Referendum Vote and Britain’s Jilted Generation

In recent years we have seen numerous claims that the older generations have “stolen” their children’s futures. Personally, I don’t go along with all of these claims even though they have often made a provoking case. I dislike and disagree with the “blame” implications such epithets imply.

 The referendum results however, provide a startling warning of inter-generational polarisation.

Recapping somewhat, David Willetts in his book “The Pinch,” argued that the baby boomers, having fashioned the world around themselves in a way that meets all of their housing, healthcare and financial needs, now effectively run the country to serve their own interests. His thesis, of course, is that the baby boomers have attained this position at the expense of their children.

Ed Howker and Shev Malik in “The Jilted Generation,” made a similar case. “Why are so many younger people still living with mum and dad?” they asked. “Why do younger people seem so disinterested in politics?” Good questions then – and now, as we will see.

These writers are among many who have put forward the case that there is a deep intergenerational inequity in society. They believe that older people have commanded the heights of our national resources and in the process have in effect, sold young people down the river.  The young are depicted as increasingly struggling. The housing crisis is but one example of such intergenerational inequity.

The Intergenerational Fairness Forum is looking at the question of whether mandatory voting in the UK would introduce greater generational equity. A startlingly relevant question in present circumstance. A meeting in the Houses of Parliament next week promises to have special relevance

Whilst eschewing the sensationalist conclusions of some of these observers, one has to admit the hard truth: the young in many ways do have it tougher than we did.  

Whatever advantages older people have passed on to the young, Howker and Malik’s depiction of them as “the jilted generation” is not entirely spurious.

Of course, older people have their own problems and struggles, particularly in getting back to work when they lose their jobs. Moreover, for many, there were just not the same possibilities of personal and career advancement as exist today. We have all had to struggle in different ways, though younger people can rightly point out that student debt is something older people never had to contemplate.

Younger people today do face tough circumstances, particularly in the housing market. Again however, older people can hardly be “blamed” for this, even though many of them bought up the council housing stock and fuelled the demand which forced prices up to unaffordable levels. The blame is surely to the politicians who created these circumstances.

While none of us can determine the hand of cards which history deals his or her own generation, the results of the EU referendum provoke a disturbing thought: that in this vote the older generation have imposed a dramatically unequal outcome, a result largely unwanted by the younger generation but which they nevertheless will have to confront.

Let’s consider some of the ways this will work out.

The large majority of informed economists believe that the vote to leave will have adverse consequences for people’s jobs and the economy. If this is so, the younger generation will suffer disproportionately. This is not least because they will be the ones who will have to live through further years of unemployment and financial uncertainty.

Notwithstanding the fact that more people are working beyond 65 than ever before, unemployment will bite the young hardest. Working beyond 65 is still a minority pursuit and younger people will need to be working for many years to come even before the anticipated increases in state pension ages.  A shrinking labour market will do them no good.

The control of migration, such a contentious subject in the referendum, will probably impact on the supply of jobs vacancies. In past experience, many of these may be unsuitable or unwanted by our own young people.

Exit from the EU will result in other opportunities being lost to the young. Of course, they will still be able to travel and study abroad but EU programmes have opened the doors to many of our young people and brilliantly widened their horizons.

Needless to say, older people never had these opportunities and were never likely to want them for themselves at their present ages.

Scientific research and jobs in science will be another area that suffers. 83 per cent of researchers in a large poll by the journal Nature, said that the UK should remain in the EU with 78 per cent saying Brexit would harm scientific research.

We will all suffer of course if life-saving medical discoveries are among the things that don’t happen as a result, but the hopes of many young people to work in science is just one example of how they will have to adjust their ambitions.

Of course, younger and older people were on both sides of the debate, but there was a distinct generation bias in the way votes were cast. If the young suffer, they may wish to blame older people, though it is not quite as simple as that, as we shall see.

In the referendum, the tendency towards voting “leave” progressed noticeably with each consecutive older age cohort.  Whilst 73% of people in the 18 to 24 age range voted “remain”, among the 65+ this declined to 40% voting “remain” and 60% voting “leave”. The age groups of 45 and above were the only ones to show a majority in favour of exit.

On the other hand, an estimated 36% of the 18-24 age group appear to have actually voted compared with an estimated  83% of the 65+ age group, and an upwards progression among ages in between.

It is on consideration of these differences that the true nature of the inter-generational inequity dawns. If inequity there be, it has been largely of younger people’s making.

The EU has given them and older people a lot which it will be sad to lose. The 2012 Year of Intergenerational Solidarity and Older People for example, cannot possibly be replicated in Britain, flying a flag on its own.

Neither can the numerous cross border projects in which we have brought younger people and older people together in creative and practical programmes.

However, while exiting the EU seems like the death of a noble idea,  the Great British public has decided. Who then can really complain that, “We lost”?

The fact is that appeals for an intergenerational dimension in voting fell on stony ground. The effects of the referendum may fall disproportionately on the young but if so, the fact that we lost them in the electoral process meant their loss was our loss.

With more engagement, I suspect that all generations would have been the winners.

Comment: Chris.Ball@shaw-trust.org.uk