Generational divides: is the UK an exception or the rule?


“If you’re not a socialist when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you have no brain.” Apocryphal it might be, but Churchill’s oft-quoted misquote is as good a starting place as any when looking at how Britain votes today.

Age remains the best single data point when it comes to understanding what a voter thinks about politics. But what can age tell us? And does it shape politics in the same way here as it does in other European states?

The 18-24-year-old vote in the UK mostly went to Remain parties in the EU election (24% to the Greens and 23% to the Lib Dems), with support for the Brexit Party trailing at 11%. Among over 55s, however, the reverse was true. The Brexit Party received 45% and Remain parties managed a combined 26%. On Europe, the age division in the UK is stark.

But there are generational differences on other issues too. It should come as no surprise, given the recent school strikes, that young people are more concerned about climate change than their parents and grandparents. Housing and wealth inequalities are also serious concerns. Older people, for their part, tend to care more about feeling safe and having their values respected.

Generational voting patterns in Germany are similar to those in the UK, with support for the Greens much higher among young people and support for the Christian Democrats higher among older people. Support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party also increases with age but only up to a point. The 70+ age group – those old enough to remember the second world war and its immediate aftermath – tend to vote more for the Christian Democrats.

French voting behaviour also partly fits this pattern. Support for the Greens, for instance, is highest among young people. However, the age effect in France doesn’t play out exactly as one might expect. Support for Emmanual Macron’s centrist, pro-Europe party, La République En Marche!, actually increases with age. And the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen won a surprising 15% the youth vote in the EU elections.

While these West European neighbours have some similar characteristics, the divide between old and young is markedly different elsewhere in Europe.

Italian voting patterns show very little age effect: each major party received a similar share of the vote across all age groups in the European elections. And the same was true in previous elections.

Meanwhile in Poland, support for the far-right nationalist party Konfederacja was highest among 18-24-year-olds, while the liberal European Coalition group gained most of its votes from older people. Spanish voting patterns appear similar to those of Poland, with the Ciudadanos (who are similar to the UK’s Liberal Democrats) gaining more support among the older generations.

What, then, explains these cross-national differences? In Poland, communist rule is a relatively recent phenomenon. Those with a strong memory of it may be more concerned about maintaining liberal democracy than those who cannot recall a time when Poland was not democratic.

In Italy, other sociological explanations are compelling. According to the most recent Eurostat research, the average Italian does not leave home until they’re over 30 years old – much later than the EU average. With so much more time spent with their parents, it would not be surprising if their views were largely inherited. Strong family influences may be one of the reasons why Italian voting is structured principally by region rather than by age.

In Spain and France, young people are searching for alternatives that are left and green, but also Eurosceptic. Among older people, En Marche! have been successful at winning votes from the centre-right Les Republicains and the centre-left Parti Socialiste. Among young people, support seems to have gone to the Greens and La France Insoumise, a nationalist-populist, left-wing party.

In Spain, young people are choosing left-wing anti-establishment alternatives, such as Unidas Podemos. Anti-Europe sentiment among Spanish young people can be partly explained by the rise in youth unemployment following the financial crash. Having been the fifth largest economy in Europe pre-crash, by mid-2013, 56% of young people were unemployed and the figure still stands at 32%. This is much higher than the current rate for British young people of 10.4%.

So, what conclusions can we draw about the UK from this? Firstly, young British people are not unusual in being more left-leaning than their parents.

However, their strong Remain preference is not as consistent with trends elsewhere.

And if politicians want to smooth the gap between generations in this country, there are not many grounds for hope. Even if Brexit is resolved and stops dominating the political agenda, contentious issues around how to combat climate change, housing and wealth inequalities, and looming questions about culture and identity will persist. Regardless of Brexit, the deep divides in Britain between the old and the young won’t fade away any time soon.

By Emily Nethsingha, an intern at the UK in a Changing Europe and a student at the University of Oxford.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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