I have read and watched with careful attention the complaints made by many of you, and others on your behalf, about the Brexit referendum. For two years and seven months, the internet has been awash with complaints that an older generation has “stolen your future”. Some of these complaints are thoughtful; some are (intentionally or unintentionally) funny; many are somewhat strident. Here’s a few tweets as examples:
Some, as we can see, venture into the sort of language that I had thought you young lot felt was inappropriate. The ‘Deatherendum’ site was a classic example until was taken down. Some of the more absurd of these posts are written by those who are old and allegedly wise enough to know better, and not just Polly Toynbee. Consider, for example, this crassly a-mathematical post by Peter Kellner.
If you’re one of those who wishes to find such thoughts credible, you need to think again. The dynamic of who votes how, at what age, is in fact more complicated than that. Yes, apparently 74 per cent of those aged under 24 voted for Remain. But what in your youthful naivety you are failing to realise is the dynamic of maturation; of becoming your own person as you grow older, and then changing your once youthfully idealistic beliefs. Yes: it falls to me to tell you that by the time you depart this earth, probably the majority of you will have realised how much better a Leave vote was for Britain than a Remain one – and that change of mind will, indeed, happen for many of you not that many years from now.
Those of you who think that the young will conquer the Brexit-leaning majority over time rely on one single idea: that as the young grow older, their beliefs do not change. In this, you are offering a theory about human development: that youths’ beliefs remain constant throughout the rest of their lives. Well, if you’re going to have a theory, might it not be good to study the topic before claiming it’s true? You don’t have to dip too far in to learn much. In doing so, you will find out how wrong you are. Let me help you with your research with the following comments.
The long-acknowledged classic work on the subject of human maturation was by Erik Erikson who describes, I would say poetically but anyway truly, the way the human soul develops through life. Here is a nice (and brief) YouTube link that explains Erikson’s theory. One of his key points (at around minute 3:15) is that for the 40-65-year-old, the most important issue for the individual is “Generativity” – the concern of guiding the next generation – the desire to pass something on to that next generation, be that their own children, their grandchildren, or others. This desire, says Erikson, is the transcendent issue during that stage of life. This link, by the way, goes to a much-cited paper that verifies in particular (table 3) Erikson’s assertion that ‘Generativity’ increases substantially as the individual ages. The paper shows that Erikson characteristics do not differ between men and women; between the different social classes; between sick and healthy people; even, substantively, by educational attainment. But these characteristics, and in particular Generativity, do differ between younger and older people.
Two other books — Daniel Levinson’s Seasons in a Man’s Life (I recommend this article by Levinson that describes his work, which drew extensively on Piaget, Erikson, Jung and others), and Gail Sheehy’s Passages – written many years ago but still relevant – offer, for men and women respectively, a view of the changes that occur in common across all types of person, as the individual grows older. I recommend them in general, regardless of this particular point.
The research is clear: all this stuff is very well known and generally accepted. Not a few of you Millennials will have studied Erikson’s models while at university. Which makes it all the more surprising that the claims – of those of you who are tweeting that sad stuff about the ancients screwing things up, or even managing to get yourselves on the media are getting any traction. Presumably, most of the reason why the BBC or Channel 4 give these thoughts airtime has little to do with whether or not what you’re saying makes sense, and everything to do with the fact that it helps their Remainer narrative, according to which the vote to leave the EU must be reversed.
But ignoring the dynamic of maturation makes little sense. Indeed, I remember that our lot, back in the late 60s, came out with a terrific wheeze: “Never trust anybody over 30”. This got an enormous amount of play, even though I remember being incredulous at the time that older people then started to look at the 18-year-old me as if I was some potential source of deep wisdom, when I knew very well that I didn’t know squat about nothing (to coin a triple negative).
Pretty soon, all those spouting that “never trust” mantra reached the age of 31, and quietly dropped such foolishness. But apparently, the urge to pay veneration to youthful thoughtfulness still exists in the media – especially when what is being said accords with those members of the media’s own desires. It doesn’t matter what your income is, whether you are in a job or not, whether you’re sick or healthy, or what your gender is: as you get older, you change, and the change is overwhelmingly in terms of being more concerned that what you do will benefit the next and coming generations.
Let me try, in a cod-psychology sort of way, to pull out the sort of thing that these famed researchers said about maturation.
The young adolescent and adult starts off as a highly idealistic and open being. Collectivist, what you might call left-wing, thoughts, are attractive to youth (see Clemenceau’s famous alleged quote: “if my son is not Communist when he is 20, I will disinherit him. If he is still Communist when he is 30, I will disinherit him”). Possibly because of a lack of experience in the ways of the world, they cannot conceive that they will ever have a different point of view than this.
Youngsters, according to Erikson, have a major desire to fit in (so they don’t question the orthodoxy of their peers, and the left-wing monoculture of the UK’s schools and universities). They condemn those older people whose experiences have meantime led them to decide that such views are unrealistic.
At any given point in history, the views of the existing cohort of young people will also depend on the prevailing economic environment: if times are good, more idealistic views will be to the fore; if bad, more realistic views will reign. In the UK, for example, those who grew up during the disastrous Labour governments of 1945-50, or of the 1970s, or of the 2000s, quickly jumped to voting for Conservative governments because they were able to see all too clearly what left-wing policies had led to.
On the other hand, those growing up during successful Conservative governments can more easily find it attractive to demand left wing policies, when what they see as imperfections of Capitalists society reveal themselves (and to be fair, Tony Blair’s reign was, for the first half, pretty much a Conservative rather than a Labour government – it was only when he and Gordon Brown unleashed their spending tsunami, leading to a massive exacerbation of the financial crash in 2007-2010, that real left-wing policies were deployed).
It is almost entirely people who did not live through the 1970s, with its appalling train services, who now call for the renationalisation of railways. It is only those who did not have to live through the hunger of rationing in the late 1940s and early 1950s who think that centralised Government control of matters such as food is a good idea.
But, in general, for the young person, idealism tends to rule the day, and naivety about the world leads the young person to condemn out of hand any older person with a more cautious point of view. (Not all young people are like that; a few are preternaturally sensible at a young age, but most are somewhat starry-eyed, I know that I personally was much more of an idealist then, and that I now know how wrong I was.)
Then, somewhere between the age of 20-25 – sometimes a little later for truly late developers – reality begins to set in. For many, it happens around the time the individual is leaving university. Suddenly, the idealistic viewpoint has to face up to the reality of the world. Life is not about getting a student loan or marching up and down with a megaphone excitedly rallying the troops at a demo. Proper rent has to be paid, bread has to be put on the table, the whole elaborate mechanism of making a life for yourself and becoming a truly independent human being has to be sorted out.