One day my children will ask me where I was when the UK decided to leave the EU, perhaps prompted by a chapter in their history books or a GCSE essay question. I was at a party at a friend’s house; a group of us sat in somebody’s bedroom, huddled around a laptop screen, rapidly sobering up. There wasn’t one person that evening who came into the room and didn’t express shock and upset at the headline emblazoned in red across the screen “BRITAIN VOTES TO LEAVE THE EU”, and the reactions I watched all around me invited the question: if we didn’t vote for this then who did?
Whilst some 71% of those under the age of 24 apparently voted Remain, just 39% of those over the age of 65 echoed our sentiments. Early reports suggested that turnout among young people was around 36%, but a more recent and detailed study by Opinium has revealed that turnout was almost double that at 64%.
The younger generation came out in force to make their voices heard and yet were still crushed by the overwhelmingly high 90% turnout in the 65+ age group.
The EU referendum has highlighted the ever-growing schism between generations within the UK and, moreover, has demonstrated the power that older generations have over our futures. The consequences of leaving the EU will manifest themselves across decades and many of those who voted Leave won’t be here to deal with them.
An uncertain future
Over two months have passed since the decision was democratically made to leave the EU and, as a new Prime Minister and Cabinet settle into Number 10, Article 50 is yet to be triggered and the future of young people across the country remains cast in the shadow of doubt.
Within days of the vote, many of the promises from the Leave campaign, most notably a pledge of £350 million for the NHS, crumbled under the threat of coming to fruition, and those on the front line of the campaign (e.g. Nigel Farage) had disappeared back into the woodwork.
We have been left asking questions about freedom of travel, study years abroad, the place of international students, our future job opportunities – all of which remain unanswered. As a generation that has never existed outside the structure of the EU, we are being forced to live with a decision not only that we did not want, but that we are completely unprepared for. The ease of travel in countries in the EU granted to us by our ownership of EU passports, the access to medical care whilst in the EU, and the benefits of reduced costs and easy journeys could potentially all be lost to us.
Those of us beginning university, or planning on participating in an Erasmus scheme, and those of us leaving with future plans to work abroad will have to rethink our positions in the institutional structures – such as schools and businesses – across Europe that we once took for granted.
A disrupted economy…
One of the salient promises parroted by Leave campaigners was a crackdown on immigration into the UK, with migrants being blamed for the lack of job opportunities and housing for young people. In the days following Brexit the pound slumped to a 31-year low, and the assurances of economic prosperity have only continued to look increasingly frail. Young people are already bearing the brunt of austerity with tuition fees rising, a housing crisis that disproportionately affects our generation and cuts to services we desperately need.
Leaving the EU risks hugely affecting our trading agreements which will negatively impact the economy, forcing a greater push for austerity, more intergenerational inequality and more doubt over our futures.
… and the culture of fear
However, it is this shifting of blame onto the migrant population and the effects of the Leave campaign’s xenophobic rhetoric that has become the most prevalent issue for our generation. Blaming migration for our current economic state is not only fuelling bigotry in our country, it is totally misguided. Studies have shown that immigrants contribute more to our economy than they claim in benefits, having added £4.69bn more in taxes than they took in public services in recent years.
Certainly immigrants are not a direct threat to University graduates, and are not considered so by the majority of us. They fill a variety of jobs across different sectors and have become an integral part of the way our economy functions.
Having spoken to friends and asked them how Brexit has directly influenced their lives as young people, I found that their answers did not often mention the economy, travel and study opportunities; their chief concern was our responsibility as future representatives of this country and the message that the Leave vote sends out.
Figures have suggested a 57% increase in reported incidents of racism and hate crimes in the UK since the EU referendum. We now live in a country where a Polish family’s shed was burnt down with a note left telling them to “go back to your country”, where people in Sidcup protest outside the homes of migrants with signs reading, “save our children”.
Speaking to friends about the referendum, I note that what they are most shocked about is the culture of fear that the decision has given rise to. A student friend tells me that, “one of the things I value most about being at Uni is the diversity of the students, countries, languages and cultures. I fear a lot for the future of my foreign friends and pity the people younger than me who will have a Uni experience with a far more limited exposure to other ways of life.”
And another friend, who has lived in London since the age of one but is a French citizen, tells me about the uncertainty of his future now: “I used to like the thought of always living in this country but now I’m not sure I even want to.”
Whilst the results of the referendum will have huge, unknown effects on all of our futures, it’s impossible for us to ignore the post-Brexit environment that is already shaping around us. Our attempts to propel this country forward into working as part of an open-minded, global system have been hindered by the decision to leave the EU, shoving us back into a world of bigotry and fear.
It is our duty as a generation to stand up for what we believe in and to use our voices and our votes to enforce change through protests, elections and future referendums. The more of us who vote, the louder our voice becomes.