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7 June 2016updated 05 Oct 2023 8:00am

Who’ll win the European referendum? It all depends on the young

If the young don't turn out, the result will be Brexit. 

By Bobby Duffy

David Cameron and all other In campaigners are worried about young people not voting in the EU Referendum.  They should be. 

The logic is simple: young people are more positive about the EU, as a group they would vote to stay in, but they are much less likely to be registered to vote, and even those that are vote less – so their views are in danger of being outweighed by older people. 

It’s not surprising then that it’s the In campaigners that have been most vocal.  But beyond narrow campaign advantage, there are real legitimacy concerns.  The consequences will be felt by the young “stronger and longer” – and given it could take 10 years to actually Brexit, by then we’ll have an additional decade’s worth of young people in the voting population – and lot fewer of our current older age group.

The logic is simple, but is it right?  Let’s take each stage in turn.

Remain does have a massive advantage with the young.  Among all under 35s in our latest poll, 68 per cent say they would vote to remain, while only 36 per cent of those aged 65+ say they would vote to stay. 

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And this support for remain among the young is built on much more positive views of EU, not fear of the consequences of Brexit.   Two in five (38 per cent) say they trust the EU – which may not seem a massive vote of confidence, but it’s twice the level of trust that older people have in the EU, and twice the level we have in our own government.

And here’s the important bit.  There is a counter argument that these attitudes are just a feature of youth, and that as they get older, this cohort’s views will change: in ten years’ time they will be much closer to older people’s views.  It’s not that their elders know better, it’s just that we change, often in predictable ways as we go through life events, like leaving university, getting a job, buying (or, these days, more likely renting) our own place and having children. 

But that doesn’t seem to be the case with attitudes to the EU, as our new analysis shows.  There seems to be something different about this particular cohort of young people: they’ve always been more positive, and they’re maintaining a consistent gap from older groups, at least for the last 12 years.

There’s even a growing generational gap on highly related issues like immigration.  The oldest age group is twice as likely to be concerned about immigration as the young, a pattern that’s become stronger in the last five years. 

So, as far as we can tell, it’s likely that today’s young people will continue to be more positive about Europe than older cohorts. 

So will they be outweighed in the referendum? 

This is where the inequity is clear.  The under 35s, often called Generation Y or millennials, are actually now a very large generation – there are 14.1 million of them, much bigger than the 10.7 million who are aged 65 or over. 

But they are much less likely to be registered or to vote. 

There are no accurate figures on the age profile of who’s correctly registered to vote, as demographic details like age are not held on the electoral register.  But all the estimates are that the young are disproportionately under-represented, not least because of the shift to individual electoral registration (IER), rather than household or block registration at universities. 

For example, official studies by the Electoral Commission show that even prior to IER only 70 per cent of 20-24 year olds were on the register, compared with 95 per cent of those aged 65 or over.  Other more recent estimates suggest that 3.5 million young people under 35 are missing. 

And even among those registered, young people are less likely to turn out. 

For example, the British Election Survey followed up last year’s general election and validated who actually voted by checking claimed votes against the marked-up register of who actually did.  This shows that 57 per cent of 18-34s claimed to have voted, but only 51 per cent actually did, compared with 85 per cent of those aged 65 and over who actually voted. 

The EU referendum is clearly different from a general election – but we are seeing similar levels of claimed certainty to vote as we measured in the general election, and the bookies are predicting a similar level of overall turnout. 

So if the patterns seen at the general election translated into the referendum, it would mean that there will only be around 6.7m young people voting compared with 8.6m of those aged 65 or over.  Generation Y is 30 per cent bigger than this older group, but they will have significantly less voting power. 

There are no facts about the future – and pollsters will tell you that’s particularly the case in trying to predict who will actually vote.  One thing is certain, younger people will have to live with the consequences of the referendum, good and bad, for longer than older groups so they need to ignore the cringeworthy campaigns and vote anyway.  

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