Time and again the opinion polls of the last few weeks have shown that the vast majority of young people wanted Britain to stay in the EU. On the day of the vote 73% of the 18 to 24-year-olds said they had voted to remain (in contrast to the 60% of those aged over 65 saying they voted leave).
The young have good reasons to stay in. The EU not only offers them unlimited access to the job and housing markets of other member states, it also provides them with many opportunities to get a decent education at very little cost. Increasingly, universities on the mainland offer English-language BA and MA courses and proffer these at a fraction of the tuition fees of English universities. No wonder then that many British students are now studying in Europe. According to The Guardian, as many as a third of British students are considering overseas study.
The risk is that Brexit, depending on what it actually looks like in practice, shatters these opportunities. Whether older Leave voters just simply didn’t know about such opportunities, or didn’t regard them as important, it would be devastating if that is the outcome of Thursday’s vote. Let’s hope that it isn’t.
All the more so since this is not the first time young people in the UK have lost out in the generational struggle over who gets what. While the old have benefitted enormously from the surge in house prices of the last decades, the young are paying the price. Average single workers aged 22-29 now spend 48% of their income on their rent, equating to £746 a month for renting a one-bedroom home. There is growing resignation among young people about the prospect of ever owning a house, as indicated by the steady drop in the proportion saving for their first house deposit. Now only 43 per cent of renters are saving to buy a property.
While the old have seen their state pensions rise by a comfortable 2.5 percent per year or more, young people struggle to make a livelihood working in conditions with minimal job security and little or irregular pay. The number of young people in part time and temporary jobs, on zero hours contracts, and working as freelancers has steadily increased since the 1980s. While the old have seen NHS net expenditure increase from £64.173 billion in 2003/04 to £113.300bn in 2014/15, a service they disproportionately rely on, the young have seen tuition fees for higher education rise from £0 in 1997 to £9,000 in 2012. At LLAKES we are currently writing a book on these worsening material conditions for young people and their political and social consequences.
If we take a closer look at the areas where more people voted leave than remain we find that they have lower than average education levels and salaries and higher than average unemployment rates. Therefore it is likely that the Brexit vote was at least partly motivated by frustration about stagnation, lack of opportunities and growing inequalities, alongside resentment over immigration. As the elderly are also the least educated (and young people the most) it could well be that education level rather than age is the determining factor. We are awaiting analyses to explore this issue.
Thankfully, the politicians, the ones who will have to manage our way through the implications of Brexit, see very clearly the generational differences in the referendum vote. It is absolutely vital that our political leaders take heed of the overwhelming support for Remain among the younger generation in what they do next, and listen a little less attentively to the demands of a group that has been pampered quite enough in recent years.
Jan Germen Janmaat is Reader in Comparative Social Science, Department of Education, Practice and Society / Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES)