After the result of the EU referendum everyone is facing a future with a degree of uncertainty. This is especially true for young people.
Economic uncertainty and recession affect young people disproportionately. They are also hit hard by austerity in recent years through unemployment, low pay and poverty, which has further dented hopes and aspirations.
Many young people feel a disconnect with the political process and a lack of trust in politicians to consider their needs. This is only likely to intensify with the referendum outcome , which largely doesn’t reflect the views of young people, together with their younger counterparts who were not enfranchised despite a Commons vote on the issue.
There is a widespread feeling that the world has changed overnight and opportunities which were once regarded as a valued rite of passage by many young people, such as living and working in Europe, have been removed. The perception is that not only have older generations had it all when they were young, they are also blocking the prospects of today’s young people; as one young person commented on Twitter, “A generation given everything: free education, golden pensions, social mobility, have voted to strip my generation’s future.”
Brexit has revealed divisions in other ways too. Low education and low income were big factors in areas with high support for Vote Leave. Offered an alternative to the austerity they’re experiencing, people grabbed at another way in the hope of a better life. These fault lines, visible at the general election, have been amplified with the EU referendum and made starker – to young people it feels like a binary choice between the concerns of older voters pitted against the younger with the older holding sway.
Yet despite young people aged 18-24 overwhelmingly supporting Remain (75%) it’s estimated that just 36% turned out to vote. Even though staying in the EU was a cause many feel strongly about, young people did not feel that voting provided the answer.
Perhaps Brexit will become a huge politicising moment. Or perhaps we need a widespread, detailed programme to address this, taking a serious look at investing in voting apps and online engagement as well as developing ways of engaging hard to reach young people in the political process and taking a long hard stare at votes for 16s, free from bias over which political parties are likely to benefit from their votes.
In Boris Johnson’s victory speech he addressed young people directly – perhaps acknowledging how overlooked they had been throughout the campaign, and tried to offer some reassurances. Events have moved on apace but Government needs to go much further. Oliver Letwin, who is heading up the negotiation unit, needs to offer young people a place at the negotiation table, to have their views represented and their futures secured.
Meanwhile opportunities for young people are being eroded. David Cameron’s Life Chances programme aimed to encourage social mobility in young people and improve the life chances in the poorest communities. With attention focused on Brexit negotiations, social justice reforms like this one are being shelved or even abandoned. This must not be allowed to happen. Brexit has highlighted that poverty and poor education are fractures in our society; we need vital investment to help young people overcome the inequalities they face, and prepare them for a fulfilling future.
So what’s needed to heal these fault lines in communities? Intergenerational work which brings together older and younger people would be a place to start and needs to form part of a plan to tackle the anger and frustration which undoubtedly contributed towards the Leave vote.
Specifically government should:
- Consider ‘youth proofing’ the impact of its policies and negotiations on exiting the EU, taking young people’s concerns to the heart of discussions.
- Provide a greater recognition of the particular pressures and anxiety of young people. Give clarity and reassurance on issues likely to affect young people such as studying and travelling abroad.
- The new Prime Minister must map out the role for young people as a priority which involves and includes them as a pivotal part of the new vision for the UK.
- Put a greater focus on (and investment into) communities which have been ‘left behind’ by globalisation to ensure young people have opportunities for employment and education.
- Develop a programme of intergenerational work which uses youth work skills to give young people a greater say in their communities and a voice in local politics.
Youth sector organisations have an important role to play in supporting young people to take part in this new conversation. Youth workers have the professional skills to help young people contribute, and support them to speak up. They are able to engage with marginalised young people who are often overlooked and unrepresented, and broker discussions between different groups.
If we are to build on Brexit we need to hear the voices of young people and give them a positive role in negotiating the future of the UK.