The Brexit Generation: five years on

It is now five years since the EU Referendum result, five years along the path towards the “sunlit uplands” promised by those that supported Brexit. Liz Emerson, IF Co-founder, investigates what benefits have been delivered for the UK’s young people.

Generation Remain

If you cast your mind back to the EU referendum, it was clear even before the final result that most young people who could vote at the time wanted to remain in the EU, while more older people wanted to leave.

In the end, 73% of 18–24 year olds and 62% of 25–34 year olds who turned out voted to Remain.

Our Research

Why young people wanted “in” was studied by IF after the vote. Our Generation Remain research report identified four different “tribes” of Millennial voters. Three of the tribes identified made up the coalition of Millennial Remainers, whereas the fourth tribe consisted of Leavers. For all “remain” groups high levels of education, experience of European travel, and positive attitudes towards immigration, all contributed to their vote.

The fourth tribe called “Eurosceptics” had characteristics which matched those of the now well-established “left behind” analysis: white British; lower levels of formal qualifications; extremely concerned about immigration; and a strong sense of national identity. It seems that intergenerational attitudes have not changed much in the past five years.

Economic Shock

Pre-Brexit there were signs that the UK economy was already in a delicate position. In the last six months of 2019 the government had borrowed five times more than during the same period the year before due to Brexit-related spending.

The government was on track to break its own spending rules that say that the deficit must be below 2% of GDP in the financial year. In January 2020 The Guardian published an article outlining the fact that sterling remained 10% below its level before the Brexit vote and that business confidence was low as retail sales fell for a record fifth month in a row – the longest period since 1996.

However, Britain’s trade balance was higher than expected, thanks to higher import levels in previous months with businesses stockpiling goods in preparation for the ending of the transition period. Employment was also at a record high of 32.9 million, even if many of the jobs filled were low-paid, insecure, or part of the “gig” economy.

Brexit and young people

Five years after the referendum and younger generations are still facing insecure employment, high housing costs and high student debt. But, in addition, their ability to travel and work freely across the EU has now gone. Our young people can now only stay in an EU country for 90 out of 180 days without a visa, unless they obtain a work or study visa.

Also gone is the Erasmus+ scheme, which the EU wanted to continue post-Brexit. In its place is the “Turing Scheme”, which duplicates what already existed, is more expensive for younger taxpayers, offers less, and does not cover tuition fees. Gone too is the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which protected British people from costly medical expenses should they have fallen ill while in the EU. In its place is another unnervingly similar health protection card but at extra cost to younger taxpayers, the Global Health Insurance Card.

Blunt instrument

People remain split on the wisdom of referendums in general. They are a blunt instrument, and for big constitutional questions like the UK’s membership of the EU, they force voters to give one simple answer to a whole host of incredibly complex questions.

What is for certain is that they don’t centre or amplify the preferences of young people or the rights of future generations. We need to find more ways within our political system to do just that.

One part of the solution to that problem is on the horizon. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, sponsored by Big Issue founder Lord Bird, is making its way through Parliament. If enacted, the Bill would make sure the government tests all its decisions through the lens of intergenerational fairness, and would give institutional voice to the rights and opportunities of future generations. We support this Bill wholeheartedly, so please consider adding your support too.

Brain drain

We are also witnessing a brain drain as emigration by British nationals to the EU increased by 30% following the referendum vote. Levels of this kind of movement are not seen outside major political or economic crises. According to the research these are not only economically productive people but UK migrants “are among the most educated and skilled of those from any nation, with one of the highest net average income rates.”

We are also witnessing the return of EU workers resident in the UK to the EU, hollowing out many service professions and industries that older voters, who tended to vote to leave, rely on, such as nursing and social care. The irony is that at almost the exact moment that older generations got their wish to leave the EU citing high immigration, the UK desperately needed those very EU citizens to help those older generations through a global pandemic.


The emergence of COVID-19 can be seen as a blessing or a curse to an incoming government post-Brexit.

On the one hand, the pandemic has shown that the country can cope with unprecedented government borrowing outside wartime – £400 billion so far, and still climbing – in order to protect the nation and the economy. Furthermore, during the immediate aftermath of Brexit the nation’s attention was diverted away from that economic crisis and towards a national health crisis which could, it might be argued, help governments to mask the true economic impact of the decision to leave the EU.

The difficulty for economists, politicos and voters is how best to separate out the economic damage the pandemic has done from the economic damage inflicted by Brexit.

It will take time

Only now are the most vociferous Brexiteers waking up to the reality that Brexit will not be “done” for decades. The difficulties over the Northern Ireland protocol alone are proving that point. Brexit is a process, not an event, and we must continue to evaluate that process in the months and years to come.

Yet, all the negotiations and political maneuverings between states will cost money, and that money is borrowed, with the bill likely to be passed on to younger and future generations to pay, all for a political decision they did not agree with, with no sunlit uplands to be found five years on.

Help us to be able to do more 

Now that you’ve reached the end of the article, we want to thank you for being interested in IF’s work standing up for younger and future generations. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved so far. And with your help we can do much more, so please consider helping to make IF more sustainable. You can do so by following this link: Donate

Photo by Franz Wender on Unsplash