08 Jul 2016

Demographics and Brexit: A deeper problem for the EU?

Lars Ludolph / Mikkel Barslund


CEPS Commentary

No. of pages: 3

There has been much debate about the demographic factors that contributed to the outcome of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU. Two aspects command special attention. First, there are marked differences between young and old generations in the preferences shown for remaining in the EU. While the former predominantly voted to remain, a great majority of the latter voted to leave. On the other hand, voter turnout revealed the opposite trend: – although less so than first believed: about 90% of UK citizens aged 65 and older voted, whereas only 64% of those aged 18-24 cast their vote (Figure 1).

Blaming older generations for the outcome is prevalent in many analyses: if only the young had voted, the result would clearly have been ‘remain’. Two points are worth noting in the debate on young versus older voters. First, interpolating from the numbers in Figure 1, the ‘leave’ vote outstrips ‘remain’ already by the age of 41 or 42. Second, higher turnout among the young would have helped the ‘remain’ side, but would not have decisively swung the result. In fact, if the turnout of 18-34 year olds had been the same as that of the 65 year olds and older, it would have yielded a 50-50 outcome (see Figure 2). This is based on the assumption that abstaining young voters would have shown the same preferences as those who actually voted.

                                                      Figure 2. The 'remain' outcome in two hypotetical scenarios 

These thought experiments imply that the higher degree of political apathy among young voters certainly played a role in the outcome of the Brexit referendum, but it was not a substantial game changer.

Euroscepticism among the old – a European issue?

The negative sentiment of older age groups towards the European project is, nevertheless, a striking outcome of the UK referendum. What has been less widely noted is that the relationship between age and negative attitudes towards the European Union is in fact widespread across the whole of the EU. Furthermore, this young-old divide has persisted since at least 1987 (see Figure 3).

While general attitudes towards the EU vary over the years covered in these surveys, the age trend is always evident. This trend appears to be at odds with one of the most highly acclaimed accomplishments of the EU: maintaining peace and security across a continent that has been at war for centuries. Intuitively, those cohorts born closer to World War II might be expected to appreciate the improvements brought about by the European project more than younger generations. Yet it seems that other determinants of EU support (views on migration, or the single market, possibly) cloud this effect. The persistence of this young-old divide also suggests that cohort effects play a lesser role in determining EU attitudes. Rather, it seems that people become more Eurosceptical as they grow older.

This raises the question of whether the ongoing phenomenon of population ageing ultimately spells decline in EU support. Projecting the path of positive sentiment towards the European Union based on Eurobarometer survey data from 1994 shows that changing demographics only led to a decline of about one percentage point, by 2016,[1] in the number of people stating that EU membership is a good thing for their country. While this number is amplified substantially if the age profile in voter turnout resembles the one seen in the UK referendum on EU membership, the downward pressure on support for the EU arising from an ageing population alone is in fact limited.

Changing demographics are thus unlikely to pose an existential threat to the EU. Yet, it is worth keeping in mind that EU referenda – at least among the old EU15 countries – are always going to be nail-biting affairs and small shifts in EU support may prove decisive.

This effect might also show on the country level. If campaigning for parliamentary elections in 2017 in Germany and France centres on core issues of current EU affairs, demographics might become at least as important as in the UK referendum: according to a recent Pew Poll (2016), Germany and France are among the countries where the attitude towards the EU differs the most across different age groups (Table 1).

Source: Pew Research Center, 2016, p.4[2].

Mikkel Barslund is a Research Fellow in the Economic Policy unit at CEPS and Lars Ludolph is a Researcher in the Economic Policy unit at CEPS.

CEPS Commentaries offer concise, policy-oriented insights into topical issues in European affairs. The views expressed are attributable only to the authors in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which they are associated.


[1] The projection is based on the assumption of a constant attitude towards the European Union across age groups over the projection period.

[2] Pew Research Center (2016) “Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit – Significant opposition in key European countries to an ever closer EU”, http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2016/06/Pew-Research-Center-Brexit-Report-FINAL-June-7-2016.pdf.