Tale of Two Youth


When the UK voted for Brexit (leaving the European Union) it will have seemed in Charles Dickens oft-quoted phrase as both the best of times and the worst of times. Whether it was the best or the worst will depend on whether the individual in question voted to remain or to leave the European Union. Dickens full quotation from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities is

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

To read some of the media in the UK, though, you would think that the choice is between the worst of times and even worse than that. One of the contrasts that the likes of remain endorsing The Guardian and The Independent have thrown up is the contrast between young people voting for remain and an ageing generation voting for leave. The evidence that they cite is that the cities with the highest proportion of young people (London, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) voted remain, while the older people that remain in post-industrial wastelands when the young move away where in the areas that voted leave. The other evidence cited is the copious interviews that presumably older journalists did with young people at the Glastonbury Festival.

The first piece of evidence has a very weak statistical basis, but the second is pure journalistic waffle, as evidenced by The Guardian article on how festival goers are dressed and how they voted. The journalist managed to find an ethnically diverse range of mostly young festival goers, with the only votes for leave coming from the only two interviewees with more than a third of a century to their age and who both appeared to be white males. It was a fluff piece for the fashion section, but it managed to conform to The Guardian metropolitan elite viewpoint that the youth vote to remain and it is ruined for them by the older generation, especially if they are white and male. What all of the interviewees had in common was a professional background, which is hardy surprising at £228 per ticket. The Glastonbury crowd might veer towards the youth end of the spectrum, but they are not representative of the youth of the UK, but are the professional elite. They are a world away from the youth unable to find accommodation and forced to live with parents or on the street because their benefits have been sanctioned for missing a bus on the way to the Job Centre. It they were on benefits that Glastonbury ticket would cost four week's income for a youth under 25 and three weeks' income for someone 25 or over.

The notion that there is a difference between voting in areas with larger number of younger people is a more reasonable supposition, but does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. There is no age breakdown of votes, so the only way to judge how the youth vote went is to look to areas where there the electorate tends to be younger. So major university cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, or Birmingham are looked to. Equally the London population can be looked to in terms of it being such an expensive city that many on reaching retirement move out. Yet that reference to London shows the weakness of the argument in that youth is generally defined as 25 and younger, not pre retirement. There is equally a weakness in presuming that the cities that contain England's premier universities contain youthful populations. The standard age range for defining someone as a youth means that many postgraduate students will not come under that definition and nor will most of the lecturers, researchers, and administrators who work at those universities, which are among the largest employers in their respective cities.

A bigger problem for the argument is that it hides from view the youth vote in those poorer rural and post-industrial areas that voted for leave. It is pointless to interview young people who can afford to spend £228 on a weekend ticket and assume that this represents all young people. Even interviewing students and graduates is not representative of more than half of the youth population. Nor is talk of the opportunities of working in European Union countries an option for any but a small percentage of the top graduates. The only people likely to benefit are those who have European connections or obtain work with top employers, while a large proportion of the UK's youth struggling to obtain any employment at all. For many youth in the UK this is the very worst of times in a world of benefit sanctions, zero hours contracts, and long-term unemployment. We do not know if they voted and if so which way. Those young people upset at the older generation ruining their future should spend a little more time concerned about the present of less privileged young people in the UK.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved