The age demographics of the Brexit vote in June 2016 are well-known: around 73% of young people under 24 voted to remain, compared with only 40% of people over 60. Yet it is self-evidently young people who are going to have to live longest with the consequences of Brexit, if it happens. These consequences are numerous and wide-ranging, and can be grouped into three categories: economic, social and identity.
Many baby boomers from the UK (like myself) benefited from free higher education, maintenance grants, affordable housing (that has increased in value much faster than wages have risen), and the prospect of good pensions. Conversely, people now in their twenties leave university with significant debt, face sky-high housing costs and can expect far less job security than their parents or grandparents.
This sense of generational inequality, exacerbated for young people living in areas which have higher levels of social and economic deprivation, was a key factor in June’s general election; Labour’s recognition of this in its manifesto saw a 20% increase in its vote share in the under 40s, going from 40% in the 2015 General Election to 60% in the election last June. But another factor was Brexit, and a sense that the lower turnout among young people in the 2016 referendum was a factor in the narrow victory for Leave. An older generation of voters has deprived a younger generation of future opportunities.
Economists are clear about who is affected the most whenever the economy falters: the young and the low-skilled. For example, following the crisis in 2008, youth unemployment rose to 22% in the UK (compared to 6% for those over 25). Nearly a decade later, youth unemployment is still 11.9%, (significantly higher than the national rate of 4.3%). And if we go ahead with Brexit, whether a bad deal or, even worse, no deal, our economy will undoubtedly suffer in the short and medium term, and it is the young people who would pay the biggest price of leaving the EU, despite voting strongly against it.
Those who have grown up with the UK as part of the EU in the last 40 years take the ease of travel, of studying abroad and of being able to work in countries across Europe, for granted.
For students, over the past decade, there has been a 50% increase in the number of UK students going abroad through the Erasmus+ scheme; in 2013-2014 alone, 15,610 UK students went to study or work in EU27 countries. Yet this is likely to be reversed if we leave the EU.
When it comes to immigration, many of this new generation of Brits have experienced first-hand the value of learning with students from other EU member states at school and university. EU nationals are friends from school, flatmates from university, colleagues from work, the people they fall in love with and may even start a family with. As EU citizens, young Brits have access to jobs in 28 countries, not just in the UK. They can move, travel and work wherever in the EU’s single market – the largest of its kind worldwide.
All these advantages young people currently enjoy and value are enhanced by EU membership. Brexit would mean fewer opportunities to live in multicultural communities, to study abroad cheaply and to work with colleagues from all over Europe.
Most young people feel instinctively that there is nothing incompatible with being both British and European – many young people are perfectly at ease with this, just as one can be Yorkshire and English and British. Young people are growing up in an interconnected world and a Britain which is diverse, where identities are multiple, where instead of choosing to be British or European, one can be British and European.
The prospect of Brexit is also forcing unwanted choices on people with multiple heritage. Young people with one or both parents from abroad, and who were never particularly bothered about where their passport was issued, are sometimes, for the first time in their lives, having to apply for UK nationality. The same is happening to Brits living in other EU countries:many are applying to become citizens of their host country in order to be sure to continue living in their homes, which brings its own set of distress and challenges, if they lose the entitlement conferred by being a national from an EU member state. Aside from the bureaucratic hassle and cost, it stirs up unpleasant feelings of having to ‘choose’ between identities depending on who they are talking to or what they are applying for. Being offered a job, given a loan or securing a place at university is likely to be harder if you do not have the right nationality, and for those who are lucky enough to have more than one nationality, they are being asked to ‘choose’. Yet being British doesn’t prevent someone from also being Italian or Swedish.
It also means families living in the UK risk being split up. For instance, a family with a British mother and German father might need to reconsider working in the UK over fears that his residency application is rejected. Furthermore, the current UK definition of family unification excludes adult children and family members, except for the sick and elderly. This means that healthy adult children will not be able to live with their parents, and vice versa, thus stopping even those ordinarily considered to be close family from enjoying family life together. Identity is directly linked to who you grow up with, and Brexit might result in splitting up multicultural families currently living in Britain.
Britain’s youngest generation has grown up with uninterrupted peace across western Europe, and has experienced what life can be like when countries work together for the greater good. Yes, this means they take peace and cooperation between EU countries ‘for granted’, and rightly so. But their increased political activism is in part a sign that they are becoming more aware of the need to support a Europe which cooperates and develops together, and for a country that embraces diversity, freedom of movement, and internationalism.