In the aftermath of Brexit's victory, Jamie Cutteridge analyses what the referendum tells us about young people.
On a night of political upheaval, one of the most quoted statistics was this: more than 70 per cent of 18-25-year-olds voted for the UK to remain in the European Union, compared to less than 40 per cent of those over the age of 65. Once again, on a national level young people’s voices have been shouted down. ‘Plus ça change’, one might think (though only for another two years before the speaking of French is outlawed). But in this case, it feels more ‘Gaul’-ing (I’ll stop now) than ever. Rather than being ignored in the day-to-day running of government, or overlooked in a ‘regular’ general election, young people have lost out on a decision which will affect their future (both immediate and distant) more than that of any other group.
It will take years before we can pinpoint exactly how and why the country came to this decision, and decades before we see the full social and economic impact, but the results, and young people’s role over the last few weeks, do tell us a few things about the harsh reality of being a young person in Britain today…
YOUNG PEOPLE’S LIVES ARE CHAOTIC, AND THIS DOESN’T HELP
Young people are growing up in a decade of unprecedented change and upheaval: society is moving at a never-before-seen pace; home lives are chaotic; reliable adult figures are becoming more and more scarce. We work with an anxious generation, and on top of all the constant shift of culture, last night’s result has already resulted in economic instability and put us into uncharted waters when it comes to democracy, sovereignty and national identity. Young people need love and stability. They need steadfast anchors in the midst of chaotic oceans. Seemingly nowhere else in society can offer this to a generation crippled by anxiety, the Church has to step up.
THE SELFLESS GENERATION
We’re told that young people, so-called millennials, are the selfish generation, or the ‘selfie’ generation, obsessed with themselves, with ‘likes’ and with their own pouting face. Instead, young people have overwhelmingly chosen the more outward-facing (and I would argue, selfless) of the two available options. Given the choice to put the UK’s concerns above those of the wider continent, young people, more than any other group in society, backed our place at the table, decided that we were better together and celebrated our multi-cultural, immigration-shaped society. This isn’t about saying whether young people were right and wrong, but it’s clear that they see themselves as citizens of Europe, and quite possibly the world, rather than the UK. The caricature of a self-obsessed cohort of young people looks woefully short of the mark.
YOUNG PEOPLE’S VOICES ARE NOT HEARD
A few weeks ago, I flippantly remarked that anyone over the age of 70 shouldn’t get to vote in this referendum, as it will affect them far less than it will anyone else. (Obvious disclaimer: this was a silly point, of course older people’s voices should be heard and their wisdom listened to – we need more lifelong disciples speaking into the lives of our young people, not fewer.) But, BUT, I maintain there’s a nugget of truth buried deep in this preposterous, undemocratic piece of hyperbole. We have to ensure the voices of our young people are listened to. It seems ludicrous that 16 and 17-year-olds weren’t allowed to vote in a referendum which will define much of their future, the Scottish referendum, as well as the predicted turnout in this one, shows that young people are engaged in issues that impact them, especially when they feel their voices will be heard. As their views continue to be crowded out, it will come as no surprise if disillusionment grows and political engagement drops.
Of course the answer to that isn’t to shut up older generations, instead we must give young people the platforms and megaphones to feed into and shape the debates and decision-making. As youth workers, we must be advocates and amplifiers, ensuring that we do all in our power to give teenagers a voice, and where necessary, using our more powerful voices to speak up on their behalf.