Media coverage following the Brexit vote depicted a battle between British millennials and baby Boomers for the future of their country. Widely reported was the younger generation’s fury at having lost – but is it justified?
Politics is tribal; it divides us into groups whether we like it or not. The fault lines are endless – racial, religious, sexual, socio-economic, regional, psychological, generational. Yes, even generational. But rarely does a vote so vehemently pit the young against the old in such a fashion as the recent Brexit vote.
Evidence of the fallout is clearer than an average English day. “You’ve stolen our future” ran headlines. Leave voters were viciously ridiculed by Remainers citing an increase in Google searches for the phrase “What is the EU?” immediately after the decisive vote. And if that weren’t a barometer of the growing animosity, some even suggested that suffrage for the UK’s baby boomers, who were not only labeled as uninformed but bigoted and xenophobic, ought to be reduced. It appeared as if parents had universally earned the ire of their children. The vote began to seem more like the first shots in a war not yet fully in swing, a war between generations with very different plans in store for their country. War there may be, but was the youth’s reaction to the vote justified?
Regardless of the real effects of Brexit (which have not yet come about), the outrage deserves censure.
For one, British millennials’ reactions suggest a fatalism antithetical to their usual optimism. A generation that so openly embraced LGBT issues, the Arab Spring, and movements to address wealth inequality seems to believe Brexit is an economic Armageddon. They see it as the death knell for the EU, whose ultimate goal--along with globalism--is the dissolution of bordered nation-states. This duality of thought is absolutely in contradiction. Rather than accepting UKIP’s agenda as inexorable, twenty-somethings should characteristically seek to mitigate its implementation with their can-do spirit. In light of their usual vim and vigor, millennials have no excuse to wax melancholic about the results of the latest vote.
Second, Britain’s Generation Y has no excuse to complain about their lost future when they did not turn out in larger numbers. Statistics already show the youth vote to have been lower than anticipated--as low as 36% for the 18-24 age range. That means a whopping 64% of that age group didn’t bother showing up on D-day. If in the wake of such a crushing (but narrow) defeat, millennials are willing to speak of a stolen victory, they ought to have made a much stronger effort to vote. Online information regarding registration and voting was available, and a generation that unequivocally espouses the virtues of being “plugged in” should have been able to increase their turnout. In fact, their very connectedness to the electronic world makes their potential for mass organization far greater than baby boomers, who more often vote in-person and spread the word by word of mouth.
Finally, post-Brexit millennial rage is ageist. There is a delicious irony when a generation offended by all forms of discrimination discriminates against a generation they accuse of bigotry. Proposing blanket disenfranchisement of any sort, whether in earnest, anger, or humor, is hardly acceptable in rational public discourse.
And what about that smoking gun, proof positive that baby boomers hadn’t a clue what they were voting for when they fatefully marked “No” in ink or pencil? Shockingly, the data was reported without any consideration for alternate suggestions. Fortunately for advocates of privacy, so numerous in the haunts of Europe that the “right to oblivion” or le droit d'oubli is guaranteed in the EU, Google is not privy to the motivations behind any searches whatsoever, nor do they possess the age of the searchers. How do we know baby boomers were looking for information on the EU? What if millennials, who have greater access to the internet and failed to vote in greater numbers, were looking into what they had just lost. And even if the aging generation was behind all those searches, who’s to say they didn’t know what the EU was. They could have used that phrasing as a heuristic to gain more information on the EU in general; it doesn’t follow that they knew nothing about the EU in the slightest. Aided by the international media, British millennials pushed a narrative unsubstantiated by the evidence at hand.
The take away is this: notwithstanding the coming effects of Brexit, be they good or ill, millennials don’t deserve sympathy for their anger at baby boomers, nor should they be furious just because they lost the vote. A more robust Get Out The Vote effort and cooler heads might have earned them their sense of betrayal. Then again, many members of the “Me Me Me Generation” likely bore less animosity than reported, given their low turnout. If anything, intergenerational war makes a better headline than it does a fact.
Follow this author on Twitter @TroyWerden