I have read and watched with careful attention the complaints made by many of you, and others on your behalf, about the Brexit referendum. For two years and seven months, the internet has been awash with complaints that an older generation has “stolen your future”. Some of these complaints are thoughtful; some are (intentionally or unintentionally) funny; many are somewhat strident. Here’s a few tweets as examples:
Some, as we can see, venture into the sort of language that I had thought you young lot felt was inappropriate. The ‘Deatherendum’ site was a classic example until was taken down. Some of the more absurd of these posts are written by those who are old and allegedly wise enough to know better, and not just Polly Toynbee. Consider, for example, this crassly a-mathematical post by Peter Kellner.
If you’re one of those who wishes to find such thoughts credible, you need to think again. The dynamic of who votes how, at what age, is in fact more complicated than that. Yes, apparently 74 per cent of those aged under 24 voted for Remain. But what in your youthful naivety you are failing to realise is the dynamic of maturation; of becoming your own person as you grow older, and then changing your once youthfully idealistic beliefs. Yes: it falls to me to tell you that by the time you depart this earth, probably the majority of you will have realised how much better a Leave vote was for Britain than a Remain one – and that change of mind will, indeed, happen for many of you not that many years from now.
Those of you who think that the young will conquer the Brexit-leaning majority over time rely on one single idea: that as the young grow older, their beliefs do not change. In this, you are offering a theory about human development: that youths’ beliefs remain constant throughout the rest of their lives. Well, if you’re going to have a theory, might it not be good to study the topic before claiming it’s true? You don’t have to dip too far in to learn much. In doing so, you will find out how wrong you are. Let me help you with your research with the following comments.
The long-acknowledged classic work on the subject of human maturation was by Erik Erikson who describes, I would say poetically but anyway truly, the way the human soul develops through life. Here is a nice (and brief) YouTube link that explains Erikson’s theory. One of his key points (at around minute 3:15) is that for the 40-65-year-old, the most important issue for the individual is “Generativity” – the concern of guiding the next generation – the desire to pass something on to that next generation, be that their own children, their grandchildren, or others. This desire, says Erikson, is the transcendent issue during that stage of life. This link, by the way, goes to a much-cited paper that verifies in particular (table 3) Erikson’s assertion that ‘Generativity’ increases substantially as the individual ages. The paper shows that Erikson characteristics do not differ between men and women; between the different social classes; between sick and healthy people; even, substantively, by educational attainment. But these characteristics, and in particular Generativity, do differ between younger and older people.
Two other books — Daniel Levinson’s Seasons in a Man’s Life (I recommend this article by Levinson that describes his work, which drew extensively on Piaget, Erikson, Jung and others), and Gail Sheehy’s Passages – written many years ago but still relevant – offer, for men and women respectively, a view of the changes that occur in common across all types of person, as the individual grows older. I recommend them in general, regardless of this particular point.
The research is clear: all this stuff is very well known and generally accepted. Not a few of you Millennials will have studied Erikson’s models while at university. Which makes it all the more surprising that the claims – of those of you who are tweeting that sad stuff about the ancients screwing things up, or even managing to get yourselves on the media are getting any traction. Presumably, most of the reason why the BBC or Channel 4 give these thoughts airtime has little to do with whether or not what you’re saying makes sense, and everything to do with the fact that it helps their Remainer narrative, according to which the vote to leave the EU must be reversed.
But ignoring the dynamic of maturation makes little sense. Indeed, I remember that our lot, back in the late 60s, came out with a terrific wheeze: “Never trust anybody over 30”. This got an enormous amount of play, even though I remember being incredulous at the time that older people then started to look at the 18-year-old me as if I was some potential source of deep wisdom, when I knew very well that I didn’t know squat about nothing (to coin a triple negative).
Pretty soon, all those spouting that “never trust” mantra reached the age of 31, and quietly dropped such foolishness. But apparently, the urge to pay veneration to youthful thoughtfulness still exists in the media – especially when what is being said accords with those members of the media’s own desires. It doesn’t matter what your income is, whether you are in a job or not, whether you’re sick or healthy, or what your gender is: as you get older, you change, and the change is overwhelmingly in terms of being more concerned that what you do will benefit the next and coming generations.
Let me try, in a cod-psychology sort of way, to pull out the sort of thing that these famed researchers said about maturation.
The young adolescent and adult starts off as a highly idealistic and open being. Collectivist, what you might call left-wing, thoughts, are attractive to youth (see Clemenceau’s famous alleged quote: “if my son is not Communist when he is 20, I will disinherit him. If he is still Communist when he is 30, I will disinherit him”). Possibly because of a lack of experience in the ways of the world, they cannot conceive that they will ever have a different point of view than this.
Youngsters, according to Erikson, have a major desire to fit in (so they don’t question the orthodoxy of their peers, and the left-wing monoculture of the UK’s schools and universities). They condemn those older people whose experiences have meantime led them to decide that such views are unrealistic.
At any given point in history, the views of the existing cohort of young people will also depend on the prevailing economic environment: if times are good, more idealistic views will be to the fore; if bad, more realistic views will reign. In the UK, for example, those who grew up during the disastrous Labour governments of 1945-50, or of the 1970s, or of the 2000s, quickly jumped to voting for Conservative governments because they were able to see all too clearly what left-wing policies had led to.
On the other hand, those growing up during successful Conservative governments can more easily find it attractive to demand left wing policies, when what they see as imperfections of Capitalists society reveal themselves (and to be fair, Tony Blair’s reign was, for the first half, pretty much a Conservative rather than a Labour government – it was only when he and Gordon Brown unleashed their spending tsunami, leading to a massive exacerbation of the financial crash in 2007-2010, that real left-wing policies were deployed).
It is almost entirely people who did not live through the 1970s, with its appalling train services, who now call for the renationalisation of railways. It is only those who did not have to live through the hunger of rationing in the late 1940s and early 1950s who think that centralised Government control of matters such as food is a good idea.
But, in general, for the young person, idealism tends to rule the day, and naivety about the world leads the young person to condemn out of hand any older person with a more cautious point of view. (Not all young people are like that; a few are preternaturally sensible at a young age, but most are somewhat starry-eyed, I know that I personally was much more of an idealist then, and that I now know how wrong I was.)
Then, somewhere between the age of 20-25 – sometimes a little later for truly late developers – reality begins to set in. For many, it happens around the time the individual is leaving university. Suddenly, the idealistic viewpoint has to face up to the reality of the world. Life is not about getting a student loan or marching up and down with a megaphone excitedly rallying the troops at a demo. Proper rent has to be paid, bread has to be put on the table, the whole elaborate mechanism of making a life for yourself and becoming a truly independent human being has to be sorted out.
Thus, surprise surprise, a major change in voting patterns is seen soon after the student has left university. It may be enraging to be told this, dear Millennial, but there’s a strong chance that that change might even happen to you. Your views on Brexit might start to soften. You might even change your mind and start to regret the way you raged at Granny about how she’d ruined your future. But even if that change does not happen immediately after you leave university, the change will, for most of you indeed come, at one later stage or another in your life. As you step out into the world, most of you will marry or have a long-term partner. You’ll have children. Your entire outlook will change: it will no longer be you soloing in the world, open to new experiences and believing the best of everybody. Rather, your focus will be on protecting the family, building the assets, rearing the children, creating a future for your little unit. Families, millions of them, striving, struggling with the hard reality of daily life, are, as so often has been said, the core of society. For most families, the ideal will never be achieved; there’ll be difficulties, struggles, splits, unhappinesses; but through it all, the individual, as part of her or his family, grows and develops, learns hard reality about life, and above all, feels the danger of a too-oppressive state telling them what to do; making their life more difficult; regulating so many aspects of their life; and above all taxing them in so many ways, everywhere they turn. (It is the experience of paying taxes that so often leads to fairly speedy changes of view as to the relative balance of the benefits, versus of the disbenefits, provided by the state.)
So this stage of life, what we might call the provider or striver stage, leads to a different view. From the numbers, it seems that as regards Brexit, there is a change in the direction of Leave. People at this stage of their life begin to understand that an economic system predicated on “Brussels knows best” is derived from what Hayek called – although your average voter may have not heard the term – “The Fatal Conceit”.
No central organising power can ever know best for the economy: as Adam Smith so eloquently showed, the best economies are those where the decisions are taken by millions of individuals, operating in free markets. The provider/striver sees – clearly or dimly – that across the EU, economic growth has been miniscule compared to just about every other area of the world. They hear of the massive youth unemployment in those peripheral countries of the EU that have essentially been reduced to being colonies of Germany – in particular the Mediterranean countries, but including France and others, and don’t want that for their children. They see the appalling decisions that are made when one country, Germany, is allowed to rule on immigration policy for the whole of the Schengen area and beyond. They come to understand what is so rarely taught in our universities, that organising an economy from the centre is something that has been tried by governments in 100 or more countries around the world, and it has never been successful. Whether the lack of success has been acute – such as in Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, Soviet Russia, and other countries; or merely only partially disastrous – as in Argentina, Greece, Vietnam, East Germany and so many other countries – they can see, clearly or dimly, that the belief that bureaucrats should command things from the centre can, as in the EU with its stultifying Single Market rules, massively depress economic growth. And they can see that the kind of corporate cronyism that a too-powerful centre always seems to fall into – whether it is German manufacturers persuading Brussels to tilt the scales massively in favour of disastrous German diesel engines, leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths across Europe, or Theresa May’s Government’s all-too-close cronyism with the CBI crowd – leads to the discrediting of capitalism, and again, lower economic growth through support of the incumbent rather than the disrupter.
Bit by bit, such strivers learn how proper (not cronyist) right-wing policies lead to more jobs, higher wage growth, a better economy. Family strivers also value autonomy over collectivism, so one way or another they move in the direction of wanting to have Britain out of the EU.
As I say, dear Millennial, for some of you this will happen in your twenties. For others, it may not even have happened by the time your children grow up and go off to become starry-eyed EU-philes themselves. For some, it takes getting into the next phase of life to change their mind. We could call this next stage the grandparent’s, or grey-head’s, stage.
The most amusing aspect of millennial rage about Brexit is the apparent belief that such elderly, who voted in such large swathes for Brexit, were only thinking about themselves, rather than their family’s or the country’s future. There may be an element of projection there. Despite their idealistic beliefs, from what I have seen, young people tend to be rather more self-obsessed than older people,
But anyway, it’s not the case that older people are so self-obsessed. By this time of their lives, many are grandparents, and if you know grandparents, you know how involved they are with their grandchildren, how much they want a good future for them. Generativity, to put it in Erikson’s words, has become so much greater a part of what motivates their decisions. By the time one is into one’s 60s, one is thinking much more about the future, and what is good for the world, than one ever has before. One also – surprise! – has a great deal of experience and has put a great deal of thought into the matter – an opportunity that has not yet been made available for you, dear Millennial.
Idealism versus wisdom: which of these two would I rather have if I wanted a good decision to be made? Is it really that surprising that I would say the latter? May I suggest that, years from now, you too will believe the same?
So, it just ain’t the case that as some of us die, and others of us reach voting age, a massive change in voting patterns, towards staying in the EU, is taking, or will take, place. They say a Conservative is a Liberal who has been mugged by reality. We all get mugged by reality, to some degree, when we leave the protective cocoon of parental home, of university. Some of us take a short time to learn from that reality; some of us take much longer; some of us indeed never learn. But I apologise for having to inform you that you Millennials may, in 40 years’ time, be the most staunch advocates of an independent Britain.
After all, think about this: in the 1970s, those of us who are now 70 were in our early 20s. Guess what? We had a referendum then, and we voted to stay in the EU (or, I should more properly say, the Common Market). Why? Well, we were young and idealistic. It all sounded very hopeful. In 1975, even Margaret Thatcher had a woolly jacket with all the EU flags on it, and promoted membership (of the Common Market, of course, not of the political and economic project that has become the EU).
But now, those very same young people who voted to stay in the Common Market in 1975 have become the 60- and 70- year olds who voted to Leave in 2016. Why do you think that was? Is it so very difficult for you to understand that that same maturation process that we all went through, that made us change our mind, may, possibly quite soon, anyway sooner or later, happen with you too?