Politics / UK

Can we respect our elders? The impact of age on the Brexit vote

On the 23rd June 2016 the U.K. made a decision concerning the EU which has dominated every aspect of its political landscape since. For months beforehand politicians and the general public alike largely believed that it would not become reality, with most polls predicting a victory for the remain camp. But in a manner which has since been echoed in the US, a stunning upset was delivered and the UK is now set to leave the EU in the near future.

Since the referendum, a huge amount of column inches have been devoted to figuring out why this happened. Some believe that it was a backlash against an elite which many feel no longer serves the people. Others assert that it can be explained by the popular view that mass immigration – which the EU facilitates through freedom of movement – has had a detrimental impact on the country. However, what if the most important explanation is not the views, but the voters themselves? As such, I believe that we should be considering closely who voted remain and who did not.

In light of the election, several newspapers reported that the elderly were more likely to have voted for Brexit than the young. This seems to have produced a significant amount anger in a variety of different arenas. For instance, political commentators like Louise Ridley of the Huffington Post have expressed dismay at the result, providing statistics showing that 75% of 18-24 year old electors voted remain in comparison to 39% of the 65s and over. Moreover, young voters themselves via youth news outlets such as vice, social media and, most amusingly, internet memes have also expressed anger. All in all, it seems that younger voters have been handed a massively unfair deal which will surely impact upon their lives for decades to come. As a result, I believe that this referendum should be considered by academics from the perspective of age due to the stark contrast in the way that people of different ages seem to have voted in the election in order to gather answers as to why this happened as well as how this can possibly be prevented from happening again.

Although I do not possess the skills of a seasoned academic, I have a few ideas which could be researched by those interested in looking at the referendum from this perspective. One observation is that older people are often considered to be right of centre and the young on the left. As the Pro-Brexit campaign seemed to be on the right – due to parties like the Conservatives and UKIP being at its forefront – it would make sense that this could have been the reason why it has happened. It is also important to test a variety of other arguments too. For instance, the difference in opinion could be that older voters have simply lived in this environment for longer due to being alive since the UK joined the EU (the EEC in 1973). Also, a lot of them can possibly remember a time when the UK was not part of the EU and feel nostalgia for that period. The immediate post-war period, for example, has often been characterised as one of consensus where everybody was benefiting from the rise of the welfare state. On the other hand, the young have not had such experiences and are therefore more likely to be fearful for what could happen once the UK has left the EU.

Aside from the variety of different reasons why this may have happened, it’s also important to consider what this result could mean for both sets of voters. Regarding the elderly, there may not actually even be much to suggest here with a number of recent reports highlighting that 120,000 leave voters have died since the referendum in comparison to almost 30,000 remain voters. As such, is it time for a debate on who can actually have a say in the outcome of an election? This is due to the fact that someone who is older may be having a say over the future of somebody who is much younger. Obviously such a suggestion would be met with derision (and rightly so) by most in a liberal democracy. However, this problem can be circumvented if more self-awareness by the elderly was exercised when they cast a vote. This can be done through campaigns by parties to make them aware of how their vote may impact upon younger family members. Also, more efforts could be made to get young people out to vote as in the EU referendum (amongst other elections) the young did not express as much enthusiasm as the elderly in terms of actual turnout. As a canvasser, I spend a lot of time visiting students in an attempt to help them register to vote. Despite having some success, this is a severely limited scheme which is hardly utilised anywhere in the U.K. As a result, this should be introduced all over the country in order to help young people to register. Lastly, more could be done in schools to encourage younger people to register to vote in elections. Some academics believe that this can be achieved through the introduction of citizenship classes which teach younger people about the benefits of turning out to vote.

In summary, a number of different explanations as well as resolutions for the result can be used in order to understand the opinions of different age demographics. Through writing this article I would like to invite people to join the debate and even consider testing such observations in the context of an academic study.

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