The attitudes and sentiments of young people differ, on average, from those of older people on many different topics. Younger people tend to be more tolerant of same-sex relationships for example, and less likely to describe themselves as racially prejudiced; they tend to be ‘post-materialist’ rather than ‘materialist’; they tend to be somewhat less nationalistic, in the sense that they are somewhat less proud to be British. At the same time they are more likely to have an open, ‘civic’ conception of Britishness rather than the more ‘ethnic’ and ascriptive conception of their elders. The ethnic conception sees Britishness as depending on one’s birth and ancestry and not something that can be acquired by migrants. Accordingly younger people are more positive (or less negative) about immigration, and they are less negative about the EU too.
There are various possible interpretations of these age differences. Sometimes young people’s attitudes change as they get older – which we could call a ‘life-cycle’ process. We cannot entirely rule out this interpretation, but it is more likely that these particular age differences in tolerance and strength of national and European identities reflect ‘generational’ processes. Basically, older generations, who were brought up and came of age when Britain still had an Empire and before Britain joined the Common market, developed a different kind of national identity and consciousness from younger people who grew up after we joined the European project. These sentiments and identities which developed in one’s formative years remain largely unchanged as people grow older. So it is unlikely that young people today will shift in a Eurosceptic direction as they get older.
Younger people have also grown up in a more diverse Britain, and they are more likely to have gone to school or college with young contemporaries from other countries. Contact with diverse groups also tends to facilitate tolerance and to reduce prejudice against outsiders. Older generations grew up when such contacts would have been few and far between. Young people are less likely to have any nostalgia for the homogeneous Britain of my own 1950s childhood, which they never knew.
But it is also important to recognize that young people are not a homogeneous group. They are divided by their social class, their levels of education, and their prospects in the labour market. The most pro-European tend to be the highly-educated – the ones who go to college and are the likely winners from globalization and the benefits of EU membership. Young people with few qualifications are more likely to feel threatened by the influx of low-skilled migrants from Eastern Europe (and elsewhere). So the divisions between young people may not be all that different from the divisions between older people.
It is often said, with good reason, that young people are less likely to turn out and vote than are older generations (although this is compensated somewhat by the higher turnout of the college-educated). But in the case of the EU Referendum there is an additional concern: young people, especially the highly-educated, tend to be less materialistic and more post-materialistic, meaning that they are more likely to value quality of life, freedom of expression and ideals rather than money and economic gains, which will be more of a concern to older generations. But much of the Referendum campaign has focussed on the materialistic, economic gains or losses from Brexit. The idealistic concerns of young people are not being addressed. To be sure, there is much about the EU which will not appeal to young post-materialists – the remoteness of Brussels and the ‘democratic deficit’ are likely to turn off young people in much the same way that they turn off older generations. But issues of social justice, climate change, collective measures to prevent the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the degradation of the environment could perhaps engage more directly with young post-materialists’ concerns. A purely pragmatic, rather than an idealistic, approach to Europe is less likely to get out young people out to vote.