Intergenerational war has broken out in the UK. Battle lines were drawn in the recent referendum on Britain’s EU membership, whose result is known as Brexit. For young people the enemy is easily recognisable – by their grey hair and wrinkles.
All over our economically fragile world the older generation is getting the blame for causing crises ranging from crushing debt to high house prices…
..and now the old are being blamed for Brexit. My New Old Self is not here to defend my generation, but to offer a more nuanced view of Youth vs. Age.
Among British youth, nearly three-quarters voted to remain in the EU. Sixty percent of older people voted to leave. However, it is worth interrogating the actual ages of those in the pro-Brexit voting bloc.
“This graph shows that it wasn’t by any means only ‘older people’ who voted by a majority for Leave: in the 45-54 age group there was a clear majority among the voters for Leave. You could in fact argue that from this age group and beyond to much older people there was an increasingly pronounced majority among voters for Leave. So a more accurate description of what happened might be that among those who voted, most young adults voted for Remain while most of their parents and grandparents (and their great grand parents too) voted for Leave.”
– AgeUK blog
I can hear a chorus of “Whatever” from the youth, to whom you’re ancient when you’re pushing 50. So their vitriol at Brexit’s supporters is directed at everyone they see as old, all lumped into the category of Baby Boomers.
“Thank you Baby Boomers for the last nail in my generation’s coffin,” was one anti-Brexit Tweet. A commentator on the (youthful) Vox website offered this Keynesian explanation of why Brexit’s long-term effects will not be felt by its Baby Boomer supporters: “Because they will be dead.”
“The younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.”
– British journalist Nicholas Barrett (resident in Italy) on implications of Brexit for youth in a Facebook post that went viral
A South African sociologist was in the rainy island kingdom during the historic poll, and offered this analysis of the Brexit vote, showing it was comprised not only of Baby Boomers.
“The fact of the matter is that the majority of people who voted for Brexit were older, poorly educated, lower income, non-metropolitan English and Welsh white people whose conception of ‘little England’ got stuck somewhere in the 1950s when the empire seemed stronger than ever. They were joined by a bizarre mix of baby boomer professionals and business people who seem fixated on sovereignty and obsessed with their privileges.”
Blanket Brexit blaming of Baby Boomers is unfair when many saw it as a – to use a good old Boomer word – bummer. You will find many bummed Baby Boomers commisserating on Twitter at #NotAllBoomers. You will also find some pushback from the younger generation in Tweets like this:
“To all those
#NotAllBoomers: folks…you’re right. It’s not all of you. It’s just you, the loudest/wealthiest/most racist.”
Even more Baby Boomers are bemoaning Brexit Blame in the media of their era: newspapers, radio and TV.
“The dawn light filtered past the “Remain” poster in my window. We were out and it was, I was already starting to hear, my fault, part of the only generation to put our young in a cage and feed on them as meat. We had had everything we were snatching away from our children and grandchildren – free higher education, cheap housing, good jobs and secure pensions. On Facebook a friend of a friend said she would never again give up her seat on the bus to anyone over 45.”
– older person Linda Grant, The Guardian
The very oldest age group is also caught in the post-Brexit crossfire. Yet not all the elderly voted to turn their backs on Europe. D-Day veteran Eric Jay, who fought against facism and for a united Europe, told ITV that Brexit gave him the same “sinking feeling” as the day World War Two was declared.
Another point that needs to be made in this generational analysis has to do with the vast majority of the youth who voted Remain. But not all boomer-bashing youths went to the polls. Far from it.
The lowest turn-out of any age group was among 18-24-year-olds. Some 64 percent of Britain’s youngest eligible voters did not get to a voting station. Or even to register a postal vote before heading off for the Glastonbury Music Festival.
How has the Brexit made you feel?
Ellie: F***ing annoyed.
Fran: I think it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to this country… I think the majority of people who voted out were the older generation.
How do you feel about Brexit?
Wendy: Well, it’s what we voted for, innit? Whether you like it or not, it’s what we’ve voted. That’s what you get in a free country.
The pound is now the lowest it’s been since the eighties.
Paul: Yeah, well we lived through the eighties. We’ve come through the other side.
Why is the youth vote so low, not only in the UK, but in many democracies around the world? There is a lot of cynicism about current political options among young people, which breeds a “why bother” view of voting.
Additionally, while this article focuses on the age angle on Brexit, older people are also often associated with the anti-immigrant views of many Brexiters.
“I’ve seen people screaming that my immigrant family (biological and chosen) are worthless, that they contribute nothing. And I’ve always felt unwanted, uncomfortable, underrepresented. This result confirms my fears. That my families aren’t seen as people, as human. They’re numbers, they’re a swarm, a threat. They’re not welcome here, and as a product of immigration, neither am I. With this result, England clings on to its colonial history, and I’m ashamed.”
– Zainabb Hull, a 23-year-old Londoner, in The Guardian
To look at them, hunched over their screens, young people seem very engaged with the world. Then why did so many of them wake up with a shock at the referendum results?
“Blindsided by the Brexit result? Blame the ‘filter bubble’ of social media.”
– internet analyst Richard MacManus