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Do older Leave voters get gradually replaced by younger Remain voters, such as students and recent graduates?

  • 6 November 2019

There have been lots of analyses of the importance or otherwise of the student vote since the general election date was fixed for 12 December. You can find some of our commentary here and here.

Commentators regularly and controversially point out that Leave voters, who tend to be older, are being replaced by younger voters, such as younger students and new graduates, who are said to be much more Remain-y.

The argument is overdone because it assumes no voter has changed their mind since 2016. What if supporting Leave is an age effect (where views change with age) rather than a cohort one (where identifiable groups, such as baby boomers, have discernibly different views to other groups, such as millennials)?

In other words, what if people become less pro-Remain and more pro-Leave as they age, so that older Leave voters are actually replaced by new Leave voters? Or what if opinion on Brexit is primarily determined by factors altogether different from voters’ ages or their demographic group / cohort?

Academic research provides some support for both these contentions.

An important academic paper from the end of last year by Barry Eichengreen (Berkeley), Rebecca Mari (Bocconi University) and Gregory Thwaites (LSE) considers people’s views towards Brexit and finds three things.

  1. Cohort effects matter: As with so much else, baby boomers helped to set the agenda. EU scepticism grew as ‘the relatively pro-European pre-war generation was progressively replaced by more Eurosceptic baby boomers’.
  2. But ageing effects matter too: Those who come after the baby boomers are less Eurosceptic, partly down to their greater levels of education, but people still tend to become more Eurosceptic as they age. The latter partly outweighs the former. Or, to put it another way, ‘[the] cohort effect is now about to turn positive, but it will be partly offset by an increasingly negative contribution from ageing’.
  3. However, other things, such as ‘macroeconomic fluctuations, financial conditions and geopolitical circumstances’, matter even more: ‘demographic trends are unlikely to be the decisive determinants of future changes in European sentiment’.

Nonetheless, all three of these factors are gradual, whereas there is just five weeks to go until the 2019 general election. So, tomorrow, we will be publishing new polling data from YouthSight on students’ views towards Brexit and whether they intend to vote tactically in line with their views towards Brexit.

HEPI’s work on the likely impact of Brexit on demand for UK universities is here (August 2019) and here (with London Economics and Kaplan, January 2017).

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