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16 July 2019

UK in a Changing Europe: Anti-immigration attitudes are disappearing among younger generations in Britain

The findings of a new working paper – that there are significant, persistent differences between generations when it comes to their attitudes to immigration – are particularly relevant in the context of the UK’s Brexit referendum.

[...] The UK in a Changing Europe statistical analysis shows that those born between approximately 1920 and 1960 are generally among the most negative about immigration, with those born around 1940-5 holding the most negative attitudes to immigration of all. As the graph below also shows, for generations born after 1960, we found a small but steadily significant movement towards more positive attitudes to immigration among younger generations.

The Impact of diversity

This trend tracks post-war increases in levels of diversity in the UK. As the country has become more diverse, and more open to immigration, younger generations who’ve grown up with this increased diversity are the most positive about it. So something about the experiences of these younger generations appears to be leading them to different conclusions about immigration compared to their elders.

One possibility is that the younger groups are experiencing far more contact with immigrant minorities than their elders, and our research shows that this is indeed the case. It’s also possible that younger generations came of age at a time when public debates around immigration were changing and social norms along with them – and people were becoming more intolerant of intolerance.

Exposure to more affordable international travel and to friends and relatives who’ve worked abroad may allow these younger groups to empathise more with being a “foreigner” than their parents do, or maybe they feel more like “citizens of the world”. Other researchers are also finding major generational differences in other social attitudes over long periods of time, with younger generations having more socially liberal attitudes.

But society remains dominated by generations born before 1970, where anti-immigrant attitudes are most prevalent. These older generations still make up the bulk of the population, vote in the largest numbers and – whether in politics, media, business, or culture – dominate key positions in society.

Findings highlight the possibility of growing tolerance of diversity in the UK as a result of “generational replacement”, as those born after 1970 become more central to society in the coming decades. This makes it more likely that continued diversity brought about by immigration could soon be met with more positive reactions.

This is clearly relevant in relation to the promise by Brexiteers to “take back control” of immigration in the context of the UK’s relationship with the EU – and one of the main drivers for the 2016 referendum in the first place. These findings therefore seem crucial to the UK’s impending departure from the EU. In the not-too-distant future, a key element which drove the vote to Leave – concerns over immigration – may carry far less importance. 

Full working paper

© UK in a Changing Europe

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