Does Mother Know Best?: The Generational Divide and Brexit

By Cassandra Betts

You’ve stolen our future. This is the accusation that swept across the nation after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the long-awaited referendum. The vote was incredibly close, with 51.9 percent of voters choosing to leave the EU and 48.1 percent choosing to remain. If only the young had been voting, however, it would have been anything but a tight race. An estimated 75 percent of Brits between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four voted to stay in the EU, while only 39 percent of those over sixty-five made the same decision. It is this generational divide that is causing outrage amongst many millennials in Britain, and around the world.

The young feel cheated. They feel as if nostalgic old fogies who are living in a nationalistic past have snatched away their future. For the older Brits, especially those who are already retired, Brexit means reclaiming their nation’s sovereignty and being able to be the sole decision-maker on controversial issues such as immigration. For the young, Brexit represents something completely different. It means limited access to jobs in a globalized world. It means slamming the door on international cooperation, shutting themselves out of free trade agreements. In short, it means sacrificing future opportunities. Of course, everyone in the UK will have to live with these sacrifices, but it is the millennials who will have to live with them the longest. The generations that voted to leave the EU have already found jobs, homes, husbands and wives, while the younger generations have yet to carve out a niche for themselves. All Brits may be affected by the crash of the pound and the inconvenience of having to tote their passport around with them when traveling around what used to be a borderless Europe, but it is the young ones who will have to build something out of the pieces that will be left behind after Britain’s connection with the EU is torn to shreds.

It is for this understandable reason that the millennials are screaming that their voice is the most important, that it is their future at stake, but this cry contradicts the very fibers that hold the modern democracy together. The United Kingdom’s democracy relies heavily upon the principle of equality. Every one’s voice is equal. While there may still be discrimination in society, the vote is blind. Regardless of your wealth, education, gender and age, your opinions, your ideas, your future is worth just as much as anyone else’s, because everyone gets one equal vote. This is the fundamental principal that Britain’s youth are contesting. They are claiming that their future is worth more, because it will exist for a longer period of time. They are screaming that the decision to leave the European Union, to take away the freedom of mobility, the common market, the safety and assurance that comes with being a part of such a unique supranational partnership, was not a decision that the older generation had a right to take. In a way, their claims may be legitimate. They may have a better understanding of what decisions will help to create the type of world that they want to live in. But their argument can also extend far beyond the context of the referendum that occurred on June 23rd. To a certain extent, any political decision will have lasting consequences, and these consequences will extend far beyond the life span of those who helped make the decision. The principle of path dependency is tried and true: once a decision is made it is never possible to go back. It cannot be erased, and will continue to affect future generations. In a way, with every vote we are determining the future of the generations that will come after us, and we are not necessarily looking out for their best interest. If the preservation of the environment is taken as an example, it is clear that the interests of the old do not necessarily coincide with the interests of the young. Many are willing to follow a path that has been scientifically proven to be detrimental to the environment, because they know that they will not have to live with the consequences. Yet no one is suggesting that the young are the only ones who have a say in future environmental decision-making. The experiences of the old are valued and considered, arguably too highly considered. It is impossible to implement the idea that the young get a larger say in their future without undermining the experiences of the old and reworking the democratic system that is currently in place. Sometimes a system that seems like the fairest of them all, the one that gives one vote for one person, can yield unfair results.

The uproar that the young have caused because their future has been stolen must be taken with a grain of salt for another reason: there was only an estimated 36 percent voter turnout for those between the ages of eighteen and twenty four. Only 36 percent of millennials bothered to leave their houses to determine their own future. The overall turnout of the referendum was 72 percent. Considering the fact that the decision to leave the EU was determined by less than two percent of the votes, if millennials had decided that their future was worth making a trip to the polls, the UK may have woken up to discover that they were still a part of the European Union.

Sixteen and seventeen-year-old Brits are expressing their discontent that they were not allowed to vote in the referendum, as their voice could have changed the course of history as well. According to a poll conducted by Student Room, 82 percent of Brits in this age group would have voted to remain within the EU, which would have been enough to pull out a win for the Remain side. These statistics, however, are unrealistic as they assume a 100 percent voter turnout, which, based on the performance of the rest of their generation, seems highly unlikely. In hindsight, what-ifs and maybes are completely meaningless, but it does seem rather unfair that sixteen and seventeen-year-olds were denied the right to vote, especially considering the fact that they were allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Part of the rationale behind giving the young citizens the right to vote in 2014 was that it was their future at stake, and that they would be the ones who would have to live with the consequences of their decision. This is exactly what the young Brits are arguing after the recent referendum, and to many, their argument is more than valid.

There’s an old adage that proclaims that Mother knows best. In some cases this proves to be true. With age comes wisdom, and this cannot be ignored. The young are notorious for being idealistic. They lack the experiences that older Brits have, and their opinions are often freshly formed and based on passion. It is possible that once the millennials have lived for sixty of seventy years, they too will have a different outlook of political questions, such as the one that was asked in the referendum. But it is also true that their opinions must be respected, and given just as much weight, as their parents’ and grandparents’. The young have grown up in a different world, and they view the future with a specific outlook that is impossible for outsiders to comprehend. They understand what they want their future to look like, and have unique experiences in a globally connected world. So, the question remains as to whether Mother really does know best in the case of Britain’s EU referendum. That has yet to be determined, but at least she knew enough to actually go out and vote.


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