Among the many divisions brought to the surface by the EU referendum, an apparent ‘generation war’ is raging. A recent poll, which found that most young voters chose to Remain, and most over-45s chose to Leave, has led to an explosion of bitterness from the younger sections of the electorate. Teenagers who are not yet old enough to vote and parents of young children are lamenting a supposedly lost future.
Some of the language used to express this anger – particularly, it should be said, by media commentators on a hyperbole mission – has been breathtakingly nasty. Older (Leave) voters have been cast as backward, nostalgic, racist and incapable of understanding the modern world. A widely reproduced table indicating how many years voters of different age demographics have left to ‘live with the decision’ of the referendum carries the clear implication that older voters should have less of a say in important matters than the young. ‘The wrinkly bastards stitched us young uns up good and proper on Thursday’, wrote restaurant critic Giles Coren in The Times. ‘We should cut them off. Rewrite the franchise to start at 16 and end at 60 and do this thing all over again.’
The fury and sense of disorientation experienced by some young Remainers is understandable. They have grown up with the particular idea of Europe as institutionalised by the EU and find themselves suddenly forced to imagine something different. What it means to be in Europe, European or British is no longer an assumption: it needs to be thought about, articulated and fought for. This is going to be hard work, on all sides of the debate. And yes, young adults’ lives will be shaped by the way in which things evolve over the next few years – just as they will be called upon to shape those events.
What is curious about this idea of a ‘wrinkly bastard stitch-up’, though, is that it actually represents an enormous trust placed by the older sections of the electorate in their children and grandchildren. Ironically for those emphasising just how few years older people have left to ‘live with the decision’, it is these supposedly selfish, short-sighted and nostalgic folk who will experience all the political and economic turmoil in the short term, without themselves having a central role to play in shaping what comes next.
Now that we’ve voted to leave the EU, the younger generations must take the reins and make their own decisions about the kind of Britain, and the kind of Europe, they want to forge. They have not been mandated to restrict immigration, buy British, wear cardigans or do anything specific – they must simply take greater responsibility for decision-making. And this is an opportunity to do something really good.