What is the long-term impact of the generational divide in attitudes to Europe?


Date 25 April 2016
Author Katy Owen


Last week, a range of commentators, campaigners, academics, researchers and politicians attended our roundtable looking at the generational divide in attitudes to Europe and what the implications are in the longer-term. Here Katy Owen, programme manager and chair of the discussion, reflects on the topics discussed.

Poll after poll shows that people aged 18-34 are much more likely to say they will vote to remain in the European Union than those who are older. This group is also less likely to be concerned about levels of immigration. At CoVI, we’ve been exploring this generational divide when it comes to voting intentions in the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and attitudes to Europe and migration more widely.

In the context of the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, CoVi in partnership with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) are running a research and analysis exercise to explore the generational divide in attitudes to the UK’s role in the EU and related issues such as migration. We are examining why this divide exists and what the implications are within a broader context of social change and youth political engagement.

After two opening speeches set the tone of the roundtable, we started by discussing the importance of not lumping all younger people into one group. Although there are clear generational differences observed in attitudinal and behavioural research, there is a danger that these divides mask other sub-divisions. There are other differences within age cohorts by sex, class, education and region for example. For attitudes to Europe itself, socioeconomic status is very important for example.

What core differences exist between the attitudes and experiences of millennials that might account for differences in voting intention in the EU referendum? A more globalist outlook could be one of them – young people don’t necessarily relate to the idea of “British values”. They also believe in cosmopolitan citizenship and tend more to have multiple identities.

A sense of individuality among young people also came up as a key difference – this means that the sense of individuality and self-expression may trump the sense of belonging to a group according to race, religion or class.

When it comes to European attitudes, younger people have some clear observable differences to older people. They are more likely to see the benefits of immigration, particularly cultural benefits. Young people also feel more European than older people. However, it’s important not to overstate this as the levels are still low compared to other continental European countries. Similarly, while under 35s tend to appreciate European programmes such as Erasmus, take-up levels are still very low among British youth. The gradual drift towards Euroscepticism among British people as a whole over time has also been seen among Generation Y, albeit at a slower pace.

We also discussed turnout and registration which we agreed will be a key factor in the outcome of the referendum. Younger people are both the most likely to change their mind and the least likely to vote – making their votes much less “reliable” than those of older people. Practical issues may also be a barrier, including the date of the referendum itself. On 23rd June lots of students will have just moved from their university address back home with their parents and may as a result not be registered to vote. The date also falls on the first day of Glastonbury festival.

We talked about the “messages” in the campaign and the “messengers” and how these may or may not appeal to under 35s. It was generally agreed that the issues such as jobs, opportunities and identities that are more likely to engage millennials were not covered. On both sides, it was generally agreed that the messengers were not the best ones. Nigel Farage does not appeal to the internationalist views of many young Eurosceptics. While David Cameron is considered toxic for many pro-Remain under 35s.

On the Remain side, campaigners in the room discussed concern that there has been little discussion of the positive and progressive aspects of EU policy. Other issues ignored by the official Leave campaign were felt to be security, women’s equality and anti-discrimination legislation.

We discussed the importance of information channels and types of media for Gen Y. Are young news consumers becoming increasingly “self-selecting” on social media? These changes require different means of getting messages through to people. We also talked about the importance of language and communication more broadly.

How might the EU referendum be compared to the referendum in Scotland in 2014? One striking difference is that, whereas in Scotland younger people voted for the ‘change’ option, they appear to be opting for the status quo option in this EU referendum. How do the campaigns differ so far? The feeling in the room was this may be due to a more positive case and vision for Scottish independence compared with the campaign for to leave the EU in this referendum. Another important difference was that 16 and 17 year olds were enfranchised in Scotland for the referendum on independence, which several people agreed would increase both engagement and turnout.

Finally, the group discussed the importance of knowledge and understanding to voting and what role schools might play in political education. Some described perceiving a “real hunger” for more politics education among younger people. However, education aside, there is an issue with the EU referendum debate in that both sides refute the facts presented by the other which potentially leads to all age groups feeling less confident in how they choose to vote on 23rd June 2016.

Over the next two months we will take many of the above themes into our analysis of the campaigns and how the generational debate will play out in the EU referendum and beyond.