SPANKS A LOT, MUM
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
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.
The Young European Movement demonstrates for Scotland to remain in the EU outside the Scottish Parliament