21 September 2012

What do generation 2012 think about immigration?

View all news

Young Britons struggling to find work in austerity Britain find themselves at the sharp end of immigrant competition, so you might expect them to be tougher on this issue than their parents. Social forces pull them in different directions over immigration, says one of the authors of the new British Social Attitudes’ report Rob Ford.

Looking at views of overall immigration levels, we can see that young Britons are considerably more open to migration than older generations, though they remain broadly in favour of a reduction in numbers. Just over 30% would favour migration staying the same or increasing, compared to 18% of the over 35s, while 41% want to see a large reduction in migration, compared to 55% of the over 35s.

On the one hand, as most migrants tend to be under 30 and concentrated in entry level jobs, young Britons looking for work feel the effects of immigrant competition most prominently. On the other hand, young Britons are far more likely to have friends from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds, or be from such backgrounds themselves, more likely to have attended university, and more likely to have travelled abroad. The more liberal outlook such things promote was picked up in British Future’s 2012 report, and may extend to a more positive view about immigrants and immigration.

This week a new report on British attitudes to immigration, published as part of the British Social Attitudes survey, presented a complex and mixed picture on what Britons feel about immigration.

How about specific groups of migrants? The overall survey suggested greater support for migrants – such as high quality students or professionals – with more to offer in terms of skills and qualifications. Are the young particularly pragmatic in this respect? Table 1 gives the answers. There are two important stories here. Firstly, the young are more positive about all three of the forms of migration we asked about. On labour migration, we find that young Britons are even keener on allowing professionals to settle in Britain than older generations – two thirds regard such migration as good for Britain, compared to 54% of over 35s. Younger Britons, many of whom will have recent experience of university, are also very positive about student migrants -56% regard letting in students with strong grades as a good thing, 10 points higher than the figure for over 35s. Young Britons are also more positive about letting long settled migrants bring their relatives over, although they remain negative about this overall: 32% regard allowing migrants settled for 10 years to bring over relatives as a good thing, 8 points higher than the figure for the over 35s.

The young are thus more open to all forms of migration, but they are also more selective – there show a larger gap between their support for migrants with strong qualifications (professionals, students with good grades, long settled migrants) and migrants with weak qualifications (labourers, poor grades, recent arrivals). In other words, young Britons show a strong pragmatic streak – they are much more supportive of migrants who have a lot to offer, but show much less enthusiasm for migrants with fewer skills.

Table 1: Views of labour migration, student migration and family reunion migration by age and migrant skill levels


N (weighted)

Over 35

N (weighted)

Labour migration



Support professionals





Support unskilled labourers












Student migration



Support students with good grades





Support students with bad grades















Family reunion



Support for migrants settled for 10 yrs





Support for migrants settled for 3 yrs









The overall story suggested by the British Social Attitudes report was of a population that was still keen to see immigration reduced, increasingly divided over its social impact, but with a strong pragmatic streak reflected in support for highly skilled migrants. Britain’s young people show less demand to see numbers fall, are generally on the more optimistic side of the social divide, and show an even stronger pragmatic tendency. Despite facing the toughest economic circumstances for generations, Britain’s young remain committed (cautiously) to an outward looking Britain, open to the best and the brightest.

Dr Rob Ford is a lecturer at Manchester University. His research focuses on diversity, immigration and politics.

Join British Future at fringe events discussing immigration at the party conferences in Brighton, Birmingham and Manchester, find out more here.

Download British Future’s report Team GB: How 2012 Should Boost Britain.

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter