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Brexit wasn’t triggered by the old and unhappy, but by financial worries

12 April 2019

People’s feelings about their own financial situation had the greatest influence on them voting to leave the EU, according to new research which challenges the widely-held belief that it was the old and unhappy who swung the Brexit vote.

Academics at the Universities of Bristol, Warwick, and ETH Zurich, analysed the views of 8,000 prospective voters to determine what factors led to anti-EU sentiment.

They reveal how UK citizen's feelings about their incomes were a substantially better predictor of how they voted than their actual income, with those who described themselves as 'finding it very difficult' being 13 percent more likely to vote for Brexit than those ‘living comfortably’.

Despite the views of some commentators, the research found that Brexit wasn't caused by old people. After considering the effect of financial feelings, only the very youngest UK citizens – particularly those under the age of 25 - were substantially pro-Remain.

Between the end of their 20s and their 70s, people who live in the UK apparently have, after adjustment for other characteristics and thoughts on their finances, rather similar views on EU membership.

Equally, life satisfaction wasn’t found to be a major influence on how people voted.

Professor Eugenio Proto, from the Department of Economics at the University of Bristol, said: "Our research suggests Brexit was not caused by the attitudes of older people, despite this being a commonly held belief.  Only the very young were disproportionately pro-Remain. 

"Our insights show there was little difference between being aged 35, 55 or 75.  This was not what we had expected to observe in the data. 

"Instead, people’s feelings about their finances – rather than their actual income - were shown to be the strongest predictor of their views on Brexit.

"This is an important message for economists and political scientists, stressing once more how the bad feelings created after crisis austerity policies, and spread via the media and social media, have sparked the current wave of populism, and how important it is to take into account human feelings along with material factors."

The paper, due to be published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, analyses patterns in the views of 8,000 citizens on the days and weeks running up to the referendum.

These were collected by Understanding Society - the largest longitudinal household panel study of its kind.

The data analysis also showed people with a university degree or equivalent were 16 percent more likely to vote Remain and women were six percent more likely than men to want Britain to stay in the EU.

There was also evidence of an ethnic influence; those who classify themselves in the survey as Black or Mixed were markedly less likely to vote for Brexit, compared to individuals who classify themselves as White British.

There appeared to be no statistically significant influence from being unemployed, being married, having children, or living in a rural area.

Further information

Paper

‘Was Brexit triggered by the old and unhappy? Or by financial feelings?’ by Federica Liberini, Andrew Oswald, Eugenio Proto and Michela Redoano due to be published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization

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