The historic 2016 referendum, which resulted in the decision that the United Kingdom (UK) would withdraw as a member of the European Union, was undoubtedly one of the most emotionally charged referendums in British history. Whether for or against ‘Brexit’, it can be assumed that the outcome, announced in the early hours on the 24th June 2016, came as a surprise to most voters including myself. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion on the outcome of the referendum and the huge consequences that this will have for the UK, Europe and also the rest of the world. I of course have my opinion, but this shall not be the focus of this article.
‘Brexit’, regardless of whether you’re a ‘remainer’ or a ‘Brexiteer’, provides an opportunity to look at a phenomenon that is becoming ever more significant in European politics. As a British student of politics, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that there is a generational divide across the globe. This has been highlighted by the recent right-wing surge in the Western world and I believe epitomised by the decision of the British people to leave the European Union.
It is common knowledge that younger people tend to think more liberally, especially regarding social issues, and that older people are generally more conservative (Enten, 2013). What was fascinating and also rather disappointing about the EU referendum however, is how it highlighted generational divisions in such a distinctively harsh way.
There was an unmistakable generational divide in the United Kingdom between young people, who were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, and older voters that ultimately secured the ‘Brexit’ victory. This generational divide however can also be identified across the world. In American politics, for example, people under the age of 30 were far more likely to vote for candidate Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, rather than President Donald Trump, a Republican (Hope, 2016). Similarly this divide is present in mainland Europe. For example, the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ party which challenged Germany’s consensus-driven politics achieved far many more votes than expected in the German state elections in March 2016, with the majority of their voters being over 33 years old (Zeit Online, 2017).
Answering the question of why older generations were generally in greater favour of leaving the EU than younger generations came down to a multitude of different factors, including national identity, voter turnout and ultimately who the different generations listened to. While it is fairly easy to determine the reasons as to why older generations fell in favour of ‘Brexit’, it is much harder to figure out how to narrow this generational divide and build the necessary bridges between each generation in order to live in a more empathetic world. As a voter in my early twenties, I am more than aware of the fury that many younger people felt and still feel today towards the older generations following the outcome of the EU referendum. While this fury between the generations has been fuelled by Brexit, it is in the long term dangerous for our society; it is destructive and will lead to even greater misunderstanding. Addressing the ever widening social gap between generations is as important as it has ever been and would have countless benefits for all. It is something that requires our attention and, if and when we make progress in restoring understanding between the generations, could help to avoid situations such as the Brexit one.