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As part of the UK in a changing Europe initiative, a research project in the Centre for Population Change and the Centre for Research on Ageing at the University of Southampton is exploring the characteristics of EU migrants using the 2011 Census.

The findings presented here are based on preliminary secondary data analysis of the microdata files of the 2011 Census of England and Wales. It consists of a 5% sample of all individuals at local authority geographical level, providing person level data on 245 variables for over two million individuals.

At the time of the 2011 census there were around 2.5 million people living in the UK who were born elsewhere in the EU. Around 18 percent of these were aged 60 and over, compared to 23 percent of their UK-born counterparts, reflecting the fact that the EU migrant population is, on average, younger than the native born population. Nevertheless, this means that there were around 450,000 older EU migrants who might be affected by Brexit. This group is often overlooked in the debate, where the focus of attention has been on younger EU migrants of prime working age.

Compared with their UK-born counterparts, older Europeans living in England and Wales were more likely to be female (60% v 54%) and also more likely to be aged 70 and over (58% v 52%). A quarter of EU-born elders were aged 80 and over (24.5%), compared to just over a fifth of UK-born elders (20.8%). Reflecting this older age profile, older EU migrants were more likely to be widowed than their UK counterparts (27% v 23%) and also more likely to report ‘poor’ health (17% v 14%).

Despite this, EU-born elders showed similar patterns of economic activity to older people born in the UK. They were almost as likely to be employed (19% of EU-born compared to 20% of UK-born) and to be retired (73.5 per cent versus 75 per cent). Older Europeans were less likely to be living in owner-occupied housing compared to UK-born individuals (71% v 77%), and more likely to be living in rented accommodation, either social housing (17.7% v 14.5%) or privately rented (5.6% v 3.5%).

Finally, looking at older individuals who were married to, or partnered with, the household reference person, about 50 per cent of older Europeans were partnered with a UK-born person, and 47 per cent were partnered with another European citizen.

What does this brief ‘profile’ of older Europeans living in England & Wales tell us in relation to a possible Brexit from the EU? At least four implications arise.

Firstly, similar economic activity patterns among older Europeans and UK-born individuals reflect an important contribution of older Europeans to the society and economy of England and Wales. Such a contribution could be at stake if the residence eligibility of EU-born individuals was threatened.

Secondly, although representing a relatively smaller part of the EU-born population as a whole, older Europeans in England and Wales are older and appear to report worse health than their native counterparts. This finding could have implications for their access to health and social care in the future, if they decide and/or were permitted to stay in England and Wales.

Thirdly, older Europeans are noticeably more likely to be separated/divorced or widowed than UK-born older people, and this has implications for the availability of social support networks that can provide them with informal care in the future. Such finding should be particularly considered in conjunction with the higher risk among this population to report poor health.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, about half of older Europeans in England and Wales who are partnered, have a UK-born partner, and a similar proportion have a partner born in another EU country. If the result of the EU referendum supported a Brexit and triggered an adverse impact on the residence eligibility of older Europeans, then such a development could result in a significant number of couples reconsidering their own future, and that of their wider families, in England and Wales.

This project involves Professor Maria Evandrou, Professor Jane Falkingham, Dr Zhixin Frank Feng and Dr Athina Vlachantoni.