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Generation Brexit: What the UK can teach Germany about the consequences of demographics

Older Britons want to leave, younger Britons want to remain. Klaus Hurrelmann argues that the generational component of the Brexit vote has thus far been underplayed–and that this is a mistake.

The narrow decision by the British people to leave the European Union has plunged the nation into a deep crisis. There are many different causes, but one of them is often overlooked: the Brexit decision has a distinct generational component.

The older population voted to leave the EU by a large majority. Many of them cited a desire to regain their old kingdom, which was able to act autonomously and exert worldwide influence. Numerically in the majority, the older population prevailed at the end, with over 60 percent flocking to the polls to cast their vote.

A vast majority of the younger population voted against leaving. They grew up in an internationally open UK with close ties to other European countries, and appreciate the benefits of this new role the kingdom plays. However, the younger generation is slightly outnumbered by the older population; thus, they could have only compensated for this disadvantage if they had, like their elders, turned out in greater numbers. This lack of strategic insight and a weak voter turnout prevented an outcome in their favour. A few days after the referendum, they took to the streets in protest after recognising the implications of their lack of electoral discipline….too late.

The Influence of Older Voters Is Growing

Thus, the Brexit vote is an alarm signal for the diverging political attitudes between generations and the resulting precarious intergenerational justice of political decisions in all Western democracies. The influence of older voters will steadily increase because every person has a vote, regardless of age. The chance to assert their interests through the democratic system structurally grows from year to year as their numbers increase based on demographic change; this shapes political decisions. As one grows older, one is naturally less willing to embrace long-term perspectives and invest in the distant future. Instead, the focus is on social and financial security.

This is also clearly noticeable in Germany, where the demographic weight of older generations is still significantly higher than in the United Kingdom, as seen in the decisions on pension policy made in recent years. As a result, the older population benefits from increasingly better security in old age, while the younger generation is burdened with a heavy load as soon as they enter the workforce. Moreover, the specific interests of the younger population in the fields of education and training are notoriously neglected, as the dilapidated kindergartens and schools of the Federal Republic demonstrate.

The risk of a structural, intergenerational inequality of political decisions is evident. The representative-democratic electoral mechanisms can easily activate political funds to secure the future of the older generation, whereas it is increasingly difficult to reserve money to secure the future prospects of the younger generation. In the long-term this leads to a loss of confidence and trust. The troubled situation in the UK shows just what that means.

Party Members Tend to Be Too Old

What can be done? One step should be to invite young people to participate in political decision-making much more often. Specifically, this means that all parties must finally make a concerted effort to attract younger members. There is a generational imbalance, not only among the electorate but also in membership: the average age of party members in Germany is almost 60; young members are practically non-existent. A voluntary commitment by the parties could help to reserve 30 percent of the seats for the future recruitment of candidates under 35. In addition, it would be worthwhile to hold a public discussion on reducing the minimum voting age from 18 to 16 or 14, to offset at least a part of the generational imbalance.

The second step should be to appeal to the younger generation’s conscience to encourage them to fulfill their political responsibilities and put aside their feelings of alienation toward parties, elections, and political decision-making. It is up to parents and teachers—but also the media and politicians—to begin a critical discussion.

The ill-conceived decision by the British to leave the EU serves as a warning of the devastating consequences of a generational imbalance in politics. If we want to spare ourselves similar conditions as in the UK, we need to start the political debate on this issue as soon as possible.

This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel on 18 January 2019.

Klaus Hurrelmann is Professor of Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.