Guest Post: Who’s alienated now? Young people and the EU referendum


           By Dr. Emily Rainsford

For a long time youth scholars, including myself, have been arguing and showing empirically that young people are not apathetic or non-political. Instead we have argued that they are alienated from the political system that they don’t see as doing anything for them. Suddenly, in the wake of the EU referendum we see a new pattern. The younger generation turned up to the polling booth and voted to remain in the institution so many older people feel disenfranchised and alienated from. What is going on here?

The big divides: class and age.

Post-referendum analysis has shown that there were two big divides in the electorate, one along socioeconomic class lines and one along age lines. These two sources of discrimination are often intertwined, where an older middle class person is always better off than a young working class person. However, what I am interested in here is the age dimension, as this has been the main factor in the debate about young people’s political (non) participation.

Youth VotingThere is of course some controversy surrounding how many young people actually turned up to vote, where initial polling suggested a continuation of the trend of low youth turnout, whilst more specific research suggested that around 63% of 18-24 year olds turned up. We also have to take in to consideration that the turnout is calculated based on those who are registered to vote. Reports after the introduction of individual voter registration saw 1.4 million names fall off the electoral register, with a particularly sharp decline among first time voters.

Brexit Lord Ashcroft

Even so, as seen in figure 1 (left) of those young people (18-24) who did turn up 73% voted to remain, in contrast 40% of over 65s voted to remain. Sure, these may not be the alienated youth, because they wouldn’t turn up to vote in the first place. But we still see a sharp contrast in generational preferences.


Setting out the opposing arguments

The Remain arguments focused on the economy, both private in terms of food prices and national in terms of jobs and the investment in the UK from Europe. It also appealed to even more personal aspects such as ‘risks to your holiday if we leave Europe’. Considering that the polls for a long time indicated that young people were pro-EU it is surprising that the Remain campaign did not play more on the benefits of the EU to young people and future generations. The campaign was not particularly radical, nor very youth friendly. When you’re already struggling to get that first permanent job and get on the housing ladder or just an affordable private rented flat, the risk of holiday prices going up or mortgage prices increasing is none of your concern because it is not within your reach and reality.

EU and UK flagThe Remain campaign did not specifically mention young people or any the benefits to young people that the EU has brought, from education opportunities to investment in their training and employment. I accept that electorally it is not clever to try to mobilise a group that is least likely to vote, but in this case young people cared, and they cared a lot. The total lack of mention of the benefits of the European Union to young people is rather arrogant; if you don’t address the concerns of young people they won’t follow you. If they’re invisible in your campaign, they won’t come to the polling booth. We see with the rise of Momentum in the labour party that a slightly different message can mobilise the younger generation even to formal party politics.

Lastly, neglecting the youth angle also presumes that the baby boomers and are pretty selfish, because even they can see that they have received better support from the state than the millennials, ranging from pension contribution to funded or free education. Even they know that it was easier to get a job and a decent house when they were young. By not bringing in the youth angle to the Remain argument the campaign missed the trick of intergenerational solidarity. Telling the oldies that their children’s and grandchildren’s life opportunities will be seriously affected for the rest of their lives could have prompted some feeling of empathy and understanding that could have swayed some older Leave voters to reconsider.

BrexitThe leave campaign relied on a rhetoric of taking back control over our borders, our economy, our trade and our laws. It suggested that too much power had moved to Brussels and the link between the citizens and the decision makes had been widened – not just constitutionally but also geographically. Nigel Farage, the main leave proponent, painted Brussels as a place full of no-named political elites and bureaucrats. He also made the referendum seem like a Goliath moment for the ‘ordinary decent patriotic British folk [who] took on the rich bankers, the corporate elite’.  Whilst some facts of the Leave campaign were proven wrong and the leaders backtracked on many of their main campaign promises, such as the ominous £350 million statement and controlling immigration (the day after the referendum) the leave campaign managed to tap in to a deeply held sense of anti-establishment and anti-politics.

What is surprising here is that it is young people that are normally associated with the strongest feelings of anti- politics, political disenchantment and alienation from the political elites. This time it was clearly the older generations who held these views, and very strongly so. Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but this rhetoric of opposing political elites, appealing to a sense of disenfranchisement should have attracted more young people than it did, if we have been somewhat correct in our assertions that young people are more alienated than adults.

So what is going on here?

  1. Citizenship education might have worked. The indications from polling is that young people are more tolerant, liberal and pro-EU. In this referendum they did turn up to the polling booths and they did engage with formal politics. The encouragement of liberal tolerant values and increased political engagement in elections has been one of the main aims of citizenship education since its introduction in England in 2002. As encouraging this might be, it is probably not all that is going on, because we still saw low turnouts (43%) in the 2016 General Election.
  2. We have ignored the alienation and disenfranchisement of adults. This is only partially true and there are some good projects promoting democratic participation -but nothing on the scale of citizenship education. Maybe it is because adults are harder to reach but this is a real issue that our policy makers cannot turn a blind eye to. Why is it that young people’s alienation, anti-establishment and disengagement warrants research and policy money, whereas adult anti-establishment(ism) gets its own party? It has a lot to do with….
  3. The risky business of youth. Young people are subject to a lot of socialisation and control, through compulsory education for example, because of the potential for failed transitions and the dangers that would entail. A young person contains both a risk and a potential at the same time, and at any point a mishap or wrong step can create a ‘risky youth’ instead of a good citizen of the future. We know that many patterns of adulthood, from drug use and criminal behaviour to volunteering and political participation are established in the years of youth. Citizenship education is a big part of this. But because of this status of society we have perhaps focused too much on young people’s alienation rather than the deeply held alienation of the older generations.

Where does it leave us?

Vote HereWe might not have been wrong in our assertions that young people are more alienated than adults. They did still turn out to a lesser extent than adults, and young people are less likely to have registered to vote. Perhaps we are also talking about different kinds of alienation, where adults feel pointlessness whilst young people feel powerlessness. Young people are disappointed and ignored. Many adults have a deep sense of alienation, based on feeling left behind and disappointed with the political elite – and in this case it has a consequence for young people. The point is that we have to take this seriously – we have to start addressing the deep marginalisation and abandonment that is felt by many in society, young and old. Because it is alienation and marginalisation that poses a threat to our liberal democracy, no matter the age of the citizen.

Dr Rainsford is a research associate at Newcastle University working on the CUPESSE project – a comparative project on youth unemployment in Europe. Her background is in young people’s political attitudes and participation, especially those (few) who are very politically active. She is also one of the convenors of the Political Studies Association’s Young People’s Politics Group – which you can find out about here. Emily can be found tweeting at @EmilyRainsford


Categories: Politics

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4 replies

  1. Thanks, Emily for this insight into the contradictions around age and the referendum outcome, although I’m always cautious about age as an explanatory category when separated from class, gender, race… And for what it’s worth I’d suggest that liberal democracy itself is part of the problem rather than the solution. Will link to your thoughts on IDYW. Cheers.


  2. Hi Tony, Thanks for reading and engaging with the post! Of course age interacts with other sociodemographic characteristics, and the ‘group’ of youth is very diverse with different needs. Thanks for your thoughts!



  1. Guest Post: Who’s alienated now? Young people and the EU referendum – Exploring Youth Issues « IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK

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