Unless the whole United Kingdom lines up for Brexit confessionals—The Only Way Is Brexit, anyone?—we don’t have much, beyond geographical voting data, to help us understand the souls who just delivered this momentous political upheaval.
But one demographic trend seems clear: The decision to leave the European Union was taken by the U.K.’s older citizens, against the protests of its younger ones. The old left Europe; the young will live without it.
As journalist Nicholas Barrett put it in a Financial Times comment that made the rounds on Twitter this morning, “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.”
A Wall Street Journal average of recent polls found that voters under 50 were staunchly in favor of staying in the E.U. In the 18-24 demographic, polls showed 60 percent of voters favored “Remain,” against just 20 percent for “Leave.” That proportion almost flips for the 65-and-older set, who favored “Leave” 60 to 34 percent. Voters between the ages of 50 and 64 favored “Leave” by six points.
A survey of young people conducted by researchers at Oxford and the University of Manchester found similar results: 62 percent of respondents under 40 planned to vote to remain in the EU (That survey also suggested that more than half those people would not vote.) Lord Ashcroft Polls reported that the 18-24 demographic was pro-“Remain” by a margin of three-to-one.
Polls aren’t always accurate, of course, as we learned Thursday evening. But this finding has been so strong and consistent that it seems impossible to ignore.
Older Britons did have reason to appreciate the fruits of membership in Europe. Their migration en masse to Spain’s Costa del Sol, for example, has been greatly eased by the existence of the European Union. Immigrants also fund U.K. pensions. But older voters, yearning for long-gone glory and fed up with hearing foreign tongues on the High Street, were strong supporters of Brexit.
For young people raised in an era of European integration, though, the EU still inspired optimism and promised possibility.
A decade ago, the British political science professor Stefan Wolff called them the “Erasmus generation,” after the EU’s landmark exchange program that has helped more than 3 million European college students live and study abroad. Wolff isn’t the only one to have projected that the European Union, despite its problems, would engender pan-European feeling in the youth, a culture of cosmopolitanism that would bond member states in ways a currency could not.
In a 2011 paper on European Integration, University of California researchers searched for that elusive European identity that Brussels sought to cultivate through programs like Erasmus. Not surprisingly, they reported, “young people who travel across borders for schooling, tourism, and jobs (often for a few years after college) are also likely to be more European.”
Though a European cultural identity never blossomed in the way EU boosters hoped, support for the Union remained strong among young people across the Continent. The pro-Brexit Gatestone Institute marveled over this finding earlier this month. In France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Greece, it found double-digit gaps between younger citizens’ support for the EU and that of their elders. According to the 2009 IntUne study, only students and university graduates were more likely than young people at large to show support for the EU.
The strongest elements of European integration, like the Schengen Area and the euro, are themselves young, and the United Kingdom was less integrated than most. Would the generation that came of age after Schengen have carried those positive feelings into middle age? Or does their support just represent the idealism of youth—the dreams of a different life that age is bound to bat away?