National Identity: Does your birthplace determine nationality?

Loss of national identity

Concerns over immigration and the movement of refugees have dominated the headlines for months, and there is no indication that the intense debates will end any time soon.  Anxieties over economic, security, ethnic, and cultural issues have helped fuel Brexit, as well as the rise of right-wing populist movements in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the USA.  Loss of national identity is a major worry for some voters and politicians, but what does that actually mean?  Who counts as one of us?  Is birthplace the pre-determining factor?

What determines national identity?

A recent Pew Research Center poll across 14 countries among 14,514 respondents finds that birthplace is not always as important as we might think in determining ‘identity’; other requisites come into play.

Only 8% of Swedes, 13% of Germans and Australians, 21% of Canadians, 32% of Americans, and a median of 33% of Europeans believe that it is very important for a person to be born in their country in order to be considered as truly national.

This is not the case everywhere: 52% in Hungary, 50% in Greece, and 50% of respondents in Japan consider birthplace to be very important.

What else matters?


Majorities in every country surveyed say that it is very important to speak the dominant language to be considered a true national of the country:

  • Europe 77% (median)
  • USA 70%
  • Australia 69%
  • Canada 59%

National customs and traditions

The adoption of local culture is also very important in most countries:

  • Canada 54%
  • Australia 50%
  • Europe 48% (median)

Fewer than half of Americans (45%) and Japanese (43%) make that connection.

Religion and beliefs

In terms of the link between religious affiliation and national identity, 32% of people in the USA believe it is important to be Christian to be considered as truly American [Note: this data was collected before Trump’s election and the imposition of temporary immigration and refugee bans from seven Majority-Muslim countries.  The possible impact of those bans on links between religious affiliation and national identity is as yet unknown].

Fifty-four percent of Greeks make the link between Christian affiliation and national identity, but only 7% of Swedes.

Generation and age

Significantly, the young and old see national identity differently.

In the USA, people aged 50 and older (40%) are much more likely than those ages 18-34 (21%) to say being born in America is very important to being considered a true American.  Older Japanese are more likely than the young to link national identity to birthplace (59% to 29%).  More modest generational differences are also evident in Australia and Canada and across most of Europe.

Generations differ more sharply on the importance of national customs and traditions.

In the US, people aged 50 and older (55%) are far more likely than those aged 18-34 (28%) to say sharing cultural elements is very important to being truly American.  A similar 20-point percentage gap is in Canada, Australia, and Japan.  A median of 37% of 18-34 year olds in Europe believe this aspect of national identity is very important, compared with 56% of those aged over 50.

And so, “Who is us?”  It depends. We are sure our readers will have a view on these so please share your thoughts with us below.


About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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