Are today’s youth more
tolerant? Trends in
tolerance among young
people in Britain
Jan G Janmaat and Avril Keating
UCL Institute of Education, UK
Attitudes towards social groups that have traditionally been marginalised or discrimi-
nated against have changed markedly in Britain over the past three decades. This change
is particularly marked in attitudes towards homosexuality and racial diversity which, as
public opinion surveys have regularly shown, have become more accepting over time.
This change is often attributed to older, less tolerant generations being replaced by
young cohorts who are more inclusive and open minded in their attitudes to cultural
others. The paper explores this argument by examining trends in people’s attitudes
towards a variety of minorities, including the said groups, but also immigrants and
foreign workers. It starts with a discussion of several perspectives predicting different
trends with regards to these attitudes. A distinction is made between optimistic ones
(i.e. those anticipating rising levels of tolerance) and pessimistic ones (i.e. those expect-
ing stable or declining levels of tolerance). Subsequently, the paper presents trend
analyses and an analysis of age, cohort and period effects to broadly assess the explana-
tory power of these perspectives. Using these approaches, we find that tolerance
towards racial minorities and homosexuality has indeed risen across the board, and
that young people are also more accepting of these groups than their parents or grand-
parents and previous generations of young people. These trends broadly support the
optimistic perspectives. However, we also find that prejudice has not disappeared from
youth attitudes altogether; for a sizeable minority of youth, it has merely shifted its
focus to immigration. Not only have unwelcoming attitudes towards immigrants
generally become stronger, young people are not always the most tolerant age group
regarding this social group. These findings are thus more in line with the expectations of
the pessimistic perspectives.
Tolerance, immigrants, trends, young people, age groups
!The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
Jan G Janmaat, University College London Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK.
Over the past two decades there has been a marked shift in attitudes towards many
social groups that have historically been marginalised and/or viliﬁed in British
society. People have become more accepting of homosexuality and interracial mar-
riage, for instance. These changes have coincided with globalisation and open-
borders policies that have made West European societies more diverse, ethnically
and religiously. Britain, in particular, has experienced a sharp increase in the
number of immigrants, coupled with a gradual rise in the size of the British-
born, ethnic minority population (Storm et al., 2017). There has been much
debate, discussion and consternation in Britain about these social changes – par-
ticularly in relation to cultural diversity, immigration – and their implications.
Contemporary youth are often considered to be more tolerant, open minded and
inclusive because they grew up under these conditions. Yet, they have also suﬀered
more from the last economic crisis and are likely to face more competition from
immigrants than are older people. These last-named conditions are said to make
people less tolerant, based on the argument (discussed below) that scarcity of
resources fuels hostility towards out-groups.
In this article, therefore, we seek to address three questions: What are young
people’s attitudes towards cultural others? Is the current generation of
young people more tolerant than their elders and/or previous generations
of young people? And how can the patterns and trends on these attitudes be
explained? To address these questions, we will draw on the data of two surveys
(World Values Survey and British Social Attitudes) and present trend and regres-
sion analysis of attitudinal change in Britain over three decades. To the best of our
knowledge, academic studies looking at trends in attitudes towards various social
groups and comparing young people to both older people and to previous gener-
ations of young people are non-existent. That trends can diﬀer quite dramatically
across various indicators of (in)tolerance, and that there is thus every reason to
investigate this in depth, becomes evident when we compare diﬀerent studies. While
Ford (2008) found racial intolerance to have declined in Britain in the 1980s and
1990s, Coenders and Scheepers (1998) found support for discrimination of
immigrants to at ﬁrst decline and then to rise during the same period in the
What our ﬁndings will show is that, on the whole, young people are indeed more
accepting of homosexuality and of racial diversity than their parents or grandpar-
ents and previous generations of young people. However, we shall also see that
intolerance has not disappeared from youth attitudes altogether; for a sizeable
minority of youth, it has merely shifted its focus to immigration. Contemporary
youth are markedly less welcoming of immigrants than young people 10 or 20 years
ago. Given that immigration has been the most important political issue for the
British electorate since May 2015 (Ipsos Mori, 2016a) and trumped the economy as
the key concern motivating the vote in the EU Referendum in June 2016 (Ipsos
Mori, 2016b), it is hard to exaggerate the relevance of these ﬁndings.
In the section following the next, we will discuss various theoretical perspectives
oﬀering diﬀerent explanations and expectations regarding trends and generational
diﬀerences in tolerance. We then present two empirical sections with analyses of
survey data on the trends and drivers of tolerance. These sections serve to broadly
test the predictions of the theoretical perspectives. The conclusion highlights our
main ﬁnding that the target of intolerance has shifted and explains what the main
contribution of this paper is to the existing literature.
A brief note on terminology
In this article, we understand the concept of tolerance in a broad sense; that is, as
denoting acceptance of, and favourable and inclusive attitudes towards, various
minority groups that are often marginalised and/or discriminated against by the
majority. This means we consider its antonyms to be hostility, prejudice and exclu-
sionism (see also Dejaeghere et al., 2012). We are aware that this goes beyond its
original meaning, which revolves around the idea of enduring and respecting some-
thing one dislikes. As Vogt (1997: 3) put it: ‘Tolerance is intentional self-restraint in
the face of something one dislikes, objects to, ﬁnds threatening, or otherwise has a
negative attitude towards’. We understand the term in a much wider sense, i.e. as
also referring to attitudes towards cultural others that do not necessarily include
this element of dislike, such as positive opinions about cultural others and a will-
ingness to accept them as equals. We further acknowledge that the attitudes we
hold it to embrace are not equally demanding in relation to implications for the
treatment of cultural others. Believing that others are fundamentally equal to one’s
own group and therefore deserving of the same rights (i.e. inclusive attitudes), or
supporting an unrestrained endorsement of these others obviously require more
accommodating policies towards these groups than a ‘resigned acceptance for the
sake of peace’ (Walzer, 1997: 10; see also Dobbernack and Modood, 2013). These
ﬁner distinctions are glossed over in the more colloquial use of the term, however.
In the media and in everyday conversations, the term is often used as a catch-all
phrase referring to all kinds of positive attitudes towards various minorities. We
adopt the term in this idiomatic sense because we need an accessible term to denote
a wide set of attitudes often seen to be interrelated.
In view of the sensitivity of the topic under investigation, we take extra care in
the terms we use to refer to the object of tolerance; that is, the group which people
are asked to express their opinions about. Although no terms are completely
devoid of negative or positive connotations, we will use concepts that are as neutral
as possible. Hence we will use ‘social groups’ or ‘cultural minorities’ to refer to
immigrants, homosexuals and distinct racial minorities, and not describe them
as ‘outgroups’, since the latter could be read as implying that we as researchers
consider these groups as somehow deviant from the norm, which is not our inten-
tion. Nonetheless, when certain terms are used in the wording of survey questions
(such as ‘immigrants’ and ‘homosexuals’), we will copy this terminology to avoid
confusion. In situations where the majority population needs to be referred to,
Janmaat and Keating 3
we will use ‘majority’ or ‘White British’ rather than the ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’
population as use of the latter implies that we would consider the objects of toler-
ance as somehow less native. In the case of immigrants, this is undoubtedly true,
but not in the case of other minorities.
The drivers of tolerance
There is extensive literature on tolerance and prejudice, particularly regarding immi-
grants (see Hainmueller and Hopkins, 2014), but considerably less debate about
where these attitudes come from and why individuals (and societies more generally)
become more or less tolerant of cultural others at particular points in time. This
varied literature contains theories that are optimistic about the future of tolerance,
and some that are decidedly more pessimistic. The optimistic perspectives predict
rising levels of tolerance while the pessimistic ones anticipate stable or declining
levels of tolerance. These perspectives can further be subdivided into those discern-
ing clear generational diﬀerences in tolerance related to diﬀerent circumstances in
people’s formative years and those envisaging rising or falling levels of tolerance due
to more general processes aﬀecting everyone equally. The former can be said to
anticipate cohort eﬀects while the latter would expect to ﬁnd period eﬀects.
The optimistic theories tend to focus on the fact that societies as a whole are
becoming more tolerant over time and can point to a number of social changes,
technological developments and cultural shifts to explain these changes.
Developments in biology and genetics, for instance, have exposed racist ideology
as fundamentally ﬂawed (Ford, 2008). Politically, racist views have become com-
pletely unacceptable due to their association with the Holocaust and Apartheid
(Ford, 2008). Racial intolerance should thus have declined as the assumptions on
which such attitudes are based have been shown to be false and morally objection-
able. At the same time, an international normative discourse on human rights
stressing the dignity and equality of all human beings has become ever more inﬂu-
ential as evidenced by the treaties and agreements that many states have signed
(Osler and Starkey, 2006). This process can be also be expected to have increased
tolerance by increasing the normative pressure on people to respect other people’s
cultures and views. Tolerance may also have risen because of British society having
become ever more ethnically diverse. This assumption is based on the idea that
the growing visibility of ethnic minorities in all domains of society and the increas-
ing cross-cultural contacts in everyday settings have made the majority (White
British) population more familiar with, and more inclusive in its attitudes towards,
ethnic minorities (Ford, 2008). This echoes contact theory, the key tenet of which
is that informal intercultural contact reduces prejudice and enhances sympathy
and identiﬁcation with the cultural other (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew and Tropp,
Other ‘optimistic’ perspectives would argue that rising levels of tolerance are
mainly due to a process of generational substitution whereby new, young and more
tolerant cohorts replace more intolerant, older ones. The process of growing diver-
sity might partly inﬂuence tolerance through this mechanism, as not all age groups
experience diversity equally. Young people have more opportunities for
cross-cultural contacts than do older people because the immigrant population
tends to be young (Ford, 2011: 1024). As they also experience higher levels of
diversity than previous generations of young people have, they are likely to be
more tolerant than both older age groups and earlier generations of young people.
The idea of rising levels of tolerance due to generational replacement is mostly
associated with the work of Ronald Inglehart on post-materialism. Inglehart and
Welzel (2005) argue that the steady rise in living standards in the Western world
after the Second World War meant that new generations grew up under ever more
prosperous and secure conditions. With their basic needs satisﬁed, these gener-
ations developed so-called post-materialist values in their formative years, includ-
ing self-fulﬁlment, freedom of choice and expression and tolerance of cultural
others, and have retained these values in the remainder of their lives. Inglehart
and Welzel (2005) discern a steady shift from the 1960s towards post-materialist
values generated by a process of young, post-materialist generations replacing
older, materialist ones. Thus, with tolerance being one of the core dimensions
of this values syndrome, we would expect it to have risen over the last 50 years
and we would anticipate the younger generations to show the highest levels of
A ﬁnal optimistic perspective predicting rising levels of tolerance due to gener-
ational replacement highlights the steady process of educational expansion. OECD
data show that the United Kingdom has indeed experienced a signiﬁcant educa-
tional expansion in the last 15 years: The percentage of 25- to 65-year-olds com-
pleting tertiary level education has increased from 26% in 2000 to 42% in 2014
(OECD, 2015: 44). This process, which led to new generations being ever better
educated than previous ones, is likely to have produced a growth in tolerance
because of the strong association at the individual level between educational attain-
ment and tolerance, which is one of the most consistent ﬁndings in social science
research (e.g. Scheepers et al., 2002; Stouﬀer, 1955; Sullivan and Transue, 1999).
Several reasons have been proposed as to why more educated people are more
tolerant. First, education enhances the knowledge and reasoning skills of people,
allowing them to refute prejudiced claims and dismiss irrational fears about cul-
tural others (Nunn et al., 1978). Second, education cultivates tolerance directly
through socialisation: the longer individuals stay in the education system, the
more they are exposed to tolerance as the core value that it promotes and thus
the more likely they are to internalise it (Hyman and Wright, 1979; Stubager, 2008).
Third, education enhances the competitive position of individuals and diminishes
feelings of economic insecurity. Educated people therefore see people from other
cultures as less threatening, which makes them more welcoming and inclusive in
their attitudes towards outsiders (Lipset, 1981; Stubager, 2008).
Janmaat and Keating 5
Although education tends to have a positive eﬀect at the individual level, the rela-
tionship between education and tolerance can be complex and it also features in one
of the pessimistic theories of tolerance. To understand this perspective, we must ﬁrst
distinguish between the absolute and the positional eﬀect of education (see
Campbell, 2006; Nie et al., 1996). While the ﬁrst two reasons noted above relate
to the absolute eﬀect of education, the last reason, that is the argument that educa-
tion improves the competitive position of individuals, refers to the positional eﬀect.
If the eﬀect is absolute, any increase in education levels should, over time, yield
higher aggregate levels of tolerance among the society as a whole. In that case, the
eﬀect of educational expansion on tolerance is simply compositional (i.e. the sum of
individual attainment levels). Educational expansion can then be expected to lead to
a rise in tolerance through the substitution of older, less educated generations by
younger, more educated ones (see, e.g. Stubager, 2008). By contrast, if the eﬀect of
education on tolerance is mainly positional, educational expansion cannot be
expected to have increased overall levels of tolerance much since the competitive
position of more educated individuals will not improve when other people also
become more educated. Put simply, if levels of education are raised for everyone,
then having even more education than previous generations of young people does
not increase one’s competitive advantage today, and nor does it enhance a sense of
economic security, which is a contributory factor to explaining why people with
more education are more likely to be tolerant (see, e.g. Borgonovi, 2012).
The notion of competition is also key to the second pessimistic perspective – the
perceived threat theory. This theory contends that the scarcer the resources in
society, and the greater the competition for them, the more people will tend to
view outsiders as threatening and the more negative and hostile their opinions will
tend to be towards such groups (Blalock, 1967; Bobo, 1983; Olzak, 1992; Quillian,
1995; Scheepers et al., 2002; Semyonov et al., 2006). If material conditions are
indeed a decisive factor, one would expect young people, in particular, to show
declining levels of tolerance as this age group has disproportionately been aﬀected
by the rising costs of education and housing and the growing precariousness of jobs
in Britain. Moreover, at the same time when these conditions were worsening, the
country experienced unprecedented levels of immigration, with net inward migra-
tion steadily increasing from the mid-1990s onwards to reach an all-time high of
300,000 people in 2014 (ONS, 2016). As the competition over resources, real or
perceived, is not just a function of the amount of resources themselves, but also of
the number of people seeking access to them, high levels of immigration can equally
spark feelings of threat and intolerance among the ‘indigenous’ majority (Coenders
and Scheepers, 1998; Gorodzeisky and Semyonov, 2009).
Some have argued that the majority need not only feel threatened in an eco-
nomic sense. A sudden inﬂux of immigrants could also spark a sense of cultural
threat: a feeling that one’s identity, established ways of life, and one’s norms and
values are being challenged by outsiders (Chandler and Tsai, 2001; Sears and
Henry, 2003). Either way, the result is that people retreat into their own commu-
nity, develop hostile attitudes towards the ethnic minorities living in the same
neighbourhood and reject a discourse of racial equality and multiculturalism, as
has been well demonstrated by case studies of White British youth in London and
the northern industrial towns of Oldham and Rochdale (Hewitt, 2005; Thomas and
Sanderson, 2013). These case studies also show how localised and contingent on
particular circumstances these feelings can be. Such feelings of threat can, more-
over, be activated by political entrepreneurs claiming that immigrants bring noth-
ing but misery to the country (Bohman, 2011; Ford, 2011). According to Hopkins
(2010), negative political rhetoric inﬂuences how people evaluate a recent increase
of immigrants in their home region. As Britain experienced a severe economic crisis
after 2008, attracted high numbers of immigrants and saw the rise of a political
party critical of immigration and the European Union (the United Kingdom
Independence Party), one would, based on these theories, expect tolerance of cul-
tural others and minorities to have decreased among all age groups over the last 15
years. By this logic, this downward trend should be particularly evident among
young people; this generation fared worse in the aftermath of the global recession
and this, coupled with the increasingly insecure place in the labour market, could
fuel anti-immigrant sentiment (Mierin¸ a and Korol¸eva, 2015: 187). The young,
moreover, face more competition from immigrants in areas such as the job and
housing markets than older age groups due to the youthful age proﬁle and resi-
dential preferences of immigrants (Camarota, 2013).
The idea of a resurgent nationalism can be seen as another pessimistic perspec-
tive. This perspective questions whether the post-national discourse on human
rights and cosmopolitan citizenship, as discussed earlier, has truly become more
salient. Scholars embracing this view observe that nationalism has made a come-
back since the turn of the century, as manifested by the electoral successes of
populist anti-immigrant parties in Europe (see Mierin¸ a and Korol¸eva, 2015;
Mudde, 2013; Pilkington and Pollock, 2015), growing discord within the
European Union and a growing realism in international relations (Kaplan, 2012;
Rachman, 2014). Mainstream parties have adopted some of the rhetoric and pro-
posed policies of these populist parties, leading to more restrictive immigration and
naturalisation regimes everywhere and a discourse more generally of protecting and
privileging the majority population (Van Spanje, 2010). These recent trends suggest
that the taboo on expressing negative sentiments towards cultural others, especially
regarding immigrants, has weakened, leading possibly to growing intolerance in all
age groups. That said, since the perspective is not making claims about gener-
ational diﬀerences, young people are not expected to show any higher or lower
levels of tolerance than other age groups.
Data and methods
We draw on data of the British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) and the World
Values Survey (WVS) to investigate trends in tolerant attitudes and examine
Janmaat and Keating 7
some of the drivers of tolerance as suggested by the aforementioned perspectives.
While the BSA has relevant data going up to 2013, the WVS allows for an assess-
ment of trends only until 2006 since the United Kingdom did not participate in the
latest round of this survey. The WVS is useful nonetheless as it allows us to trace
trends further back in time, particularly regarding attitudes on immigrants. Both
surveys include nationally representative samples of the British population, with
sample sizes varying between 1000 and 3400 respondents across the diﬀerent waves
of the two studies.
First, we present a series of trend graphs showing the responses of diﬀerent age
groups on various tolerance indicators. In each graph a particular age group at a
certain point in time is compared to that same age group at an earlier or later point
in time. One and the same age group thus represents diﬀerent cohorts across dif-
ferent points in time. These graphs allow us to compare young people to older age
groups at the same point in time and to compare them back in time to their parents
when they were young. They further permit a provisional evaluation of the afore-
We complement the review or trends with a multivariate (OLS regression) ana-
lysis of age, period and cohort (APC) eﬀects, based on the pooled samples of
Waves 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2013 of the BSA.
APC analysis is appropriate as
some perspectives suggest that changing attitudes reﬂect a cohort eﬀect (e.g. post-
materialism and growing diversity) while others posit they represent period eﬀects
(e.g. resurgent nationalism). APC analysis has some important limitations, most
notably the classic identiﬁcation problem, which means that, as the three eﬀects are
completely linearly dependent, they cannot be distinguished; for instance, knowing
how old someone is (age) and the year of the survey (period), means knowing when
this person was born (cohort) (Tilley and Evans, 2014). This problem has led some
scholars to abandon statistical analysis of APC eﬀects altogether and exclusively
use descriptive and graphical investigation of data (e.g. Voas and Chaves, 2016).
We believe a statistical approach does have its merits, however. On the one hand,
the three eﬀects can still be estimated by using proxies for one or more of the three
eﬀects (see, for instance, Coenders and Scheepers, 1998; Ford, 2008). We follow
Ford’s approach in using conditions relating to life stages, such as being married,
being a widower and owning a home, as proxies for age. These conditions have
been shown to be related to authoritarianism (Altemeyer, 1995) and political orien-
tations (Binstock and Quadagno, 2001), and are therefore also likely to inﬂuence
tolerance. Including these proxies in the models helps to prevent multicollinearity
between the APC variables (Ford, 2008: 619). On the other hand, by assigning
diﬀerent signiﬁcance levels to the various eﬀects, the statistical approach allows
researchers to arrive at a better assessment of the relative importance of the dif-
ferent factors than a trend analysis. Indeed, a multivariate APC analysis allows us
to draw more precise inferences regarding the explanatory power of some of the
aforementioned perspectives (see further later).
Cohort is measured with year of birth rather than ﬁve or 10-year periods (such
as birth decades) because of the arbitrariness in establishing the boundaries for
the latter. Period is represented by BSA Round. Although we have data on
just two or three rounds for the outcomes to be analysed, these rounds are
quite far apart (e.g. 1996 and 2013), meaning that they capture very diﬀerent
circumstances and zeitgeists. In 1996, Western countries experienced robust
economic growth, liberal democracy reigned supreme and globalisation was
seen as a welcome and/or inevitable process; in 2013 Western economies lay in
tatters, anti-immigrant parties with protectionist agendas were quickly gaining
popularity and authoritarianism was on the rise globally. The BSA rounds
thus truly reﬂect very diﬀerent periods. It is important to note, though, that
period represents a multitude of macro-level inﬂuences, including educational
expansion, net immigration, the economic crisis, the alleged growing salience of
a human rights discourse and the alleged comeback of nationalism. We cannot
include variables representing these inﬂuences in the model as there are not
enough data points (points in time) to assess the eﬀects of these variables indi-
vidually. Therefore, if we ﬁnd a period eﬀect we cannot be sure what this eﬀect
precisely stands for. It could represent the inﬂuence of any one of these variables
or a combination of them.
We further added highest qualiﬁcation attained (HQA) to the models (see
Table 1 for the categories of this variable). The outcomes are racial tolerance,
support for equal treatment of immigrants and perceptions of ethnic competition
(see Figures 3, 6 and 7 for the wording of the items on which these outcomes are
based). The analyses on the latter two outcomes are based on a sample of those
identifying as British; the analysis of the ﬁrst-named outcome only includes those
identifying as White British. We could not run the analyses on the same group of
respondents as ethno-racial identity was not available in all the BSA waves for the
latter two outcomes, while the item on racial intolerance was asked of only White
The APC analysis enables us to look more closely at the optimistic perspectives
in particular. If HQA is the only variable with a signiﬁcant (and positive) eﬀect on
tolerance, rising levels of tolerance are exclusively due to increasing levels of edu-
cation, which would strongly support the education as absolute eﬀect argument.
However, if birth cohort is the only variable with a signiﬁcant (and positive) eﬀect,
it is not their higher education levels but something else that makes young people
more tolerant, indicating that the post-materialism and growing diversity perspec-
tives are better able to account for the trends in tolerance.
It is more diﬃcult to evaluate the diﬀerent pessimistic perspectives because it is
not quite clear which inﬂuence is captured by period. Nonetheless, some more
precise inferences can be made. If the eﬀects of period and cohort are both negative
in a model with tolerance on immigrants as outcome, tolerance towards this group
has declined and is lowest amongst the young, which would indicate that the
perceived threat theory has excellent predictive power. If only the eﬀect of
period is negative in the said model and all the other eﬀects are insigniﬁcant,
then the results are more in accordance with the expectations of the resurgent
nationalism argument or the education as positional eﬀect thesis.
Janmaat and Keating 9
Trends over time: Are young people today more tolerant
than previous generations of youth?
Have people become more tolerant of minorities in general in their immediate
environment or does this only apply to some minorities? Figures 1 to 4 show
that the latter is the case. Over time, Britons have become steadily more accepting
of homosexuals and people of a diﬀerent racial background, and this trend can be
seen in all age groups. In other words, the current generation of young people are
more tolerant than the young people of the 1980s and 1990, and the same applies
for middle-aged people and pensioners. This development has, in fact, been so
pronounced that, by the end of the time series of the WVS (2006), only small
minorities in each age group still have issues with living next door to homosexuals
or people of a diﬀerent race (see Figures 1 and 2). Data from the BSA going up to
2013 conﬁrm this trend for racial tolerance. Ever smaller numbers of people state
that they would have problems with one of their close relatives marrying a person
of Black or West Indian origin (Figure 3; the question was asked only of White
British respondents). The fact that the lowest levels of intolerance can be observed
at the end of the time series when Britain was in the midst of a severe recession
3.4 4.5 5.9
15-29 years 30-49 years 50 and more years
'On this list are various groups of people. Could you
please mention any that you would not like to have as
(% mentioning 'people of a different race')
1981 1990 2006
Figure 1. Racial intolerance. Source: WVS waves 1, 2 and 5.
15-29 years 30-49 years 50 and more years
'On this list are various groups of people. Could you please
mention any that you would not like to have as neighbours?'
(% mentioning 'homosexuals')
1990 1998 2006
Figure 2. Intolerance towards homosexuals. Source: WVS waves 2, 3 and 5.
10 Ethnicities 0(0)
suggests that the economic crisis has not aﬀected racial tolerance in the slightest
way. We further see that the youngest age group tends to be the most tolerant and
the oldest group the least tolerant whatever the period or the social group we are
examining (only regarding the BSA question on racial tolerance do we see that the
35- to 54-year-olds are marginally more tolerant than the youngest age group
towards the end of time series). Together, these results provide some provisional
support for the optimistic perspectives, i.e. the international human rights dis-
course, the growing diversity perspective, post-materialism theory and the absolute
eﬀect of education hypothesis.
Immigrants – the new ‘other’?
By contrast, when we look at how attitudes towards immigrants have changed over
time, a diﬀerent pattern emerges. Between 1981 and 1998, opposition to having
6.3 5.5 7.6
18-34 years 35-54 years 55-64 years 65 and older
'Would you mind or not mind if one of your close
relatives were to marry a person of Black or West Indian
% 'mind a lot'*
1983 1996 2013
Figure 3. Racial intolerance. *The other categories are ‘not mind’ and ‘mind a little’.
Source: BSA waves 1983, 1996 and 2013.
15-29 years 30-49 years 50 and more years
'On this list are various groups of people. Could you please mention any
that you would not like to have as neighbours?'
(% mentioning 'immigrants/foreign workers')
1981 1990 1998 2006
Figure 4. Intolerance towards immigrants and foreign workers. Source: WVS waves 1, 2, 3
Janmaat and Keating 11
immigrants or foreign workers as neighbours declined among the young and the
middle aged. And at each of the three time points we looked at, young people (age
15–29) expressed the least opposition to this. These results are in keeping with the
trends in tolerance towards the other groups discussed above. Yet this trend is
reversed in the 2000s, and indeed in 2006, intolerance of immigrant neighbours
had not only started to rise again among the under 50s, but opposition was higher
than it was in the early 1980s (see Figure 4).
The deviating pattern regarding trends on immigrants is even more pronounced
when looking at recent trends in exclusionary attitudes and perceptions of compe-
tition. We see, for instance, a very pronounced rise among the young and an almost
equally salient increase among middle-aged people in the numbers supporting the
idea that employers should give priority to the majority population over immi-
grants in times of crisis (see Figure 5); by contrast, there has been virtually no
change in attitudes among the over 50s. What is more, the absolute levels are also
noteworthy: in each age group, clear majorities supported this form of unequal
treatment by the mid-2000s.
Declining support for equal treatment can also be seen when turning to the more
recent data from the BSA survey. Asked about whether ‘legal immigrants to Britain
who are not citizens should have the same rights as British citizens’, all age groups
expressed much lower levels of agreement with this idea in 2013 than 10 years
earlier (Figure 6). Falling support for equal treatment is accompanied by rising
perceptions of competition as all age groups show increases in the percentages
agreeing with the statement that ‘immigrants take jobs away from people who
were born in Britain’ (Figure 7). Again, the overall levels are remarkably high:
almost 50% of the 18- to 34-year-olds and a majority of the 55-plus group support
the statement. These rising levels of unwelcoming attitudes are all the more remark-
able in view of the growing share of ethnic minorities in the British population
(Storm et al., 2017) and the tendency of ethnic minority respondents, both of the
ﬁrst and second generation, to be signiﬁcantly more inclusive in their attitudes
15-29 years 30-49 years 50 and more years
'When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this
country over immigrants'
47.4 51 55.3
63.9 63.6 63.8
Figure 5. Support for discrimination on the job market. Source: WVS waves 2, 3 and 5.
12 Ethnicities 0(0)
towards immigrants than the majority population (Janmaat, 2014: 815). Perhaps
their own experience as immigrant or that of their parents makes these groups
identify with immigrants and express greater sympathy towards them (Janmaat,
2014). Nonetheless, with the passing of generations, links with immigrant pasts
may weaken. It has been noted, for instance, that Britain’s ethnic minorities also
favour a reduction in migration rates and start to think less positively about immi-
grants, although the White British are still more critical on immigration (Amrani,
2016; Blinder, 2011).
Equally interesting is that the youngest age group becomes virtually indistin-
guishable from the middle-aged groups in their tolerance levels. On some indica-
tors they even become slightly less tolerant than the latter. Towards the end of
44.5 43.3 43 36.9
33.2 28.3 24.1 22.6
18-34 years 35-54 years 55-64 years 65 years and older
'Legal immigrants to Britain who are not citizens should have the same
rights as British citizens'
(% agree + agree strongly)*
Figure 6. Support for equal treatment. *The other categories are ‘disagree strongly’ and ‘dis-
agree’ and ‘neither agree nor disagree’. Source: BSA waves 2003 and 2013.
42.9 40 44.7
18-34 years 35-54 years 55-64 years 65 years and olde
'Immigrants take jobs away from people who were born in
(% agree + agree strongly)*
1999 2003 2013
Figure 7. Perceptions of ethnic competition. *The other categories are ‘disagree strongly’
and ‘disagree’ and ‘neither agree nor disagree’. Source: BSA waves 1999, 2003 and 2013.
Janmaat and Keating 13
the time series, middle-aged people (age 35–55) are, for instance, less supportive
of employers discriminating against immigrants than young people, and they do
not appear to perceive as much competition from immigrants on the labour
market. Young people are still the most supportive of extending equal rights to
In sum, the trend analysis shows that young people’s attitudes towards mino-
rities are more complex than it is sometimes portrayed. When the focus is on the
acceptance of racial and sexual minorities, we see that young people are more
tolerant that their elders or than previous generations of young people. Yet this
trend towards tolerance does not necessarily extend to other minorities. When we
examined attitudes towards immigrants, including support for equal treatment and
perceptions of competition, we found declining or stabilising levels of tolerance and
in some cases, slightly lower levels of tolerance among young people than middle-
These contrasting trends are all the more remarkable as previous research has
found attitudes towards diﬀerent racial and cultural groups to be so strongly
interrelated that they have been interpreted as manifestations of a latent dimen-
sion of tolerance (e.g. Brewer, 1986; Dejaeghere et al., 2012; Scheepers et al.,
2002). It is perhaps the determination to ﬁnd such a singular dimension that has
prevented scholars from looking at the variation in the attitudes towards diﬀerent
groups or from assessing whether these attitudes cluster equally strongly among
diﬀerent social groups or generations. Indeed, using Wave 5 of WVS and corre-
lating the items of Figures 1, 2, 4 and 5 to one another, we ﬁnd a marked
diﬀerence between the youngest (those born after 1975) and the oldest group
(those born before 1954) in the clustering of these attitudes.
young, attitudes towards other racial groups and homosexuals are not signiﬁ-
cantly related to attitudes on immigrants and support for discrimination of immi-
grants; however, among the old respondents, all four attitudes are closely
interlinked. In other words, while a more general disposition of tolerance may
well inform attitudes on immigrants among the old, the young seem to decouple
immigration issues from the norm of accepting and embracing cultural minorities.
These diverging attitudes among the young towards diﬀerent minorities in a way
make sense in view of the greater competition young people face from immigrants
and their generally more vulnerable position on the labour market, as discussed
earlier. They also shed further light on our ﬁnding that contrasting trends are
particularly evident among the young (compare, for instance, Figures 1 and 2
with Figure 5).
The trends also raise questions about the optimistic theories discussed above.
The declining levels of tolerance regarding immigrants in the youngest age group
are particularly noteworthy in view of educational expansion, which means that
young people today are more highly educated than young people at any point in
the past. This might indicate a positional eﬀect of education. In the next section, we
will examine the explanatory power of the various theoretical perspectives more
14 Ethnicities 0(0)
A closer look at the perspectives explaining tolerance:
Table 1 presents the results of the APC analyses. A striking ﬁnding is that educa-
tional attainment exerts a strong positive inﬂuence on all three outcomes. That is
Table 1. The determinants of three (in)tolerance outcomes: age, period and cohort effects.
B SE B SE B SE
Married (ref cat)
Separated .084 .056 .008 .095 .057 .058
Widowed .020 .063 .109 .121 .053 .068
Not married .043 .043 .215** .075 .062 .047
Owner (ref cat)
Renting (council) .000 .042 .043 .077 .107* .045
Renting (private) .088 .047 .117 .088 .034 .061
BSA round (period)
1996 Ref cat – –
1999 – – Ref cat
2003 – Ref cat .125** .042
2013 .002 .002 .400*** .055 .397*** .043
Year of birth (cohort) .008*** .001 .001 .002 .000 .001
Highest qualification (HQA)
Degree .313*** .051 .581*** .087 1.021*** .056
HE below degree .094 .052 .144 .095 .421*** .055
A levels or equivalent .193*** .053 .262** .092 .413*** .057
O levels or equivalent .132** .046 .029 .086 .167** .050
GCSE or equivalent .095 .060 .036 .106 .022 .062
Primary (ref cat)
Gender (0¼male; 1¼female) .066* .030 .066 .053 .101** .032
R square .103 .067 .104
N 2074 1710 4412
*P <0.05; **P <0.01; ***P <0.001.
Note: None of the three analyses exceeded critical multicollinearity levels, as gauged by the variance inflation
Source: British Social Attitudes Survey (Waves 1996, 1999, 2003, 2013).
Janmaat and Keating 15
the only commonality across the three analyses, however. The eﬀects of year of
birth (cohort) and BSA Round (period) vary radically across outcomes.
If we look at racial intolerance, we see a strong negative cohort eﬀect indicating
that young generations are signiﬁcantly more racially tolerant than older ones. It is
worth mentioning that this eﬀect occurs in addition to a strong negative eﬀect of
educational attainment. This means that the generational eﬀect is not only due to
younger cohorts being more highly educated than older ones. Evidently other
inﬂuences must be driving this eﬀect as well, such as, for instance, more prosperous
conditions during one’s formative years, or more contact with cultural others. We
further note that the eﬀect of year of birth is signiﬁcant while controlling for
marital status and tenure, which indicates that it does represent a cohort eﬀect
and not, or not just, an age eﬀect. (We have to add the words ‘or not just’ as we can
never be sure whether marital status and tenure fully capture the eﬀect of aging.
Only a longitudinal study with several panels would permit a better disentangle-
ment of age and cohort eﬀects.)
Of further interest is that the period eﬀect is non-signiﬁcant. It is diﬃcult to say
what this precisely means. It could be that macro-level processes, such as rising
rates of immigration, the post-2008 economic crisis, growing nationalist rhetoric or
an increasingly inﬂuential post-national discourse of human rights, are not inﬂu-
ential. It could also mean that the ﬁrst three processes enhance intolerance, but that
these inﬂuences are cancelled out by an increasingly prevalent human rights dis-
course that promotes tolerance.
Together, these ﬁndings are quite consistent with the optimistic perspectives,
such as those of post-materialism and growing diversity. As the period eﬀect is
non-existent, they also suggest that the eﬀect of education on racial intolerance is
absolute rather than positional (if the eﬀect of education had been positional we
should have seen a positive eﬀect of period). The strong cohort eﬀect further sug-
gests that racial tolerance is likely to increase in the near future as more tolerant
young generations replace less tolerant older ones.
In contrast, the eﬀect of cohort is insigniﬁcant and that of period highly signiﬁ-
cant when we look at the two other outcomes of interest: namely support for equal
treatment and perceptions of ethnic discrimination. Regarding this period eﬀect,
the more recent the BSA round, the less supportive people are of oﬀering equal
rights to immigrants and the more they feel that immigrants take jobs away from
the majority population, controlling for all other conditions. This indicates grow-
ing exclusionism and intolerance towards immigrants, which is the opposite of
what the human rights perspective would predict. Educational attainment has a
positive eﬀect on support for equal treatment and a negative one on perceptions of
ethnic discrimination. In combination with the non-eﬀect of cohort, this suggests
that higher tolerance levels amongst the young are entirely due to younger gener-
ations being more highly educated than older ones; once you control for educa-
tional attainment, diﬀerences between the generations disappear.
This means the
post-materialism and the growing diversity perspectives cannot account for the
patterns on these outcomes. Instead, the results are much more consistent with
16 Ethnicities 0(0)
the ‘pessimistic’ perspectives. Support for one of these perspectives, the perceived
threat theory, is mixed, however: on the one hand, the theory correctly predicts
growing exclusionary attitudes towards immigrants, but on the other hand, and
contrary to expectation, young people are not more hostile to immigrants than
older generations despite having taken the brunt of the economic crisis and facing
more competition from immigrants. Lastly, as the period eﬀect is as strong, or
stronger, than the eﬀect of educational attainment and as exclusionary and intoler-
ant attitudes on immigrants have increased (as shown by the trend analyses), there is
more evidence for a positional than an absolute eﬀect of education. We could not
determine, however, whether the resurgent nationalism idea or the positional eﬀects
model has most power in accounting for the attitudes on immigrants because the
period eﬀect can represent a number of macro-level inﬂuences simultaneously.
More generally, the analyses of APC eﬀects conﬁrm the observations regarding
trends. Reported acceptance of racial diversity diﬀers markedly across generations
and shows a steady upward trend undisturbed by ﬂuctuations in the economy or
immigration. However, the story is completely diﬀerent for tolerance outcomes
relating to immigrants. Processes such as rising immigration or economic contrac-
tion are likely to be highly inﬂuential (although it could not be determined which
one of these precisely had a decisive inﬂuence) and diﬀerences between the gener-
ations are small, reﬂecting only diﬀerences in aggregate educational attainment. In
short, patterns on racial tolerance cannot be generalised to attitudes on immi-
grants. The British, and particularly young people, thus appear to distinguish
between diﬀerent minorities. It seems that they increasingly accept people of a
diﬀerent skin colour as one of ‘us’ (provided they are British), while immigrants
are ever more feared and considered as ‘them’.
In this paper we set out to examine the oft-cited claim that young people are more
tolerant than their elders and/or previous generations. We found that, on the
whole, contemporary youth in Britain are more tolerant of racial diversity and
of homosexuality than older age groups and previous generations of young
people. Trend analysis clearly shows that intolerance towards these groups has
declined markedly since the 1980s, and indeed, some measures of racial diversity
suggest that among young people opposition to these types of racial diversity has
almost disappeared. Yet we found that quite a diﬀerent pattern emerged once we
examined youth attitudes towards immigrants and foreign workers. Over the past
four decades, attitudes towards these groups have become more rather than less
negative; this pattern is true across all age groups, and young people are not
necessarily the most tolerant age group. Young people today are less accepting
of immigrants than previous generations of young people. This is remarkable
because they are more educated than their past peers and because well-educated
people are usually more tolerant in their views on immigrants than poorly
Janmaat and Keating 17
Through further analysis we also examined whether these attitudinal changes
could be attributed to the replacement of generations (i.e. a cohort eﬀect) or to
conditions prevailing in a certain period (i.e. a period eﬀect). We found that the
increase in racial tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality primarily represents a
cohort eﬀect, induced not just by rising levels of education but also by a broader
cultural shift in attitudes. By contrast, shifts in attitudes towards immigrants
appear to be more a function of the prevalent social conditions, conﬁrming pessim-
istic scenarios about intolerance rising in times of crisis and enhanced competition
over scarce resources or becoming more salient as part of a virulent resurgence of
nationalism. For many young people, the prevailing conditions have meant fewer
opportunities in housing and employment, and a media environment that tends to
link these challenges to a surge in immigration. These contemporary contextual
issues may well explain why young people are less accommodating in their attitudes
towards immigrants than towards other cultural minorities.
This paper contributes to the wider literature by showing that, even though
attitudes towards a variety of cultural minorities may be strongly interlinked,
they need not change in the same way over time, nor be inﬂuenced by the same
conditions. Putting the spotlight on contrasting trends in such attitudes is a focus
that few studies share. Most of the existing studies zoom in on one outcome among
a series of outcomes capturing tolerance and tend to be quite unequivocal in their
conclusions as to the theoretical perspectives that can best explain the variation in
this outcome (e.g. Coenders and Scheepers, 1998; Dejaeghere et al., 2012; Ford,
2008; Janmaat, 2014; Semyonov et al., 2006). Even some review studies restrict
themselves to a single outcome. Thus, Hainmueller and Hopkins (2014) focus on
attitudes towards immigrants and observe that concerns about immigrants consti-
tuting a cultural threat to the community are a stronger factor in explaining such
attitudes than personal economic circumstances. Our study shows that there is no
one factor or theoretical perspective that can best account for the variation in
attitudes towards various minorities; which factor has most explanatory power
depends on the minority that people are asked to express their opinions about.
This ﬁnding, in particular, casts doubt on those studies that collapse a range of
tolerance outcomes into one outcome and proceed by investigating the determin-
ants of this outcome (e.g. Dejaeghere et al., 2012).
More generally, our ﬁndings guard against the assumption that dissolving
boundaries regarding one group can easily be generalised to other groups. As we
have seen, growing acceptance of people of diﬀerent racial backgrounds and dif-
ferent sexual preferences coincide with a hardening of the split between the major-
ity population and immigrants. We are certainly not the ﬁrst to note such a process
of shifting boundary making. Back (1993), for instance, found a similar dynamic
amongst a group of White and Black youth in South London; the engagement of
this group with Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean popular culture engendered a
de-racialised ‘neighbourhood nationalism’ (p. 220), which, however, became highly
exclusionary and hostile towards Asian minorities and Vietnamese in particular.
The ﬁndings of Back and our own study thus show that the development
18 Ethnicities 0(0)
of seemingly more inclusive identities only leads to new forms of exclusion and
othering. It is all the more sobering to realise that such new patterns of exclusion
continue to happen despite new generations being better educated than previous
ones. This tempers the optimistic view that rising levels of education should result
in greater broadmindedness towards cultural others more generally.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following ﬁnancial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by the ESRC (grant ref:
1. Unfortunately, due to shortcomings in the data regarding the measurement of key vari-
ables we could not perform APCE analysis on the WVS data.
2. The BSA also asked White British respondents to express their attitudes towards Asians,
but these questions were not asked of other ethnic groups. It is somewhat surprising that
only this group was questioned about their racial tolerance of other groups. The survey
organisers may have assumed that issues of racial intolerance only, or mainly, apply to
the White British population.
3. The results of these analyses can be obtained from the authors upon request.
4. Indeed, once educational attainment is omitted from the model, the effect of cohort
becomes significant for both outcomes (results can be obtained from the authors upon
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