Generation Brexit

Here’s why - in the interests of young people - Theresa May should keep Brexit soft, soft, soft.

It has been a year since Theresa May triggered Article 50, initiating the UK’s exit from the EU. And yet we seem no closer to knowing what the government’s final negotiating position is. That is, a position beyond just having our cake and eating it. It appears that the PM is aiming for a FTA deal, whereby the UK will leave the customs union and single market, in order to meet her red lines on immigration and sovereignty. A deal of this kind would betray young people, given it will end freedom of movement and result in significant economic damage.1 Young people, who comprehensively backed Remain, don’t want this. Rather they want the UK to maintain as close a relationship with the EU as possible. The government should ensure it gets an agreement that does this, for one simple reason: demographics. Thanks to demographic churn, the UK’s Brexit supporting majority is fast disappearing. It won’t be long before younger generations, who approve of the EU, form a majority in this country. And when this happens, they certainly won’t be afraid to reverse any deal that isn’t in their interests.


Young people backed Remain and it is clear why:

It is well known that the country was deeply divided by generation during the 2016 referendum. Young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain in the European Union, whilst older cohorts tended towards Leave. The data is clear.2 A substantial 73% of 18-24 year olds backed staying inside the EU and it is clear why. Unlike older generations, young people have a much more liberal, internationalist view of the world. Having grown up amongst globalisation and multiculturalism, the young are not tied to traditional notions of sovereignty and the nation state.3 They are cosmopolitan and open in outlook, and are comfortable with the idea of having multiple identities. For most young people in this country it is not mutually exclusive to be proudly British and European. Theresa May proclaimed in a 2016 speech that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’.4 In the eyes of young people, her thinking couldn’t be more outdated.

Significantly, younger generations don’t view immigration as much as a concern as older cohorts.5 Only 27% of 18-25 year olds want to see immigration in this country ‘decrease a lot’, compared with 63% of those aged over 66. Studies have found that restricting immigration was a major driver behind people voting Leave, especially given that freedom of movement is compulsory with being a member of the EU single market.6 Young people are much more comfortable with freedom of movement than older generations, seeing it as a boon. As Obama succinctly put it, young people are part of ‘a generation that has seen integration and globalization not as threats but as opportunities’, ‘a generation who sees differences of pluralism and diversity not as a curse, but as a great gift’.7

With regards to the EU, young people overwhelmingly agree that it is a force for good. Unlike older people, younger cohorts acknowledge that membership boosts our global influence; they are optimistic about the future of the bloc, they agree that the annual £8.5 billion payment made to the EU represents good value for money; and they strongly dispute that the union is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt.8 Young people show concern for global issues like climate change, and understand that we must often act multilaterally to deal with them. The young are in favour of Britain taking an internationalist, outward-looking approach to the world. Finally, thanks to being amongst the most formally educated generations in history, young people are well aware of the economic repercussions of leaving the EU as many experts have warned.9 Given the above, it is obvious why young people backed staying in the European Union.

So what do young people want?

Well, ideally the young want to Remain. A 2017 LSE/MLMS study found that the vast majority of young people ‘explicitly do not want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union’. But it also found that if the UK did have to leave the EU, young people want Brexit to be as soft as possible.10 Political analysts have argued that the UK faces a fundamental choice in the Brexit negotiations, between soft or hard, between divergence or alignment. The government has to choose whether to prioritise the single market and limited economic disruption or greater sovereignty and control over policy including immigration.11 Theresa May has stated she is aiming for both, ‘frictionless, tariff-free’ trade and control over ’borders, laws and money’. The EU has made it clear, on several occasions, that this position is not possible given the bloc’s need to protect the integrity of the single market.12 The EU has argued the UK is trying to have its cake and eat it. At some point the government will have to face the inevitable and be forced to choose between the two. Given the choice, young people want soft. They overwhelmingly prioritise staying in the single market over controlling immigration, in stark contrast with older people.13

A survey by Undivided found that 65% of young people [13-29 yr olds] want to remain a full member of the single market and 78% want to keep freedom of movement.14 As expected, young people neither want the economic damage associated with leaving the single market, nor the termination of their ability to study, work and travel in the EU. Other key priorities for younger generations include maintaining the benefits of membership like the Erasmus student exchange programme, limiting any negative impact on the economy, ensuring the UK doesn’t become an isolated country, opposing Brexit’s anti-immigration message and sustaining ‘open, socially just and positive international relationships’ with both EU and non-EU nations.15

So what does this add up to in practice? Various models exist for the government to pursue, including Canada and Norway. The EU has stated that unless the UK loosens its red lines, the bloc will be offering only a Canada-style FTA deal.16 Under this deal, the UK won’t have to accept freedom of movement anymore but will in turn lose access to the single market, no longer have frictionless trade and be deprived of any benefits of being a member state. The Norway model is a potential alternative option, under which the UK would leave the EU but still retain freedom of movement and maintain full access to the single market.17 A Norway deal, thus, would limit much potential damage to young people’s economic fortunes and wouldn’t deeply restrict their rights and freedoms. A Norway-style soft Brexit deal, would therefore be the most likely to deliver for young people.


Why should Theresa May care?

Well, in one word, demographics. It is true that presently the young are electorally weak. They were comfortably outvoted in the 2016 referendum. Some have argued this was due to a low turnout of the young. However Demos found that even if all the UK’s young people turned out, it wouldn’t have reversed the result.18 This is clear to see in the chart below. The chart by Resolution Foundation displays the voting population by generation over time. Significantly it highlights how generations younger than Baby Boomers, i.e. those who voted to Remain, didn’t constitute a majority in 2016.19

But this is fast changing. Demographic churn means that older generations, who tended towards Brexit, are passing and being replaced by new cohorts, who are sympathetic towards the EU. And significantly these younger generations will remain pro-EU as they get older, against what many would assume. As I found in my undergraduate dissertation on UK public attitudes towards immigration, the evidence suggests there isn’t a strong lifecycle effect at play.20 Put simply it is not the case that Brits are liberal, over immigration, at a young age and become conservative on the issue as they get older. Instead I observed a solid cohort effect in action, whereby successive UK generations are increasingly more favourable towards immigration, as a result of rising levels of education, social liberalism and diversity.21 This situation also applies to generational attitudes towards Brexit. Successive generations are increasingly pro-EU, and this won’t change as they age. Hence, the UK’s generational divide is permanent. This is significant. It means that with time the pro-Brexit majority will slowly disappear and soon the majority of UK population will be in favour of a soft Brexit or remaining in the EU, reversing the 2016 result and raising the scope for a potential second referendum.22The FT projects this may happen as soon as 2021.23


Final thoughts:

So take heed Theresa May and fellow Brexiteers. A majority of young people feel anger and resentment at the UK’s choice to leave the EU, which was made primarily - in their view - by older generations.24 Thus it is in the hands of the government, occupied by older cohorts, to ensure they deliver a deal that is in the interests of the young. Don’t force a deal on young people that jeopardises their future, one which they unquestionably didn’t vote for. Drop your red lines, pursue a Norway-style deal and keep Brexit soft. Because given time, it won’t be long before younger generations make up the majority of the UK’s voting population. And when this happens, they certainly won’t be afraid to reverse any deal that doesn’t work for them. They may even lead the country back into the EU, through a second referendum, allowing us to keep our influence, gain from future European developments and try to reform the bloc from within. Corbyn this warning goes for you too. If you help push the UK out of the single market, young people will desert your cause.

Guy Verhofstadt, ALDE MEP & Brexit coordinator for EU parliament: “I am also sure that - one day or another - there will be a young man or woman who will try again, who will lead Britain into the European family once again. A young generation that will see Brexit for what it really is: a catfight in the Conservative party that got out of hand, a loss of time, a waste of energy, a stupidity”.25

Research has shown that the Brexit referendum was chiefly a culture war, between open and closed, and not an economic one as many assume, between haves and have-nots.26 It was a battle between those who were comfortable with recent cultural trends including globalisation and mass migration, and those who felt alienated by it. A battle between the young, educated and socially liberal who backed open, versus the old, uneducated and conservative who backed closed, as I discovered in my dissertation.27 After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, there is a growing consensus that society is now primarily divided between open and closed, not left and right.28 On this contest, the young overwhelmingly back open. And, crucially, the future is open.29

PS: This doesn’t let young people off the hook. In the 2016 referendum, older generations turned out substantially more than the young [64% of 18-24 year olds versus 90% of over 65s]. This disparity is even wider if you include registration figures.30 So it is imperative that young people get engaged and help fight for a deal that protects their future, most importantly by getting registered to vote and turning out when it matters.  



1. BuzzFeed. (2018). The Government's Own Brexit Analysis Says The UK Will Be Worse Off In Every Scenario Outside The EU. [online] Available at:

2. Ashcroft, L. (2016). How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday... and why - Lord Ashcroft Polls. [online] Available at:

3. Owen, K. and Macfarland, C. (2016). A Generation Apart: Were younger people left behind by the EU referendum?. [online] Covi [Common Vision], p.29. Available at:

4. FT. (2016). Theresa May’s conference speech in full. [online] Available at:

5. Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, C. van der Eijk, J. Mellon and C. Prosser (2015) British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 4. DOI: 10.15127/1.293723

6. Curtice, J. (2016). The two poles of the referendum debate: immigration and the economy. [online] Natcen. Available at:

7. (2016). Remarks by President Obama in Town Hall with Young Leaders of the UK. [online] Available at:

8. Owen, K. and Macfarland, C. (2016). A Generation Apart: Were younger people left behind by the EU referendum?. [online] Covi [Common Vision], p.33-37. Available at:

9. Wells, A. (2018). YouGov | What do the public want from the Brexit negotiations?. [online] Available at:

10. Mejias, S. and Balaji, S. (2017). UK Youth Perspectives and Priorities for Brexit Negotiations. [online] LSE, p.39. Available at:

11. Kuenssberg, L. (2018). May returns from China to Brexit tensions. [online] BBC. Available at:

12. European Council (Art. 50) - Guidelines. (2018). [online] European Council, p.3. Available at:

13. Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, C. van der Eijk, J. Mellon and C. Prosser (2017) British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 13. DOI: 10.15127/1.293723

14. Youth Manifesto Report: What young people want from Brexit. (2017). [online] Undivided, p.21. Available at:

15. Mejias, S. and Balaji, S. (2017). UK Youth Perspectives and Priorities for Brexit Negotiations. [online] LSE, p.6-7. Available at:

16. European Council (Art. 50) - Guidelines. (2018). [online] European Council, p.2-3. Available at:

17. BBC News. (2017). What are the Brexit options?. [online] Available at:

18. Cadywould, C. (2016). Why the Youth Vote Couldn’t Win it for Remain. [online] Demos. Available at:

19. Gardiner, L. (2016). Votey McVoteface: Understanding the growing turnout gap between the generations. [online] Resolution Foundation, p.9. Available at:

20, 21, 22. Sivathasan, C. (2017). Is it the economy, stupid? An analysis of the relative importance of economic versus cultural factors in determining public attitudes towards immigration in the UK since 1960, p.31-36, 49. Undergraduate. LSE. Available at:

23. FT. (2016). Brexit: everything you wanted to know about turnout by age at the EU referendum. [online] Available at:

24. Mejias, S. and Balaji, S. (2017). UK Youth Perspectives and Priorities for Brexit Negotiations. [online] LSE, p.6. Available at:

25. New Statesman. (2017). The young see Brexit for what it really is - they will make Britain European again. [online] Available at:

26. Kaufmann, E. (2016). It’s NOT the economy, stupid: Brexit as a story of personal values. [Blog] LSE British Politics and Policy. Available at:

27. Sivathasan, C. (2017). Is it the economy, stupid? An analysis of the relative importance of economic versus cultural factors in determining public attitudes towards immigration in the UK since 1960, p.39-41. Undergraduate. LSE. Available at:

28. The Economist. (2016). The new political divide. [online] Available at:

29. Open owns the future. (2018). [online] Global Future, p.3. Available at:

30. Cadywould, C. (2016). Brexit and the Youth Myth. [online] Demos. Available at:

edited on Mar 26, 2018 by Chujan Sivathasan

Martha Eckersley Mar 27, 2018

I really enjoyed reading this. It summaries and discusses thoughts young people are having and issues affecting them re Brexit well. I particularly liked your classification as members of society being split in preference to open or closed, rather than the classical and traditional left and right. It's important that whilst you were biased towards being pro-EU, that you considered both sides and weren't aggressively loyal to a particular political party.
I did want to ask, as I've seen it a couple of times on this website when people are discussing the young people and their perspective: do you think the idea of a second referendum to gain more intel on how the country is feeling about negotiations so far and what they want for the future now they have more information? If you think the idea of the government gathering this information officially to inform how they proceed is a good idea, do you think it should remain at this level or affect the decision to leave at all? I guess what I am trying to ask is whether you think the government needs to ask more questions about what kind of Brexit the public wants, or if they should ask again whether we should leave or not?
Really great essay!

Reply 6

Chujan Sivathasan Mar 30, 2018

Thank you for your kind words. You make an interesting point. On a second referendum on whether to stay in or leave the EU, young people are strongly in favour. The Guardian [2018] found that 85% of 18-24 yr olds and 74% of 25-34 yr olds agree that the UK should have a second referendum on whether or not to leave the EU once the outcome of the negotiations are known. Even 58% of the population are in favour. [77% of Labour voters agree too]. A second referendum, as many political commentators argue, would allow the public to make a more informed decision, thanks to new post referendum facts and data. It would also give young people a fairer chance of making their voice heard.

However, having a second referendum on EU membership so soon may be a mistake. Polls suggest there hasn’t been much of a shift in public opinion since the 2016 vote. Given the vote was about personal identity, which is often hard-set, it is clear why there hasn’t been much Bregret. A narrow win for either side is projected. Another referendum with a close result would tear the country apart. And if Remain were to win, many Leavers would see that as a betrayal of a democratic decision. Additionally, a second referendum seems politically unlikely, given that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are set against it. A second referendum in 10 years time might be a better idea after Brexit has happened, whereby with hindsight the public [including Leavers] can decide whether it was worth it.

On the other hand, your idea of a fact-finding referendum is compelling. Not only is it more feasible than a second vote, it would also be more fruitful. The first referendum didn’t ask the people what kind of Brexit they wanted. Did the people want a soft or hard Brexit? Did they want to prioritise the single market or controlling immigration? Did the public really want to leave the customs union? An informative referendum or government survey with more detail than a binary choice between Remain and Leave would be helpful in answering these questions. The results would give clarity to the Brexit debate and allow the government to have a more effective negotiating line. It would visibly outline to the government what the position of young people in this country is. Finally, it would ensure the government delivers a Brexit deal that the public, and young people, actually want. What do you think?

Reply 3

Martha Eckersley Mar 31, 2018

Thank you for your detailed response. I agree with you that a second referendum is not likely and could well be seen as democratic betrayal, as you said. Also, if a second referendum were to happen, where does it stop? If it were a narrow margin, as you predict would more than likely happen again, and Remain won, would Leavers call for a third? It would appear ridiculous and never-ending in that respect. I read an article somewhere recently that claimed the young people could well reverse Brexit in years to come when they (we) become the leaders, so your idea of a second referendum in 10 years or so seems like a good idea once everything has settled and decisions made have reaped results.

I think the government is definitely aware of what different age categories want in terms of the different elements of Brexit, but the surveys done so far obviously do not have the same reach that the referendum did. Therefore, I do think it would be extremely beneficial for the government to carry out an official poll as such and treat it in the same way as they did the original referendum. I don't think the government can make a decision that benefits the most on what type of Brexit is desired based on the 2016 results.

Reply 4

Chujan Sivathasan Mar 31, 2018

Nicely put. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

Reply 2

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Adnan Raja Mar 27, 2018

Thoroughly enjoyable read. One question that came to mind was: is it a fair assumption to conclude that younger people, if in the future the opportunity to vote for a party (or in a referendum) on the basis on re-entering the EU arose, will not seek the current opt outs that the UK currently has (e.g. the Euro)?

Reply 6

Chujan Sivathasan Mar 30, 2018

Thanks for your response. You raise a vital point. The UK currently has a number of opt-outs from the EU including an exemption from membership of the Euro single currency and the passport-free Schengen area. What would happen to these opt-outs in the given scenario of UK re-entry into the EU?

Firstly, would the UK want to hold onto its opt-outs? The population as a whole certainly wouldn’t want to lose them. Yougov [2016] found 46% of the UK wants a less close relationship with the EU, with powers returned back to London. However, on ‘ever closer union’, young people are a different story. Young people are more comfortable with EU integration than older cohorts. BES [2017, wave 4] assessed where people stood on a European integration scale, with 0 being ‘unification has gone too far’ and 10 being ‘unification should be pushed further’. On this scale 18-25 year olds score at 4.27 versus 2.34 for those aged 56-65 [UK average 3.35]. So it may be the case that younger generations won’t want to seek to keep the UK’s opt-outs. More detailed research on this is necessary.

Secondly, even if we wanted to, would the EU allow us to keep our opt-outs? The Telegraph reports that the Commission would strip Britain of its opt-outs, if a second referendum were to result in a Remain vote. Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit representative of the EU parliament, has also made this point. In a speech, responding to French President Macron’s statement that ‘if Britain changes its mind, it will find an open door’, Guy argued that ‘like Alice in Wonderland, not all doors are the same… it will be a brand new door’. However a EU white paper on the ‘Future of Europe’ and Macron speech on Europe at Sorbonne both raised the prospect of a reformed EU with different member states travelling at different speeds. So it may be possible that the UK could retain its opt-outs if it re-joined the EU, but it remains uncertain.

So it seems the case that if we were to re-enter the EU, the UK wouldn’t seek to keep its opt-outs, because the young are comfortable without them and nevertheless the EU won’t grant us them. What do you think?

Reply 4

Filipa Ramos Apr 3, 2018

Thank you for the time you took to write this, Chujan! What a great read, you raise very interesting points. Although the majority of the youth, like you said, have a more open perception of their identity and are overhelmingly more supportive of the EU than older generations, we can still clearly see their lack of engagement with politics. You do mention how imperative it is that we all get engaged, namely by registering to vote, and I completely agree.

But don't you think the EU also has a role to play in engaging the younger generations to be more interested (and educated) about what the EU is and how it influences their lives? Perhaps if more of us knew how important the EU is (not just for our national economies but for our everyday lives- to protect our interests and freedoms), more young people would be interested in politics.

Reply 6

Martha Eckersley Apr 4, 2018

I think your suggestion of more education on the EU for young people is really important! However, the actual logistics of it may be quite difficult because, especially now, the EU doesn't have much influence on education and specifically the curriculum. Maybe it can be something the EU can propose to its current member states, but I'm not sure how possible it would be for EU politics to become standard education across the UK now, as even politics as a subject isn't.
Having said that, education through schools is obviously not the only way to learn. Maybe the EU can run, almost advertising, campaigns to direct young people to their sources?
How do you think the EU could educate young people across Europe?

Reply 5

Amy Smith Apr 4, 2018

I think it is really unfortunate but countries like the UK would see it as a huge infringement of sovereignty if the EU was to try and educate young people more on what the EU does for people across Europe.
I think this is because then the UK could not control the narrative (which at the moment is largely negative) they give the public about the EU. At the end of the day I think that as it is the member states who make the rules in the EU so they should be held to account and be more responsible for educating their citizens - but for now that is not inline with their political interests.

Reply 5

Martha Eckersley Apr 4, 2018

I agree, it's definitely not in state interest and the UK Government could definitely place that request for more EU exposure into the narrative of EU control. Like you said, it could/would be perceived as an attack on state sovereignty and an attempt to erode British governmental authority over its citizens.
I think just by Brexit happening, so many young people from all over Europe have learnt even just a little bit more about the EU. At risk of perpetuating British arrogance, many publics are probably aware of at least the basics of what is going on, and some governments have been prompted to consider their own state membership. Maybe that is one good thing to come out of Brexit, that it has at least increased awareness of the EU and its functions across Europe.

Reply 6

Amy Smith Apr 4, 2018

I think you are right and that is true to a small extent but my personal experience of speaking with other young people in Europe (I'm currently on a University Erasmus exchange) is that they have a much more realistic understanding of their countries place in the world. As all the British people I know have all been educated without being taught about any of the atrocities from British past - it means we do have an amplified sense of importance and believe we can do just fine outwith the EU, something which other European countries do not share with us.

I think particularly those in France and Germany have a full and great understanding of how the EU works - what its limits are and what benefits they have received from it. And although there are euro-skeptics in most european countries it has never been taken as seriously as it is in the UK because it is such a minority opinion and actually pushes more for EU reform than for leaving the EU altogether.

Reply 5

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Kristina Griffin Apr 3, 2018

I very much agree!

Reply 4

Rebecca Crossland May 15, 2018

This was very informative and enjoyable to read - a thought that came to mind was that although the young are discouraged by Brexit due to restricted freedom of movement, perhaps we will eventually adapt and refrain from reversing any changes? Do you think that the eurosceptic nature of parties such as The Conservatives will continue once the young form the majority of the nation?

Regardless, I believe this well reflected the views of a vast majority of young people discussing Brexit and raised very interesting points.

Reply 4

Hana M May 17, 2018

Thank you for taking your time to write such a thorough article full of great comprehensive ideas. Would you be in favour of a second referendum in which 16-18 year olds were allowed to vote? Do you think it would make an overall difference to the future of the relationship between the UK and the EU?

Reply 4

Holly Roper May 24, 2018

This was incredibly interesting to read.

Reply 4

Yike Wu 10 months ago

really interesting to read!

Reply 2