A Changing Political Demography: The Great Ageing of cities and the Benjamin Buttons beyond them
Ahead of micro-level 2021 Census data releases, I check in on what local authority level data can tell us about the changing age profile of England and Wales.
This piece pulls together a couple of Twitter threads I did over the Christmas break, supplemented with new insight from the Times about workers being “priced out” of London.
The next big exciting drop of English and Welsh 2021 Census data is due to happen in just a few days, with council ward-level data coming out on January 31st. This fresh juice will give us deeper insights into some of the patterns and trends picked out from the council and regional level data released so far.
This time last month, I released analysis of my own on the changing age profiles of local authorities up and down England and Wales. It is no secret that the UK has an ageing population - we’ve known this for some time.
However, what Census 2021 was able to tell us is that despite many of our urban areas experiencing a ‘Great Ageing’, other areas are getting younger on average in the face of the national ageing tide. I called these the ‘Benjamin Button’ local authorities, and they are almost exclusively suburban or semi-rural, leafy-green, and in the commuter orbit of large cities.
The ‘Great Ageing’
As we already know, the United Kingdom is getting older - and has been for some time. According to the latest census data released last year, the average drop in 18-30 year olds in local authorities across the country is -1.2%.
The data also revealed that this ageing process is happening much faster in the largest cities. Take London for example. There’s no other way of putting it - the capital is ageing, and fast.
Aside from the Borough of Westminster (+0.2 point change in % of the population aged 18-30 vs 2011), every single Borough is seeing a decrease in the relative size of its young population. Including big drops in Newham (-6.0) and Hounslow (-5.5).
A story emerged in The Times this week suggesting that many workers were being increasingly ‘priced out’ of London and forced to move further away from their places of employment. The article cites a survey by Pocket Living from October 2022, “which suggested that 27 per cent of renters in London are looking to leave the capital because the cost of living has become too expensive”.
London is not alone, but part of a wider pattern - the ‘Great Ageing’ of English and Welsh metropoli. Many of our largest cities are ageing faster than the national average:
Manchester (-4.3 point change in % of the population aged 18-30 vs 2011)
The ‘Benjamin Buttons’
Despite this declining presence of young people in many of the country’s urban centres, a small crop of local authorities a little further away from our most densely populated cities are actually seeing (relative) growth in their younger populations.
Against the national ageing tide, this ‘Benjamin Button’ group of local authorities consists of places like:
West Lancashire (+1.8 point change in % of the population aged 18-30 vs 2011)
Bath and NE Somerset (+1.3%)
North West Leicestershire (+1.1%)
East Suffolk (+1.0%)
What connects so many of these authorities is the ‘Blue Wall’: Conservative-held constituencies, leafy-green suburbs, and well-educated populations which tended toward voting Remain at the 2016 EU Referendum.
In fact, if we zoom in to just the South East and East of England, we can see just how prevalent young population growth actually is in Conservative heartlands. Authorities shaded in dark blue have all seen growth in their 18-30 year old populations, while those in light blue have seen declines.
What do all the dark blue shaded authorities have in common? That's right - of the 42 MPs who represent constituencies within those council boundaries, exactly 42 of them are Conservatives.
Notable MPs representing areas shaded in dark blue on that map include Priti Patel (former Home Secretary), Michael Gove (current Secretary of State for Levelling Up), Kit Malthouse (once of Brexit compromise fame), and Caroline Nokes (Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee).
But isn’t this all just a Coronavirus effect?
Now, many folk on Twitter wanted to know the extent to which the ‘Great Ageing’ and ‘Benjamin Buttons’ were a product of Coronavirus and its impact on population movement at the time the census was taken.
The theory, or the hypothesis proposed, is that urban areas looked artificially older and the rest of the country artificially younger in 2021 because a whole host of young people - including students and young professionals working remotely - had fled the density and cramped conditions of cities to return to their spacious, green, family homes in the Shires.
It is not a bad theory at all. Indeed, some research organisations have produced reports and publications arguing specifically this case. However, it is not - in my view - a theory which stands up to the evidence particularly well.
Firstly, the ‘Great Ageing’ effect actually pre-dates Covid-19 by quite some years. For example, while young populations were growing in places like Manchester for the first few years after the 2011 Census, this already started falling back between 2015-17.
The ‘Great Ageing’ is almost ten years old.
Secondly, there’s no evidence of a great flight of young people into the ‘Benjamin Buttons’ pre- and post-pandemic. Again, as with the ‘Great Ageing’, this demographic trend predates the Covid-19 outbreak by some time.
In fact, rather than seeing a big leap in their young populations between 2019 and 2021, many of our ‘Benjamin Buttons’ actually - as with the major cities - also saw relative declines.
Again, little here to suggest that Covid-19 is responsible for the ‘Benjamin Button’ effect.
Finally, we can also consider the survey and market data analysed in this week’s Times article as evidence that the ‘Great Ageing’ goes well beyond Coronavirus-related displacement.
While there was undoubtedly a Covid-effect in the 2021 Census data (namely, the time of its collection and its stipulation that respondents answer their current living situation as it was at the time), it is only a part of the story the data is telling.
The larger, more important part, is about substantial changes in where England and Wales’ young people are choosing to live - a longer term change driven by altogether different factors.
So, while our most urban (Labour voting) areas are ageing, we're seeing real-term growth in young populations across many (Conservative voting) small cities, suburbs, and semi-rural areas. Wholescale demographic changes in our two major parties' safest seats.
The former may well be a long term problem for Labour - and you don’t have to ask deep within the ranks of London’s campaigners and organisers to find some rather dim projections about some areas of the capital in the next few election cycles (and the 2021 Mayoral and 2022 Borough elections testify to this) - but the latter is increasingly a problem for the Conservatives here and now. These are their key Southern battleground areas against both Labour and (more so) the Liberal Democrats ahead of 2024.
Younger folk are likelier to be more socially liberal, pro-immigration, have been hit harder by recent economic and cost of living crises, and to be in the most precarious employment and housing situations. Therefore, in the current political climate - and with the Conservatives pushing hard on ‘small boat’ and ‘culture war’ issues - much more likely to vote Labour (or for a second-placed Lib Dem).
If there are now increasingly (relatively) more of those voters in key Conservative Blue Wall seats, Tory electoral trouble is abound.
As I wrote for Conservative Home last year, the sorts of (+2% here, -2% there) might not seem like much, but they translate to thousands of people. Take Winchester, for example. The latest Census population figure for the local authority is 127,500, having been reported at 116,595 in 2011.
The population aged 18-30 has increased in Winchester from 15.2% in 2011 to 16.0% in 2021. That’s almost 2700 extra young voters now in and around Steve Brine’s constituency, with the Lib Dems just 985 votes behind in second place. Just seven years ago, that gap was 16,914 votes.
Next week: a further chance to investigate
Which brings me back to next week’s release. When doing media interviews and engaging in further discussions about the ‘Benjamin Buttons’ in particular, I was often asked about where in particular within the local authorities that young people might be increasing their presence.
Was it in the larger towns and small cities, or in the more rural communities?
In other words, are younger people moving from larger cities to smaller ones, or is it a flight to the countryside effect?
Of course, without lower-level data available at the time, I was only able to answer “we will have to see”. Well, now that ‘time to see’ is just around the corner, and I will be updating my analysis of the ‘Benjamin Buttons’ with the ward level data next week. Stay tuned!