Heaven has no rage
like love to hatred turned
nor hell a fury
like a young person spurned; at the ballot box by their grandparents.
So the old saying goes.
On Friday, Theresa May set out her proposals for a two-year transition period after Britain leaves the EU in 2019, in an attempt to kick-start negotiations.
It’s now been 15 months since the overwhelming majority of under 30s voted Remain, or to put it another way, it’s been just over a year since we voted to leave the European Union.
In that time, we’ve seen a surge in young people voting in an unexpected election, stark age divides on political preferences not seen for generations, and last week our foreign secretary questioned the allegiances of young people who stubbornly seem to still like the EU.
Threats of resignation, do-or-die speeches in Italy and a government in turmoil used to be like almanacs — you could count on them to appear once a year. Apparently, the Cabinet have not read The Mourning Bride or my interpretation of William Congreve’s greatest work.
So, is the post-Brexit inter-generational divide real? Have the old sold out the young? Do young people care about politics now? Is it too late?
Firstly, let’s look at the numbers. Polling suggests as much as 70-75 per cent of under 25s voted Remain in last year’s referendum. That percentage is matched (although outweighed by far larger numbers) for over 65s.
This is an inherent risk of referendums — you can very easily divide a population. David Cameron’s government falls and Theresa May makes explicit in her first speech as prime minister her desire to tackle injustices within society — such as the life chances of young people.
It’s not unfair to say that her government’s action on the issues of young people — tuition fee debacle aside — has been disappointing to many. Polling post-generation election shows her dogged persistence in pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ drove lots of young people into the open arms of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Then, YouGov released polling this summer that showed that 60 per cent of Leave voters are ready for a severe economic downturn as a consequence of Brexit, and 40 per cent are okay with themselves or their family members losing a job because of Brexit. Sir Vince Cable subsequently called the ‘martyrdom of the old, cheap’, as it (broadly) won’t be their jobs that they’re willing to give away, but their children’s.
Now, there’s always been a tension between what has been called the ‘inter-generational compact’ — how different generations interact with each other, and value each other in society.
It’s just that it feels like Brexit is the thin end of the wedge. Policy makers and influencers — lobbied by and made up of, older people — have created vast inequalities in wealth, life chances and job prospects between generations.
Young people were already the hardest hit by the global financial crash of 2008 (I’m aware it would be crude at this juncture to point out it was not my 15-year-old friends and I who caused this) and Brexit appears to be the same.
This all fits within a broader context of younger people feeling sold out by the generations before them.
Indeed, the Resolution Foundation believe that this generation may be the first generation to record lower lifetime earnings than our parents.
Unlike the generations before, we’re unlikely to be able to buy our own home (or for many of us, leave our parents’), we’re burdened with thousands of pounds of debt for an education that used to be free, and the job market is effectively broken.
So, not wilfully or necessarily willingly, older people have hurt younger generations. What to do about that is up for debate. Do we stop Brexit — the most obvious act of self-harm this country has made since World War Two? Do we divert state resources away from triple locking pensions and towards building more affordable housing? Do we raise the minimum wage (including for apprentices) for young people and scrap Trident? How do we involve young people in policy influencing and decision making — not least by lowering the age of voting to 16?
Any or all of these things may just be music to the ears, and have a potentially final chance of soothing those savage millennials.
It’s clear that this isn’t a short-term risk to the future of a Conservative government. Policy decisions which will impact young people today will impact everything from their life chances to their civic engagement for generations to come. A lost generation that loses faith in our democratic institutions, is a lost generation of voters, community organisers, and members of civil society.
It’s a generation that’s been burned, and spurns in turn.