Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street ‘I’m worried Brexit has made me ageist,” a friend said, following the shock of the referendum result on Friday morning. “I saw this older couple in the street and just felt this sudden, enormous wave of fury towards them and their generation. It was almost physical.”
In the immediate aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, emotions have been running high. Since YouGov reported that 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 56% of 25- to 49-year-olds voted in favour of remain, versus 44% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 39% of those over 65, the extent of the generational gulf between Generation Y and the so-called baby boomers and their parents has been palpable. As has the anger many younger people including my friend, are feeling.
Over the past few days, thousands have vented on social media. “I’m never giving up my seat on the train for an old person again,” read one tweet. The overwhelming consensus on the part of “millennials” (defined as those aged 18-34), has been that, by opting for Brexit, the older generation has selfishly voted against the interests of subsequent ones. What happens if the people voting against your interests were members of your own family: your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts?
Stephanie is 21, from Merseyside, and was visiting her parents for the week of the referendum. “Right from the moment I got back I was bombarded with questions about which side I was on and why,” she said. “I’m not one to shy away from healthy debate, but my parents completely refused to see things from any point of view but their own, and would deliberately misunderstand my view or rubbish it completely.
“After the leave result, my parents continued to insult and degrade the 48% of us [who voted remain], with my dad at one point getting into an argument with a family friend who is an EU citizen and telling her she ‘should leave if she loves the EU so much’. Even when stories of legitimised racism and xenophobia were highlighted, my parents refused to accept this may have been partly because of the leave vote,” she adds.
The referendum may have ruined Stephanie’s trip home, but it has shifted her perspective. “What was supposed to be a nice week turned into a week of being belittled and endless arguments, and I have never felt so insulted by members of my own family before. As much as I love my parents, this referendum has made me see them in a different light – people who are unwilling to listen to the opinions of others and disrespectful of those with legitimate concerns about what their opinion could lead to.”
Stephanie is far from being the only young person now seeing her family differently. “I’ve been having the most terrible rows with my mum about it, as I’m so heartbroken by the result,” says Alex. “Both my parents voted to leave despite me begging them not to. I tried to explain the effects it would have on my future, and my children’s future – but each time it would just end in the most awful arguments. Now, with the way things are, I feel like I can barely look at them. It sounds melodramatic, but I feel so betrayed by it all.”
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Some will think Alex is going over the top, but the realisation that your parents may not just have voted against your interests but embody wildly different politics and values from yours can be a bitter pill to swallow. Jamie, 28, grew up in a council flat with a single mother who worked hard to make their difficult life better for her children. “I’ve always been so proud of her for all the things she sacrificed for us. She’s warm, kind, generous and funny. She has such acute sympathy that she’s been known to cry hearing about the illness of other people’s relatives. Oh, and she also hates immigrants.”
It is not a prejudice that Jamie shares. “My mum voted to leave the EU because she doesn’t want non-British citizens here. Despite the fact that my brother and I have been extremely vocal about our reasons for staying in, she’s chosen to vote out because she doesn’t like the local Asian population. It makes no sense to me.
“When she tells me wildly embellished stories about how disgusting the local peaceful, quiet, mostly elderly immigrant community are, I laugh at her and calmly tell her she’s wrong. Most of the time, I can see past her views. But right now, I’m angry and ashamed.”
Sarah is also struggling with anti-immigrant sentiments among those close to her. She is the only known remain voter in her family. “I grew up in the Midlands on a council estate where many of my relatives still live, so I do wonder if that has something to do with their choice,” she says. “It came to a head post-result, when a relative asked: ‘How can Remain voters call leave voters ‘racist?’”
“I had pointed out that sharing EDL, Britain First and BNP posts online [means] people will assume you share those views and are likely to call you a racist, homophobe and a sexist.”
After that, things took a nasty turn. “I’m no longer engaging with it. My family isn’t impressed I ‘called my family racist’, and the whole referendum has certainly created a them versus us divide that I don’t think will heal any time soon. I haven’t spoken to any of them since Friday. It’s a bit sore.”
Naturally, not all tales of post-referendum familial disharmony will be so extreme. Where some parents are defiant in their voting choice, for others, a certain amount of guilt is setting in. “My whole family voted leave,” says Emma. “My brother, who is 31, now feels awful about it and wishes he hadn’t even voted at all.
My parents have been staunch Eurosceptics their whole lives, and are pleased with the result. But my mum now feels bad about how upset I am; and all of her friends’ children have been upset, too. We are having very tense conversations.
“I don’t begrudge her the life that she has had – my parents are homeowners who retired early with nice pensions – because she has worked damn hard for it. I’m not even angry with her for voting the way she has, because she has a right to her views. I just feel sad about my own future and I can’t pretend that I’m not. And so she feels bad for making me feel sad, which just keeps going in a never-ending cycle. I feel like we are both hurting and we can’t help each other.”
Jo, too, is cut up about her parents’ decision. “My parents voted out. I was very shocked when I found out how they were voting,” she says. “My parents were anti-Thatcherites, originally from the north-east, and they partially blamed Europe for the loss of industry and jobs in the north. They are not racists and they are degree-educated people who had decided years ago that if the vote ever came up they would vote out.
“They felt lied to in the original vote as to what Europe would become. It seemed to be a vote for nostalgia. I had a hard time picking up the phone on Friday, and I think mum was upset as to how distraught I was about the result. She said she never thought it would actually be out and was surprised. I feel like something has died that we can’t get back as a nation.”
One woman I speak to is so furious with her uncle for voting leave that she is considering not inviting him to her wedding. “I just don’t want anything to do with him at the moment,” she says. “Maybe after a few days I will calm down. Then again, maybe not.”
Young anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street From speaking to young people up and down the country, many of whom are now embroiled in rifts with the closest members of their families, it becomes clear that their reactions to the result are not just matters of political principle, but come from a place of profound grief and betrayal. It sounds dramatic but, for many, the heartbreak is total, because of the futures so many feel they have lost.
One person I speak to, from west Wales, has spent their entire adult life studying or working on an EU-funded programme across several European countries, and is furious that despite this their mother didn’t even bother to vote. Another, who speaks two EU languages, is working on a third, and dreams of living abroad, is furious.
“Now, because of petty quibbles with EU practice, my parents have voted away my right to live and work in nearly 30 countries,” she says. “Everything I’ve studied for, for as long as I can remember, has been thrown away over false constructs of sovereignty and lies about immigration.
“I am presumably one of the citizens who leave voters thought they were winning the country back for. I don’t want their toxic, pathetic little country, it is not mine. If I had anywhere else to go I would burn my passport.”
You can imagine how it must feel, to invest so much of your young adult life into the European project, only to have your parents undermine it. “How could they do this?” is the phrase that comes up again and again.
Some tell me they are leaving the Labour party, dismayed at what they perceive as Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to passionately fight for the EU they so love, or are moving to Scotland and plan to vote SNP, and several mention the Lib Dems’ promise to campaign to reverse the decision if there is a snap general election.
Whatever happens, there is a huge swell of political support among young people for remaining in the EU that clever politicians could potentially galvanise.
In the meantime, young people are reflecting on the fact that you only get one adult life, and it’s one that politicians and parents alike have gambled with. “I’m ashamed of my own mother,” says Jamie. “It’s a horrible feeling. I’m incredibly angry that she didn’t consider the future of her young children who are just starting out in the world.
“We’re graduates, starting our careers and beginning postgraduate studies. We’re newlyweds and nearlyweds, looking for our first homes and who will be starting families in the next 10 years. But when our mum voted, she chose to ignore that, driven by her hate for foreigners, rather than love for her own children.
She’s sacrificed a lot in life to give us the best chances but now, with one little cross in a box, she’s undone all the good she did for us. I just don’t understand why she didn’t listen to her children before she voted.”
Not all young people voted to remain, of course. Emily, 26, voted leave, while her mum, dad and grandad all voted remain. “My mum hung up the phone on me when she found out my younger sister and I had voted leave.
Dad said he was devastated at the result, and my granddad, a second world war veteran, initially told me he was worried for a future he wouldn’t see.” Her younger sister, who is a student, also voted leave.
“Being young, both my sister and I felt we were at the sharp end of the economic crash. She’s saddled with £9,000-a-year tuition fees she didn’t have any say about, and set to work under the dreaded junior doctor contact in a decimated NHS.
I’m still paying nearly half my income in rent. We wanted something to give. Mum and Dad are second-home owners. Grandad has been retired longer than he has worked. The system worked for them.
Now the economic reality is beginning to set in, I’m not sure if I made the right decision. Mum says we all make bad choices, she voted for Thatcher in 79, and she forgives me. Grandad says not to worry, nothing will be as bad as the Great Depression he grew up in.
When he was a child, he was so hungry he ate acorns for dinner and had no shoes. People nowadays need to toughen up, he says. It’ll be OK in the end.”