Brexit and the young

by Yojana Sharma | 08.04.2016

Addressing an audience at the University of Exeter on Thursday, David Cameron warned that the young had “the most to lose” from leaving the EU, and “the most to gain” from retaining the freedoms to work and travel on the continent. The prime minister’s purpose is obvious: young people are sympathetic to the EU, so motivating students to turn out is in the Remain camp’s interest. But beyond this political arithmetic lies a danger that could persist beyond the summer referendum. We are used to elections that divide us along class and social lines. But are we ready for an era of unprecedented inter-generational resentment?

Polls have been telling us for some time that young people want to remain in the EU while older folk lean towards leaving.  An outcome that one generation wants, and another opposes, could have major political repercussions. By definition, it is the young who will have to live with the consequences the longest.  They will have to navigate possibly seismic changes that they don’t want and for which no one has prepared them. As the European Policy Forum think-tank puts it, it is their future on which Britain will be voting.

Pollsters say age is the biggest variable in determining voting intentions. The median age of registered voters at the 2015 general election was 47.  The figure for the June 23 referendum may be even higher, as 18- to 24-year-olds make up 11% of those eligible to cast a ballot but many have not registered to vote away from home. This is also the most pro-European age group: surveys show that three-quarters of young people those who say they will vote are likely to choose to remain,  compared to 40% of those over 65.

The differences in attitudes are significant. While the older generation gets agitated about the loss of ‘sovereignty’ to a faceless EU bureaucracy, this barely flickers as an issue for young people in YouGov focus groups.  

The under-25s are more likely than the over-65s to think the UK will be worse off economically outside the EU, but they are significantly less concerned about immigration than their elders. They are also more consistent in wanting to stay in Europe and are less swayed by shocks such as the Paris attacks or Brussels bombings.

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    Yet as things stand, the more Eurosceptic over-65s could decide the referendum result. According to YouGov, around 7.8 million pensioners definitely intend to vote, compared to only 1.4 million 18- to 24-year-olds. Several polling organisations have noted that this intention could skew the referendum in favour of leaving.  

    With only 80 days to the referendum, young people feel the debate is dominated by business leaders and politicians who emphasise issues of no interest to them. They see politicians who are pushing their own agendas, bending statistics and contradicting each other – even in the same camp.  For young voters, trying to get a realistic picture of a post-Brexit future is like pinning jelly to a wall.  The values of big corporations also alienate many young people. Students complain that business leaders have hijacked both sides of the referendum debate.

    Young people are no strangers to perceived intergenerational unfairness. They now take it for granted that they will never be able to afford the kind of houses their parents lived in.  

    During the tuition fee protests of 2010, it was common to hear that older generations that had benefited from free higher education were denying young adults the same opportunity. This week a university student expressed a similar sentiment about the Brexit campaign: “They enjoyed the benefits of the EU, and now they want to pull up the ladder.”

    The major attraction of the EU, as the young see it, is free movement.  Erasmus student exchange programmes have been among the EU’s most effective instruments of soft power.  

    The young have grown up able to look beyond these island shores. They like being a part of something bigger. They can link up with others in Europe to campaign to improve the environment and human rights. There is a sense that, should things turn sour at home, the EU is there for them as a safety blanket.

    Brexit would alienate so many young people that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has warned of a ‘lost generation’. When young Britons marched in 2003 to protest against the Iraq war, they marched under the banner ‘Not In My Name’. If their opposition to leaving the EU is similarly ignored in June, it will be time to update the rallying cry: “Brexit?  Not in my name.”

    Edited by Alan Wheatley