Emily Rainsford

For many, the intergenerational divides around Brexit seem self-evident. But author Emily Rainsford argues we may not be asking the right questions about youth political engagement and Brexit.

We have all seen the headlines about young people and Brexit: they are the ones hardest hit, have the most to lose and are most opposed to it. We are very familiar with this perceived intergenerational divide, not just now but also in the past. Young people are supposed to be more radical than adults, familiar saying “if you are not a liberal at 25 you have no heart, if you are not conservative when 35 you have no brain.”

But is it really that straight forward? I argue that it is not. 

Firstly, there is no clear definition or cut off point when youth starts and ends. In electoral terms, the youngest voters (in UK elections) are 18 and voters this age are often talked about as the youth vote, despite turning 18 being a marker of legal adulthood. Whilst this is true in the context, most youth scholars argue that youth starts a lot earlier, probably at the age of 15 or 16. More importantly, political awareness and action does not magically start at 18, as we see with the current school strikes for the climate. At the other end of the scale, the youth vote only extends to the age of 24. Again, youth scholars would argue that this is too short; today many do not hit the markers of adulthood of stable job, moving out of the family home, setting with a partner and starting a family until late into their 30s. All these things matter for opinion and turnout. 

Secondly, if we take this wider perspective of youth we see important differences in Brexit preference. The chart below is the well-known breakdown of the way voters of different ages voted in the EU referendum. There is a lot of information is hidden in these age categories that is not captured by simply looking at someone’s age, but it is a common classification. If we look slightly beyond the 24-year-olds we see that there are big differences between the younger age categories. In fact, they are much larger than the differences between the older age categories. The gap between the youngest three categories, up to age 44 is approximately 10%, whilst for the older age categories from age 44 is 1-4%. What this chart tells us is that there is much more variation between the younger cohorts than for older people. These differences are probably the result of very different socialisation experiences for these cohorts. In the UK there have been a number of significant political events in the past 10 years or so, a coalition government failing to deliver lowering of university tuition fees, the financial crisis and slow recovery, austerity, Scottish Independence referendum and now the EU referendum and long drawn Brexit negotiation. At each of these events, there will be young people at different ages who for the first time try to understand or get involved in the debate, or take political action for what they believe in. That will be their first political socialisation experience that will shape their behaviour, attitudes and values for the future.  

Thirdly, there is a contradiction in that the youngest voters voted to remain, or voted for the status quo. Whilst this is in line with ideas that young people are more globally focused and cosmopolitan, it is in contrast to that young people are generally seen to be less invested in the status quo and they were more likely to support the Scottish Independence referendum. In this context, instead of asking why it is that young people supported Brexit, a more interesting question is why do younger voters support the status quo? And why are slightly older voters less likely to do so? One explanation could be that the general sense of uncertainty and chaos for young people nowadays; it is harder for young people to get a good job, their own home and the value of education is eroding. Is it really that surprising then that they want somethings to remain the same?


Emily Rainsford is a Research Associate at Newcastle University working on youth political engagement and employment, and occasionally tweets @EmilyRainsford. She is also one of the convenors of the PSA Young People’s Politics Specialist Group (@PSAyoungpol).


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane