It is wrong and unfair to denigrate older people because of the EU Referendum result

Originally Posted on June 27, 2016 by Caroline Abrahams Age UK

The conclusion of the EU referendum, with its relatively slender majority for Leave, has been warmly welcomed by those who campaigned for a ‘Brexit’ but generated shock and dismay on the part of many fervent Remainers and in some instances real anger too. Such emotions are understandable, given the huge potential ramifications of the decision to leave the EU, about which we will no doubt be hearing a lot more in the days and weeks to come.

What is less legitimate and frankly much less excusable, in my opinion, is when these outpourings descend into denigration of those who are presumed to be ‘to blame’. I am referring, as you may guess, to that whole class of our fellow citizens who have been described over recent days, not only in social media but also in some opinion pieces in the broadsheets, as ‘elderly’, ‘baby boomers’ or, in one case ‘wrinkly bastards’.

What is the evidence here?

An analysis of the age breakdown of voters for Leave and Remain from on the day opinion data certainly shows a definite age gradient:

How age groups voted

However, this graph also shows that it wasn’t by any means only ‘older people’ who voted by a majority for Leave: in the 45-54 age group there was a clear majority among the voters for Leave and even in the younger cohort of 35-44s the numbers voting for and against staying in the EU were not all that different.

You could in fact argue that the key shift occurred in the 45-54 age group: from this age group and beyond to much older people there was an increasingly pronounced majority among voters for Leave. So a more accurate description of what happened might be that among those who voted, most young adults voted for Remain while most of their parents and grandparents (and their great grand parents too) voted for Leave.

An additional consideration that needs to be taken into account in understanding the impact of age on the result is turnout, as this information from Sky Data shows:

 Turnout % of each age group

The pattern is consistent and clear: more than four in five people aged over 65 voted in the Referendum, compared to little more than one in three who voted in the youngest group eligible to do so.

Other important factors that explained the result  

However, information presented by the Financial Times this weekend shows that age combined with turnout were not the only factors that explain the eventual result – indeed they suggest that they were not the principal factors at all.

Instead, as the Financial Times’ article explains, “of more than 100 key social characteristics, the percentage of people with a degree was the most strongly associated with the share of voters who voted Remain. Unsurprisingly, the proportion of people in jobs classified as “professional occupations” — generally requiring a degree equivalent qualification — was the next strongest.”

As you may be aware, far fewer of today’s older people had the chance to go to university compared to younger age groups.

The third strongest explanatory factor cited by the Financial Times was ‘not holding a passport’. This correlation might be due to a number of reasons, including age, but the Financial Times ascribes this primarily to ’cultural attitudes’. They draw on previous research they have carried out into voting patterns around the London Mayoralty to substantiate this interpretation.

The fourth best indicator from the Financial Times’ analysis of the data was income, in that they say that “areas with higher median incomes tended to lean Remain, whilst lower incomes leaned Leave”.

Age and turnout come in fifth: of some significance for sure, but not the most important by any means.

In practice, of course, all these factors – class, income, identity, geography and age – and no doubt many more, interacted to produce the results we saw rolling in through last Thursday night, to varying degrees and with differential impacts across the whole of the UK. They led, for example, to Scotland and London voting in favour of Remain, along with Oxford and Cambridge, but to great swathes of the Midlands and the North of England (with the exception of some of the major cities) voting to Leave.

Not jumping to conclusions 

So those who have leapt to the conclusion that the Referendum was a simple matter of ‘Old Versus Young’ are just plain wrong. It was a lot more complicated than that and, apart from anything else, to suggest otherwise overlooks the impact on the final result of the more than 1 in 4 under 25s who voted to Leave, and of the 2 in 5 over-65s who voted to Remain.

In other words, large numbers of individual men and women voted in ways that entirely refute the stereotypes being painted of their age groups and surely that should not come to any of us as a surprise. In this instance, as in almost all instances in my view, to see the world through a one dimensional ‘Old versus Young’ prism is misleading and unfair, and something that ultimately diminishes us all