Intergenerational fairness and the EU Referendum – our initial reaction

Just a few weeks ago, on 23 June 2016, over 33 million voters across the United Kingdom cast their votes in a referendum on whether or not the UK should remain a member of the European Union, or to leave it. The result of the referendum, announced the next day, indicated a narrow but clear victory for Leave, with 17.4 million votes (52% of the vote) against 16.1 million votes (48% of the vote) for Remain, on a 72% turnout.

The unexpected vote, for what is now often referred to as ‘Brexit’, has upended our political establishment, causing the resignation of our Prime Minister, David Cameron MP; the appointment of a new Prime Minister, Theresa May MP, and the formation of a new Government by her; and the triggering of a leadership contest by Labour MPs in respect of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP. It has also generated some uncertainty economically and in our society more generally in the aftermath of the vote. There have also been some reports of a worrying increase in racist attacks and incidents being documented.

We at The Found Generation did not take an official position on the EU referendum, as we are a cross-party organisation focusing on tackling UK youth unemployment, and the young people involved in our campaign have a wide range of views on the EU. Our focus was, and is, on how we can tackle youth unemployment and prevent a ‘lost generation’ of young people, regardless of whether we stay in the European Union or leave it. Our focus in the aftermath of the referendum result is therefore on young people and how they will be affected by the result.

The result in favour of leaving the EU has led to widespread disappointment, disillusionment and even anger among many young people. This has even led to claims by some young people that those who voted Leave (predominantly older people) have ‘stolen their future’, for example by potentially depriving them of their current rights to live and work in other countries in the EU, preventing them from taking advantage of schemes like Erasmus, and causing uncertainty which could undermine the economy and limit their career opportunities (see e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/26/young-people-vote-anger; http://covi.org.uk/project/a-generation-apart-an-analysis-of-young-peoples-attitudes-to-europe/).

Such reactions, of course, do not fully reflect reality. For example, the UK remains an EU member until we formally leave after reaching an agreement with the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – a process which could take some years. You do not need to be a citizen of an EU member country to take advantage of the Erasmus scheme, as non-EU countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Turkey also participate in it. And while the economy appears to be dealing with some uncertainty and some significant challenges after the result, many of the most dire and hyperbolic warnings of the Remain campaign and their allies do not appear to have been borne out (for example, the ’emergency budget’ which former Chancellor George Osborne MP suggested would be necessary after Brexit seems to have disappeared into the ether).

These sort of reactions also do not take full account of the detail of the referendum campaign and the result, including the fact that a) many young people voted Leave, b) many older people voted Remain, and c) that those who voted Leave (including many in my own family) did not do so because they wanted to reduce opportunities for young people, but because they thought it was the best (or least worst) way to vote in a difficult, complex referendum, with few certainties and few clear facts to pick from. Indeed the campaigns on each side of the argument both appeared determined at times to want to avoid providing voters with the best possible facts, evidence and arguments to choose from (whether that was the Remain campaign’s scaremongering on the economy e.g. the ’emergency budget’, or the Leave campaign’s scaremongering on immigration e.g. on Turkey joining the EU).

However, it is worth looking at how these reactions arise. It is impossible to ignore the fact that of the young people who voted in the referendum, the evidence available suggests the majority voted for ‘Remain’, while the majority of older people tended to vote for ‘Leave’ – and that the older you were, the more likely you were to vote Leave rather than Remain (see e.g. http://covi.org.uk/project/a-generation-apart-an-analysis-of-young-peoples-attitudes-to-europe/; http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/24/meet-the-75-young-people-who-voted-to-remain-in-eu). The reaction is also driven by a number of other factors, including the fact that young people have grown up with the EU and have never known anything different, the fact that older people vote in much greater numbers than young people and did so in this referendum (why young people do not vote in bigger numbers is a much wider issue which there is no room to deal with in this article), and other concerns such as the failure to allow young people aged 16-17 to vote in this referendum.

These reactions are also caused to a large extent by much wider and larger problems and challenges for young people, often summarised under the banner of “intergenerational unfairness”. In areas like housing, employment, education and public spending generally, there is a growing concern that younger people (or younger generations) are losing out both financially and otherwise to older, better-off generations, who are ‘banking’ the opportunities and support that they received, but preventing younger generations from accessing those same opportunities. The EU referendum has significantly strengthened these concerns.

Are these concerns valid? Is there a problem with intergenerational unfairness in the UK? In short, yes. In 2016, young people in the UK are far more likely to be unemployed than their older counterparts; housing prices and rents are becoming increasingly expensive and unaffordable for younger people, to the extent that many are living with their parents for longer, and that many will be unable to buy their first property until they are well into their 30s (particularly if they are buying without assistance from their parents); and the current generation of young people may now be the first generation to earn less than their predecessors over the course of their working lives (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36821582). The ever lengthening periods in which this generation of young people will have to work before they become eligible for the state pension (68 in my case: https://www.gov.uk/state-pension-age) and less generous pensions and pension schemes are also potentially storing up significant problems for the future – when our young people become older people.

One of the most interesting features of the referendum has been what the vote to Leave has shown us about our society. It has not only shown that we have a much more significant problem with inequality in our society generally than many realised – with a notable correlation between many areas which voted Leave and how much less well off those areas were than areas which voted Remain – but it has also thrown a whole new emphasis on the growing debate around intergenerational unfairness. Although these problems – namely inequality between different parts of the country and inequality between older and younger people – are both serious problems for the new Prime Minister and her new Government, it is perfectly possible for the Government to start to fix them, with the appropriate political will and the best policy ideas.

We will continue to push the new Government to implement practical, realistic, evidence-based policies with cross-party support to tackle youth unemployment. However, we will now also pay much closer attention to the wider debate around intergenerational unfairness, how this relates to our work and how we can contribute to it, particularly in light of Brexit. This fits well within our mission of tackling youth unemployment and preventing a lost generation of young people. Indeed we have already started to pay closer attention to this debate. On 29 June 2016 we were invited to speak at a meeting of the Intergenerational Foundation (www.if.org.uk), an independent, non-party-political charity that exists to research fairness between the generations in order to protect the rights of younger and future generations in British policy-making. We were delighted to be invited to speak to them at their first meeting after the referendum and to discuss the work The Found Generation does, as well as the impact of the referendum on young people, why voter turnout is lower among young people and how to respond to the referendum. We hope to work closely together in future on issues of youth employment and intergenerational fairness. We are entirely in agreement with their central argument that government policy and spending must be fair to all generations – including not just those who are older, or younger, but also future generations who are still to come.

We also welcome the creation of the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission (http://www.intergencommission.org/), launched recently in London, and we would be happy to get involved in this however possible. We are delighted that there is such a wide range, breadth and depth of experience, individuals and organisations involved in the Commission, as members or on the Technical Panel, including David Willetts (who was one of the first politicians to really ‘get’ the issue of intergenerational fairness), as well as the CBI, TUC, Bank of England, Intergenerational Foundation and many others. We are also delighted that the Commission has been set up in the first place – as it is a timely and important response to a critical issue – and that the Commission appears to recognise that fixing issues of intergenerational unfairness may be as important as securing a successful exit for the UK from the EU (http://www.intergencommission.org/blog/renewing-the-intergenerational-contract-could-be-as-important-to-future-generations-as-a-successful-eu-exit/).

However, the way the Intergenerational Commission has been set up is just further proof of the need for a group like The Found Generation, and why we are still relevant four years after our creation in 2012. Our purpose is and has always been to campaign as a cross-party group of young people, on behalf of young people, in relation to youth unemployment, and to ensure that young people are properly represented in relation to debates and discussions which concern them. Yet, of the members of the Commission, none appear to be a young person, or in any way representative of or able to speak for young people. There is also a similar lack of representation on the ‘Technical Panel’ supporting the Commission (http://www.intergencommission.org/about/), with only one young person that we are aware of (David Kingman of the Intergenerational Foundation) on the Technical Panel.

One of the reasons we have high youth unemployment and significant intergenerational unfairness is that young people are not properly consulted on or involved in discussions or decisions about their own future. For an Intergenerational Commission, which is intended to promote fairness between the generations, and in particular to promote greater fairness and opportunity for younger people, it is a mistake to have so little representation from the younger generation you are trying to help. When young people continue to be shut out of initiatives like this, is it any wonder that they feel disillusioned and do not feel like they are being listened to?

So our first substantive effort in responding to Brexit and the growing intergenerational fairness debate will be a small but significant one – to campaign for any and all initiatives which are relevant to young people, whether relating to intergenerational fairness, Brexit or other issues, to have young people represented on or involved with them. This should start with the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission, who we will be writing to shortly on this subject.

The young people involved in the Commission or other initiatives could be volunteers from our organisation and could bring our four years of campaigning, research, engagement with young people and politicians and our expertise on and personal experience of youth unemployment (as well as wider issues such as housing). Or they could be from other organisations such as Youth Employment UK, the British Youth Council or some of the many other youth-led organisations around the country.

We will also look at this more generally – for example we are very interested in COVI’s call for the Government to run a public consultation to ask young people for their views on Brexit (http://covi.org.uk/project/a-generation-apart-an-analysis-of-young-peoples-attitudes-to-europe/), which fits in with our call for a Minister for Youth Employment with a specific responsibility to consult young people on key decisions.

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