In post-Brexit Bri­tain Baby Boomers have been ac­cused of sell­ing out their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Vicky Al­lan in­ves­ti­gates how the gen­er­a­tion gap has be­come a gulf

Sunday Herald - - ESSAY OF THE WEEK -

SINCE the EU ref­er­en­dum, we in the UK have learned a few things about our­selves. One is that we live in a na­tion di­vided not just along ge­o­graph­i­cal and class lines, but also along gen­er­a­tional ones. If you are young, a mil­len­nial twen­tysome­thing for in­stance, you are more likely to have voted to stay. If you are older, aged over 65, chances are you voted out. Of course there are peo­ple that fall out­side these pat­terns. A quar­ter of young peo­ple voted to leave – teenagers like 18-year-old Euan Blockey who cam­paigned for Brexit across Glas­gow wear­ing a Leave hoodie. There are my par­ents, in their 70s, who voted in and don’t know any­one their age who voted out.

Nev­er­the­less, the ref­er­en­dum de­liv­ered us a por­trait of Bri­tain in which the young and old, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, are like two dif­fer­ent species star­ing at each other across an un­traversable gulf of his­tory and cir­cum­stance.

Such di­vides are of­ten sources of anger and frus­tra­tion – and we saw plenty of this across the me­dia. We saw it in the com­plaints that the old had be­trayed the young. We saw it in the ar­ti­cles quot­ing young peo­ple who couldn’t bear to speak to their par­ents. I heard tales like this my­self – young peo­ple, and even some older ones my age – who had not phoned their par­ents since the Brexit re­sult be­cause they felt they couldn’t face the con­ver­sa­tion.

We saw it in the fu­ri­ous and nasty tweets such as: “I’m not giv­ing up my seat to the el­derly any­more. Eye for an eye.” We saw it in the ugly ageist plac­ards re­port­edly pa­raded by Re­main cam­paign­ers in Lon­don, say­ing: “Old white peo­ple please die.” It was as if the ref­er­en­dum had opened a Pan­dora’s box un­leash­ing prej­u­dices of all va­ri­eties, from racism through to ageism.

One of the most strik­ing sto­ries from polling ac­tiv­ity was not the dis­en­fran­chise­ment of the white work­ing class, nor the gulf be­tween the Scot­tish and English vote, but the gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ence. Ac­cord­ing to Ashcroft polls, 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds backed Re­main, while 61 per cent of those over 65 put their cross in the Brexit box. We have be­come used to say­ing that Scot­land, which voted 62 per cent in, is a dif­fer­ent world po­lit­i­cally from Eng­land which voted 53.4 per cent out, but the dif­fer­ence be­tween the younger and older gen­er­a­tions is even more marked than this na­tional one. It speaks of a wildly dif­fer­ent world out­look and per­spec­tive on iden­tity and pol­i­tics.

And the young seem deter­mined not to take the Brexit vote ly­ing down. Their re­ac­tion was vis­i­ble out­side the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment on Wed­nes­day, when thou­sands of Mil­len­ni­als, un­der the ban­ner of the Young Euro­pean Move­ment, were joined by peo­ple from other gen­er­a­tions, to de­mand Scot­land re­main in the EU.

Johnny Rhodes, a 22-year-old tour guide, was the cre­ator of this rally. On Fri­day, June 21 when he heard the EU ref­er­en­dum re­sult, the first thing he did was help his younger brother to get ready for school. He recalls he felt “sad for a lit­tle while”, and then de­cided he had to do some­thing and mes­saged a few peo­ple “to get the ball rolling”. Soon he was or­gan­is­ing a rally of thou­sands in Ed­in­burgh, a city which voted 74 per cent to re­main.

Rhodes is wor­ried about what the fu­ture may have to of­fer him and his peers. “A lot of young peo­ple are so up­set by this be­cause not only did they vote Re­main but they did so be­cause they knew that there was a huge eco­nomic shock with leav­ing,” he tells me. “There would be im­pli­ca­tions for hous­ing, for fu­ture ed­u­ca­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties both here and abroad. It would im­pact re­search fund­ing. They knew it and saw this com­ing.”

We tend to think that what di­vides us most is class, or cul­ture, or race. But what if we are ig­nor­ing one of the big­gest in­equal­i­ties and po­ten­tial clashes – be­tween the young and the old? Shiv Ma­lik, au­thor, with Ed Howker, of Jilted Gen­er­a­tion: How Bri­tain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, be­lieves what we are now see­ing is “un­prece­dented in­equal­ity be­tween gen­er­a­tions”. Al­ready, be­fore the Brexit vote, he was writ­ing of how a “com­bi­na­tion of debt, job­less­ness, glob­al­i­sa­tion, de­mo­graph­ics and ris­ing house prices [was] de­press­ing the in­comes and prospects of mil­lions of young peo­ple”.

“Mil­len­ni­als,” he ar­gues, re­fer­ring to that gen­er­a­tion born be­tween the 1980s and around 2000, “are pick­ing up the tab for the Western world’s most stun­ning ac­count­ing disaster to date … Pen­sions that were promised in the past, and seemed or­di­nary at the time are now oner­ously over-gen­er­ous, and that is hurt­ing young adults to­day.”

Ma­lik be­lieves this vote is a be­trayal of the young gen­er­a­tion by the old. “Young peo­ple have been told for the last 20 years that they should pre­pare for a world of glob­al­i­sa­tion. They have been told they need to be flex­i­ble and also they should be will­ing to pay the cost of get­ting a univer­sity de­gree to do that. And now old peo­ple have come along and ef­fec­tively pulled the rug from un­der­neath them. They’ve taken away their right to work in 27 other coun­tries. They’ve made the UK at a stroke a less com­pet­i­tive place.”

He sees the United King­dom as a coun­try that be­haves as if it “does not want” its young peo­ple. “It was patently clear that Ge­orge Os­borne seemed to rel­ish heap­ing aus­ter­ity upon young adults whilst de­lib­er­ately pro­tect­ing pen­sion­ers from any sort of effect,” he says.

“Pen­sioner cou­ples are now richer than fam­i­lies who have chil­dren and are in work. They feel se­cure and when you feel se­cure you can take ex­trav­a­gant risks like this. Politi­cians have cre­ated a di­vide and that has led to this [the Brexit re­sult]. One gen­er­a­tion who feels that they can take risks, ver­sus an­other who re­ally don’t.”

Right-wing his­to­rian Niall Fer­gu­son has also ob­served this gen­er­a­tional clash. “What if the great strug­gle of our time turns out to be be­tween the gen­er­a­tions?” he wrote in the lead-up to the EU ref­er­en­dum. “Writ­ing in 2001, I warned of a com­ing con­flict of eco­nomic in­ter­ests be­tween the young and the old.

“The only ques­tion in my mind was when this con­flict would sur­face po­lit­i­cally. Well, now it has.” He cited not only the Brexit polls, but also the con­test for the Demo­cratic US pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, in which the un­der-30s pre­ferred San­ders “by a 71-29 mar­gin”.

The Brexit, in­deed, is not the only cur­rent UK po­lit­i­cal is­sue that throws up a cur­rent gen­er­a­tional di­vide. Francesca, a 26-year-old PhD stu­dent at Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity who I met at the Young Euro­pean Move­ment rally, de­scribes it as one el­e­ment in a “huge gap in so­cial ideas and be­liefs be­tween the younger gen­er­a­tion and older gen­er­a­tion”. Such a gen­er­a­tional gulf, she con­sid­ers, is also re­vealed in the tensions over Jeremy Cor­byn and the Labour Party lead­er­ship. “I’m a Labour sup­porter and I’m pretty up­set about the coup on Jeremy Cor­byn. I see that again as older Labour MPs and older vot­ers, ver­sus the younger Labour vot­ers who have been at­tracted to Labour partly via Cor­byn. I’m cross at a lot of things at the mo­ment.”

Of course, young gen­er­a­tions have al­ways kicked against the old. Ac­cord­ing to gen­er­a­tional the­o­rists, his­tory is an end­less cy­cle of re­ac­tion to the con­di­tions in which we grow up. Dr Graeme Co­dring­ton, au­thor of Mind The Gap: Un­der­stand­ing The Dif­fer­ent Gen­er­a­tions, sug­gests the cy­cle can be imag­ined in terms of sea­sons. “The young peo­ple born dur­ing the Sec­ond World War were born dur­ing a ‘winter’

pe­riod,” he says. “Baby-boomers were born in the ‘spring­time’ of the 1950s and 1960s. “Then there are the Gen­er­a­tion Xers in the 1970s and 80s – sum­mer­time in this cy­cle is more like a bru­tally hot sea­son with hosepipe bans and droughts. There is ‘au­tumn”, a pe­riod of con­sol­i­da­tion. Some would ar­gue that we’re back in a ‘winter’ sea­son now.”

For­tu­nately, the young mil­len­ni­als I talk to seem keen not to play any blame game. “We’re fight­ing against racism, we’re fight­ing intolerance,” says Young Euro­pean Move­ment pro­tester Bry­ony Jack­son. “There’s no point in adding ageism to the list.”

The young peo­ple I meet also will­ingly crit­i­cise their own gen­er­a­tion. Art school stu­dent Kirsten Mil­lar, 19, says: “It’s not fair just to blame old peo­ple. We should also blame the young who didn’t turn out to vote.”

Mean­while, many baby boomers think they voted in the best in­ter­est of younger gen­er­a­tions – for their chil­dren or their grand­chil­dren. Kirstie Devine, a Leave voter liv­ing in Corn­wall, is frus­trated at the way her gen­er­a­tion is be­ing de­picted. “The over-60s aren’t a bunch of id­iots,” she says. “We prob­a­bly had some of the best ed­u­ca­tions ever. We are not stupid. We read pa­pers and we don’t just read the Daily Mail. I’ve never read it in my life. I read The Guardian. And to de­cry us and say we’re not thinking of the fu­ture? We’re prob­a­bly more wor­ried about our grand­chil­dren’s fu­ture than any other gen­er­a­tion ever has been.”

For years be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, she had felt that “the EU was like a burn­ing build­ing” and she was deeply up­set by an ar­ti­cle in which a young woman said she could no longer speak to her par­ents. “How dare she?” ex­claims Devine. “They could turn round and say they were very dis­ap­pointed in their daugh­ter who in their eyes voted the wrong way. We’re par­ents, we’re grand­par­ents. We’ve held jobs, we’ve marched on marches in the 1960s.”

The gen­er­a­tional con­trast doesn’t sur­prise Dr Graeme Co­dring­ton. Among the big­gest dif­fer­ences be­tween baby boomers and mil­len­ni­als, he ar­gues, is the fact the younger gen­er­a­tion have grown up in a “more di­verse en­vi­ron­ment”. “Tech­nol­ogy is ob­vi­ously a big driver of that,” he ex­plains. “They’ve grown up in schools that have lots of dif­fer­ent cul­tures. And this is not just in the UK, the world is more di­verse. The TV shows we watch are not mono­cul­tural any more. So young peo­ple have grown up with a nat­u­ral sense that di­ver­sity is not a prob­lem or a threat.” At worst, he notes, their feel­ings are neu­tral about it; at best “they ac­tu­ally see a huge value in di­ver­sity”.

Be­cause a lot of the Brexit con­ver­sa­tion re­volved around im­mi­gra­tion, many saw it as a threat to that cher­ished ideal. Co­dring­ton be­lieves this is why we are now see­ing so many young adults ac­tively putting out pos­i­tive di­ver­sity mes­sages, like the plac­ards of the Young Euro­pean Move­ment say­ing: “We love im­mi­grants”. “We’ve seen lovely re­ac­tions in Lon­don over the last few days among young peo­ple who have put up ban­ners out­side their schools say­ing, ‘We love Pol­ish peo­ple.’ The re­ac­tion af­ter the vote has in­di­cated that at­ti­tudes to­wards di­ver­sity are a big di­vide be­tween the gen­er­a­tions.”

OF course it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that em­brac­ing im­mi­grants is not some­thing only the young do – older peo­ple cre­ate ban­ners like this too. Yet, as Dr Jan Eich­horn of the Cen­tre on Con­sti­tu­tional Change ob­serves, the young are, sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, likely to be more wel­com­ing to im­mi­grants. “At­ti­tudes to­wards for­eign­ers at every level are al­ways more pos­i­tive with peo­ple who have more ex­po­sure to mi­grants. Peo­ple who have the most neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes, who are anti-im­mi­grant or fear­ful of for­eign­ers, are usu­ally in re­gions where there are the fewest im­mi­grants. Young peo­ple nowa­days have a wider range of ex­po­sure which leads to less con­cern.”

On aver­age, he notes: “Young peo­ple have a more cross-bor­der out­look. They’re the first gen­er­a­tion who have grown up with the in­ter­net. For them it’s been nor­mal to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple across bor­ders and bound­aries. The per­cep­tions are dif­fer­ent.”

They are also, Eich­horn notes, more likely than older peo­ple to be “pro-Euro­pean and pro-EU”, and have been for some time. “It’s a nearly lin­ear re­la­tion­ship. The older they get, the more anti-EU peo­ple are.” Younger peo­ple are also less likely to favour “unique or sin­gu­lar” iden­ti­ties. “In the Scot­tish con­text that means young peo­ple are even less likely than older peo­ple to say I’m Scot­tish but not Bri­tish at all. They are also more likely to iden­tify as Euro­pean. Younger peo­ple are more confident with mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties.”

“We love Europe,” John­ney Rhodes tells me, when we meet at the Young Euro­pean Move­ment protest. “We are Euro­pean.” Some of his “fond­est mem­o­ries, he says, are tied up with be­ing Euro­pean, and he hap­pily recalls be­ing at pri­mary school in 2004 and do­ing projects on all the coun­tries that were join­ing the EU.

Nev­er­the­less, there is op­ti­mism among the young gen­er­a­tion. “It is very hard to get to terms with the fact that the ma­jor­ity of my de­mo­graphic did not vote for some­thing that we are go­ing to live through and strug­gle through,” says Tomiwa Folorunso, 21, part of the Ref­er­en­dum Gen­er­a­tion co­hort of vot­ers the BBC has been fol­low­ing. “But the flip side of that is that we’re a very grass­roots gen­er­a­tion and I think we’re go­ing to have to make the best of it and shape it. Maybe in 10, 20 years we’ll think this was the best thing Bri­tain ever did.”

Of course it is possible that Brexit could, in the long run, be a route to a bet­ter fu­ture for these young peo­ple, but, cru­cially, it’s not the one they are ask­ing for. The im­me­di­ate eco­nomic pain is some­thing they fear too much; the de­bate around im­mi­grants too much of an as­sault on their val­ues.

Un­less we start lis­ten­ing to them, this yawn­ing gulf is only go­ing to grow.

Pho­to­graph: Ste­wart Attwood

The Young Euro­pean Move­ment demon­strates for Scot­land to re­main in the EU out­side the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment

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