Sam Dalton, Public Affairs and Policy Officer

What are the intergenerational connections in the wake of Brexit and what we can do to bridge the age gap?

Sam Dalton, The Challenge’s public affairs and policy officer, was invited to speak at a Better Brexit for Young People event in parliament on Monday 25 June. He spoke on behalf of The Challenge and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, and to go alongside that, he has written a blog about intergenerational connections in the wake of Brexit and what we can do to bridge the age gap.

Political divides between young and old

Looking back, the EU referendum certainly exposed some deep divides between older and younger generations in terms of their political views. We’re all aware that three-quarters of young people voted to stay in the EU, while two-thirds of older people voted Leave. And big age differences in votes were also shown in the 2017 general election – 27% of the youngest age group voted Tory, while 61% of the oldest did; and in a mirror image, 25% of the oldest group voted Labour while 62% of the youngest did. Ipsos MORI says this is the biggest age gap we’ve seen since their estimates started in 1979.

When reflecting on the EU referendum, and how the intergenerational gap has evolved since then, it is, therefore, important to recognise the continuing, and if anything, increasing age divides on political views. But really we should be looking deeper than this as well. The referendum not only exposed stark generational divides on issues such as immigration but misunderstanding and animosity between older and younger people. There was not a mutual recognition of why other age groups had voted in the way they did.

The wider intergenerational gap

Older voters were criticised for throwing away the futures of others, and for racist opinions, without the underlying reasons for their vote being truly engaged with. For example, some older voters who voted for Brexit voiced concerns about public services pushed to the brink by a growing population, while others spoke about national sovereignty. It’s not only that young and old statistically have different political views but also that there has been a lack of understanding of these differences. There has not been enough trust and dialogue between old and young.

This generational lack of communication goes beyond Brexit and political divides, too. For example, we are increasingly seeing a spatial separation whereby younger people are attracted to jobs and opportunities in urban centres - away from older generations living in more rural areas. A lack of regular contact and interaction between young and old has bred mistrust and created a society where political divides are misunderstood and lead to tension and anger on both sides.

The result is a more segregated society, where there is less sense of a common good, and less ability to tackle big, national challenges together. The intergenerational gap is therefore not only bad for young and old people themselves – who are more likely to experience ageist attitudes and mutual tension – but our country at large. Debate and discussion on topics from Brexit to key policy priorities, such as reform of the health and social care system, and ensuring affordable housing for both young and old, will be stronger when people of all ages understand one another from the outset and work towards common solutions.

Despite the political divides highlighted by Brexit, when it comes to the big issues facing our country, including welfare, taxation, and investment in public services, older and younger voters agree much more than they disagree. There is a broad consensus among people of all ages for homebuilding in their local area and for the state to provide financial support for people struggling to afford rents. On welfare, pensions and disability benefits are consistently the top two priorities for both young and old. More broadly, both groups aspire to have good relationships, health, learning, and independence.

There is then the possibility of an intergenerational consensus focused around some of the key social and economic issues our country faces. But how do we ensure young and older people are talking to each other, and have built the bonds of trust that would enable this less divided politics to flourish?

How can we bring young and old together?  

The inquiry into intergenerational connections that the APPG on Social Integration has launched is all about finding innovative ways to bring the young and old together. To really be a success, and achieve a society-wide transformation of how generations interact, an intergenerational connection needs to be promoted across all areas of policy – from health and social care to housing or transport.

There are already some great initiatives that others can draw inspiration from. Care-focused organisations like St Monica Trust are pioneering retirement communities that create opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchange, including between residents and members of the public outside of residents’ family networks.

We listened to a really interesting presentation at the Manchester School of Architecture only last Thursday, where researchers and students are collaborating to design buildings and spaces that encourage mixing between the old and young. The school is also linking with the newly-formed Greater Manchester Ageing Hub, whose age-friendly strategy includes a strong intergenerational focus, and who are working closely with the Greater Manchester’s Youth Combined Authority and Older People’s Network – two bodies that give both young and old a real voice in local policy discussions, and which will increasingly meet to share the experiences of different generations, and coordinate ideas.

There are numerous other examples, too, from older people helping in schools, to younger people volunteering in care homes, and music and art clubs, which unite generations through common passions.

While creating a more amenable and cooperative politics between young and old, the benefits of strengthened intergenerational bonds are much broader than politics. As well as sharing common ground on many important political issues, young and old sadly face many of the same challenges too. Older people suffer the highest rates of loneliness in our society, while levels of anxiety and depression among teenagers have risen by 70% in the last 25 years. Intergenerational connections have a vital role to play in enhancing self-esteem and fulfilment throughout the age spectrum.

Optimism and hope

Our hopes for the future are to drive forward our inquiry into intergenerational connection, learn from the already-great initiatives that exist, and make a case to politicians, policy-makers and local communities to strengthen bonds and trust between young and old.

A whole-society approach requires the public sector, private sector, charities and businesses to get involved. An enhanced intergenerational connection will create the social framework for more cooperative and less divided debates on key political issues, including Brexit, and provide a much stronger platform for both young and old to achieve their goals.