"I warned you guys. Seniors always vote in record numbers." - Lisa Simpson
The reactions to the surprisingly wide margin by which voters in the UK decided to leave the EU are rolling in. Other than shock (plus pointing and laughing at David Cameron's Upper Class Twit of the Century award), the most salient and undeniable fact is the enormous age gap:
That is a striking chart, and it's been given emotional heft by, of all things, a newspaper internet comment:
“A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly, it was the working classes who voted for us to leave because they were economically disregarded, and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said, ‘The British people are sick of experts,’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?” — Nicholas
That rather devastating paragraph - bleak and despairing of the future for poor people, young people, and democratic politics itself - has gone viral this morning, and there's no mystery as to why. Youthful disappointment and frustration are hardly limited to modern British politics.
They held a referendum on the EU's extortionist "bailout" plan in Greece last year, and after having earlier propelled the Syriza party to power in parliament, young voters went heavily against accepting the plan:
Younger people, however, are far more in favor of "no:" 71 percent of those between ages 18 to 24 support "no," along with 59 percent of those aged 25 to 34, according to polling firm Public Issue.
In Italy, the anti-establishment Five-Star movement is also highly dependent on young people. The same holds true in Spain, where old people tend to vote the past, and young people the future. Nor is this phenomenon limited to the Old World. Here's the age breakdown from the U.S. 2012 election:
That spread isn't quite as wide as the one in Britain yesterday, but it's not far off. And while generalizations are dangerous across countries with different political cultures, electoral mechanisms, and economic situations, there's enough of a pattern there that to simply dismiss it would be naive.
Broadly speaking, older people (>40ish) across the representative democracies we call The West are voting in more right wing, conservative ways, while younger people (<40ish) are voting in more lefty, liberal ways. The Leave vote was against multi-national cooperation and multi-cultural societies and for nationalism and a return to some kind of idealized past. The referendum in Greece saw old people accept harsh pain as the price of returning to normalcy, while the young rejected the pain for the simple reason that normalcy had been of no benefit to them.
The list goes on, but the complaints are the same. Education grows ever more expensive, but a degree is no longer a guarantee of a dignified existence. Young people who never got a chance at a degree are even more shut out of anything that could be called a middle class (or even working class) life. The old social compact of follow-the-rules and work-hard in exchange for a decent life (i.e. peace of mind on matters of food, shelter, etc.) has broken down not just in Greece or Italy or Spain, but in Britain, France and the U.S. as well.
The causes of this breakdown are, of course, complex. But they're not that hard to list: the 30-year rampage of the financial industry, globalization shipping working class jobs far, far away, neo-liberal budget cuts and endless austerity, and the ever increasing gap between the Haves and the rest.
And, to be sure, all of those vile trends have affected older people as well. Pensions, for example, ain't what they used to be. The difference is in how each group reacts. Older voters go for retrenchment: make the previous system come back. Younger voters, who never experienced economically stable societies, go for change.
The problem is that retrenchment doesn't work. Austerity doesn't work. Banning immigrants doesn't work. Tax cuts for the rich don't work. Older voters everywhere are chasing a mirage, and they're doing so at the expense of their kids and grandkids.
What will work? Who knows? Show me a country that has a sustainable plan for reducing inequality, mitigating climate change, accepting refugees, fighting prejudice, and providing economic security to all its citizens and I will show you an episode of Star Trek.
What is certain - beyond any doubt and clear to anyone who's willing to listen - is that the policies for which the olds keep voting are making things worse. Last night, the youth of Britain got outvoted. This November, I fervently hope the youth of America won't be. But Brexit isn't the end of things, nor will our election be. Until and unless the day-to-day problems of ordinary people get addressed, these harmful and sometimes disastrous age splits will continue.