Re-Engage | Brexit, The Young and the Old - Citizen Research Centre
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Re-Engage | Brexit, The Young and the Old


Post-Brexit Britain is in a state of political and social fracture – and there was widespread disbelief when the results were announced. Bookies had stay at 3-10 and leave at 5-2; polls suggested it was close to a foregone conclusion that the stay vote would win. There was jubilation in the Leave camp, coupled with a rising sense of unease at the inevitable question – what now?

This paper examines what the British public, young and the old, were saying on social media before and after the Brexit vote, and attempts to answer the question on the lips of Remain supporters – how did it come to this?

One of the more popular theories in this debate is that the younger generation have been let down by an out-of-touch, disengaged older generation; that younger citizens desperately wanted to stay, but were voted down by their parents and grandparents; that the ambitions of the young and hopeful were eaten by the old and fearful.

According to a poll of 554 registered voters aged of 18 to 24, 75% of the age group intended to vote to remain. Of interest to us was the 10% of these voters that didn’t vote – against only 2% of voters over the age of 65 that chose not to vote. If these figures could be extrapolated out, would that 10% of voters have been enough to swing the vote to a decision to stay? Brexit Poll
18-24 25-49 50-64 65+
Sample Size 554 2042 1174 1002
Pre Vote Day
Remain 75 56 44 39
Leave 25 44 56 61
After Voting Closed
Remain 66 52 42 38
Leave 23 40 53 59
Did not Vote 10 7 5 2

So we decided to look at social media data to investigate further. Using Crimson Hexagon, we analysed 297,474,704 tweets, Facebook and Tumblr posts, blogs and forums originating from the UK in June 2016. This social media research approach affords us an intimate and uniquely honest view of the entire online conversation published on public platforms.


Much has been made of the youth being angry at ‘old’ people voting against their interest, as tweets such as this show:


And weighing up the decision based on life expectancy:

Social media analysis shows, though, that the youth were remarkably ambivalent about Brexit before the referendum.

From the 297 million posts generated during June of 2016 in the UK, we identified 7 496 582 that discussed Brexit. The Crimson Hexagon platform then used a complex algorithm to identify the age groups associated with those posts. The platform was able to identify the age of over 22% of those posts. This does not look at whether these posts were for or against leaving, but rather looks at the level of engagement of various age groups in the conversation. This leaves us with 1 707 771 posts to analyse – a very healthy sample of public opinion on Brexit.

What we see above is a spectacular lack of engagement in the topic from the very people we would expect to be engaged in it – young, social media savvy voters, purportedly with a strong interest in staying in the EU.

Looking at the age band 18-35 collectively – at their height (23-26 June) they contributed only 6.3% of the total conversation on Brexit. And within days of the referendum (27-30 June) this had dropped to a lamentable 3.5% of the conversation.

Between the 1 and the 22nd June, Britain’s youngest eligible voters (18-24 year olds) devoted only 0.27% of their online conversation to Brexit. This figure climbed to an unimposing high of 3.8 % of their total conversation on the weekend after the referendum, and then plummeted to only 0.69% for the remainder of June.

By contrast, the 35 plus group devoted 2.61% of their total online conversation to Brexit during the period 1-22 June (9 times as much as the youth), rose to 7.99% on the day of the referendum (twice as much as the youth) and then continued at 9.94% (14 times as much as the youth) for the remainder of June.

Citizens under the legal voting age were considerably more engaged than those aged 18-24 and 25-35, but far less engaged than those aged over 35.


So what are we to read of this – are the youth so disinterested in politics that they chose to stay away from the Brexit vote? Did they think it was a foregone conclusion? Almost certainly, if the youth had voted in greater numbers the UK would be staying in the EU.

How do we bring young people back into the voting booths? How did the youth – who have always been at the forefront of political and social change – become so politically passive? This is not just an issue in the UK, but around the world – and requires urgent attention from policy makers, political figures and leaders in all democracies.

Politics shapes our lives, whether we like it or not, and until the generation that has the most to lose becomes more engaged in the topics of debate – from climate change to EU membership – politics will continue to be an establishment process manipulated by entrenched interests.


The Citizen Research Centre is an organisation dedicated to investigating our societies and providing accurate, meaningful data that can be used to effect change – through knowledge, understanding of ourselves and ‘the other’ and through policy.

We describe what we do as social research. This is research done in order to improve and expand on our knowledge of the world by providing decision makers in social policy and intervention projects with the best data possible.

We run primary face-to-face research – both quantitative and qualitative – in 54 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Click here for a list of countries in which we run face-to-face research.

We run analytic research on social media globally through our partnership with Crimson Hexagon, arguably the best social media analysis platform in the world. This and other reports are generated through mining and reporting on our social media data base, which currently holds almost 1 trillion pieces of social media data.

We are committed to providing research on Citizens, and also research for Citizens – that reflect their own views back to them through social media analytics. The nature of social media analysis is such that any topic can be rigorously explored. If you would like to purchase in depth reporting on this or any other topic, please contact us

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