Why are old people getting to decide the future of our country?’ asked one, ‘they’ll be dead soon’. ‘The old just completely f***** over the young in this country’ said another. One, more conflicted, said ‘I will no longer feel sorry for the old people I see eating on their own’. The most extreme tweeted me: ‘Be4 second referendum, EUthanise all people over 60, win referendum and save a lot of money on their pensions’.
Yet even a short reflection should see the holes in these arguments.
For a start, we do not even know what we mean when we say ‘older people’. In a glaring but routine display of inbuilt ageism, most polling organisations counted all people over the age of 65 as one group so no one can even say with much certainty whether there was any difference between different older ages. However, one poll which did break age down in more detail (honourable mention to ComRes) suggested that while 65-74 year old were indeed in favour of Brexit, those over 75 were in fact in favour of remaining.
But however we choose to define older people, it should be obvious that they did not get together and decide to vote as a bloc. There are 11.4m people over the age of 65 and, while around 60% of those that voted said they supported Brexit, it leaves a very substantial minority who did not. You really cannot guess with any likelihood of accuracy whether the pensioner eating alone in a café voted to leave, remain or did not vote at all.
And if we do choose to blame one whole block of voters, where does that end? Are we therefore going to blame all white voters, Northerners, the less educated, disabled people, those who define themselves as English – all of whom voted in favour of leaving the EU? How about all people who live in Hartlepool, Dorset or the West Midlands?
If we really want to apportion blame (though you shouldn’t), does it really fall on the older person who voted to leave or the younger person who did not vote at all: the 18-24 band of young people had the lowest turnout of any age group. Ben Page from IPSOS MORI has estimated that if these voters had turned out in the same percentages as over-65s, Remain would have won. Bloody University students, too busy partying to save the country from itself (or, in reality, poor first time voters forced to make a choice between dishonesty and hype and all sides. No wonder they stayed away).
Finally, we should be careful of assuming that older people must have voted out of self-interest or prejudice whereas younger people voted out of selflessness and public good. This is – by any standards – a phenomenally complex issue on which to hold a referendum. It is perfectly possible to believe that leaving the EU is in the interests of all generations and vote accordingly.
So rather than casting around for blame, the Remain camp should focus on what happens now. We should be campaigning to lower tensions between old and young, not inflaming them.