just their vote choice, but also with regard to some of the key influences on how and why they voted. Below we discuss three key areas in which the differences between young and old are particularly stark and ultimately contributed to the result of the referendum. We also address a recurring question in the media coverage of the post-referendum fallout: would the result have been different had more young people voted?
1) The under-30s were (mostly) for Remain, and the over-65s were (mostly) for Leave – but neither was unanimous
The most obvious way in which young and old differed in the referendum is in their ultimate vote choice. As noted above, roughly two thirds of under-30s supported Remain in the referendum, while almost two thirds of over-65s supported Leave, putting the majority of younger and older people on polar opposites of the central issue. As we have seen in a previous ILC blog, a major part of the explanation is the fact that young people in the UK tend to view the EU far more optimistically than their elders, and are less hostile towards the consequences of EU membership. Younger voters are, for example, more likely to feel that the EU has made a positive contribution to securing peace in Europe and to promoting Britain’s status in the world, and are less critical of its operation and of the effects of EU migration.
However, while clear majorities of the youngest and oldest age groups preferred Remain and Leave respectively, we should not lose sight of the notable minorities in each that bucked the trend. One in four under-30s, and one in three over-65s, voted Leave and Remain respectively, and our data suggests that this was in large part because of the other key factor (besides age) which determined how people voted in the referendum: education. For some young people, the impact of being relatively uneducated compared with their peers, essentially ‘outweighed’ the tendency of the young to back Remain. While more than three quarters of under-30s who did not complete full-time education until at least age 20 voted Remain, 54% of those who left school at 16 voted Leave. Similarly, highly educated over-65 year olds tended to vote Remain, with 54% of those who did not leave full-time education until at least age 20 supporting EU membership. While a common tendency has been to view the referendum result in terms of the opposing preferences of ‘the young’ and ‘the old’ (prompting bizarre claims that the young were in some way ‘betrayed’ by their elders for expressing their democratic preference), it is important not to lose sight of the fact that neither age group was even close to unanimous in preferring Remain or Leave, and that age was not the only characteristic that was decisive in a given individual’s vote.
2) Older people were more likely to vote than young people
It is almost an iron-law of politics that younger people are less likely to vote than older people, and so it turned out to be the case in the EU referendum. The official turnout was 72%, a welcome improvement from the 66% who voted in the 2015 election and the 65% in the 2010 election. The 6-point difference is also likely to be an under-estimate of the actual improvement in the numbers of eligible voters participating, as it cannot take account of the huge numbers who registered to vote in the EU referendum in June (many of whom are likely to be young). Despite this boost of political participation, however, the young remained under-represented in the final outcome: our survey suggests that 71% of under-30s were certain that they would vote in the referendum, compared with 84% of the over-65s.
Why, then, was there still such a big difference in turnout given that the campaign dominated public and media debate and clearly managed to engage many people who were not engaged enough to vote in general elections? The key was political interest. Those under-30s who were highly interested in politics expected to vote at comparable levels to similarly interested older voters: 84% of highly interested under-30s were certain to vote in the referendum, compared with 88% of over-65s. The young people that were under-represented at the polls were those who were less interested in politics. For example, while 71% of those over-65 who reported having little or no interest in politics were certain to vote nonetheless, only 51% of apathetic under-30s said the same.
The difference in turnout between young and old, therefore, is a result of the fact that politically unengaged older voters still have a strong tendency to vote in elections, and previous research has shown that this is largely because they believe voting is a civic duty whether they care about the result or not. Young people are less likely to believe in such a duty, and so are less likely to vote if they lack interest in the issue at stake. Those young people who were not sufficiently interested in politics to care about the referendum were the ones who failed to vote in disproportionately high numbers.
3) The young were more trusting of the campaigns than their elders
Recent research has shown that, contrary to the popular stereotype of the young as a politically alienated generation, today’s young people tend to be more trusting of politics and politicians than their elders. This higher level of faith is evident in young people’s views of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the EU referendum as well. We asked our respondents whether they trusted the messages of one campaign more than the other, both campaigns equally, or trusted neither campaign. One in three under-30s had no trust in either campaign and 54% had at least some trust in one of the campaigns. While 54% of over-65s also said that they trusted at least one campaign a little, 41% had no trust in either.
Among those who did trust one of the campaigns, there was another clear age difference: the over-65s tended to trust the Leave campaign, while the under-30s tended to trust Remain. 35% of the over-65s trusted Leave over Remain, and only 17% felt that Remain was more trustworthy. For the under-30s, the figures are reversed: 35% trusted Remain, and 17% trusted Leave. This could just as easily be a reflection of their support for staying in or leaving the EU (for example, someone who passionately believes that the UK should leave the EU is likely to agree with and trust the campaign messages of the Leave campaign rather than those of the Remain campaign with whom they profoundly disagree), but nonetheless illustrates a further divide between young and old. They did not just tend to disagree about whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU, they disagreed about the integrity of arguments for staying in or leaving articulated by the respective campaigns.
So would the result have been different if more young people voted…
The difference in turnout between young and old, coupled with the (simplistic) characterisation of almost all young people voting Remain and almost all old people voting Leave, has led to some in the media claiming that had more young people turned up at the polling stations, the result would have been different and the UK would not currently be facing the biggest economic shock since the 2008 financial crisis, the resignation of the Prime Minister, a coup against the Leader of the Opposition, and demands for independence referenda in Scotland and Wales and a ‘reunification referendum’ in Northern Ireland. This is quite a lot of turmoil to somewhat harshly lay on the shoulders of non-voting young people (one could say the government, campaigns, parents, schools and communities should also take blame for failing to engage enough of them to vote in the first place), and – while we can never be certain of how people who chose not to participate in an election or referendum would have voted if they had changed their minds – is unlikely to be a justifiable attribution of blame based on our evidence.
The claim that the referendum result would have been ‘Remain’ rather than ‘Leave’ if more young people had voted rests on the assumption that non-voting young people would have supported staying in the EU to the same extent as their voting counterparts had they turned out. As noted above, it was politically uninterested young people who failed to vote in the referendum, and our data shows that lower levels of political engagement among young people are associated with less support for EU membership. 71% of under-30s who reported being highly interested in politics, for example, supported staying in the EU while 22% supported leaving. Conversely, 25% of those with no interest in politics supported staying in the EU while 36% supported withdrawal. In addition, those young people with limited interest in politics were more likely to have left full-time education at 16 and to work in unskilled or semi-skilled manual occupations, both of which are associated with support for leaving the EU. Had these less politically engaged young people turned up at the polls, therefore, it is likely that many of them would have voted to leave the EU rather than stay in it, and so any boost to the Remain vote would have been smaller than is assumed. While uneven turnout between the typically pro-EU under-30s and the typically anti-EU over-65s undoubtedly contributed to the victory for the Leave side, it was not enough in itself to fully explain the margin of victory, and so the likely withdrawal of the UK from the EU cannot be blamed on politically apathetic young people.
 This data is taken from the Wales Institute for Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods’ ‘Young People and the EU Referendum’ survey, conducted by YouGov just before polling day
 A straight link between someone being ‘certain’ that they will vote and eventual turnout in a given election or referendum cannot be made, because voters have a well-established tendency to exaggerate their likelihood of voting in surveys. Nor can the figure be verified because perfect data relating to age and turnout does not exist. We can be confident that the difference in voters’ expectations of voting will approximate the actual difference in turnout, however, firstly because there is no evidence that younger or older people differ in their tendency to exaggerate their probability of voting, and second because the British Election Study (an academic survey which uses validated turnout data from the Electoral Commission) confirms that there is a strong correlation between someone being ‘certain’ to vote in a survey and them actually voting.
 Respondents were asked how much attention they paid to politics on a scale from 0 (meaning ‘no attention’) to 10 (meaning ‘a great deal of attention’). Having no or little interest in politics was defined as giving a score between 0 and 4, and being highly interested was defined as giving a score of at least 7.
Dr Stuart Fox
Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods