The Ideological Gap Part One: Young vs Old
Angelique Richardson hates Donald Trump. Her mother, Edna Miller, loves him.
Angelique sits opposite me in a quiet pub in Tooting, seven months pregnant and still dumbfounded about Trump’s election victory at the back end of 2016. “For me, this transcends party politics,” she says when I ask her how she feels about her Mum, a West Virginian native, voting for Trump. “It’s actually making me question her judgment. Are you racist? Do you fundamentally believe these things? Who are you?”
Angelique is not alone when she describes Donald Trump as “the most despicable human being on the fucking planet”. A generational divide has opened up, both in America and in Britain following the EU referendum, where parents and grandparents have gone one way, and their children have gone another. In Britain, this vote, as well as the recent general election, had a generational factor for the first time since the 90’s, with the young back in the fold. “Participation has been declining.” Stephen Clarke from Resolution Foundation told me in his St James Park office, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, “There was no evidence it was going back up till the referendum vote.” But that all changed, and because of the young turning out to vote “inter-generational issues are back on the table.”
Around 65% of people under the age of 40 voted in the referendum, with a 33 point differential between those who voted leave in the 18-24 demographic and those in the 65+ bracket; a huge margin that caused many young people claim their parents and grandparents had sold out their futures. Unpleasant things were said about the life expectancy of those older voters and the young who would end up having to pick up the pieces. But it is far from a unique situation in the contexts of history.
Joe Skeaping, head of history at Brighton College, is an expert on political revolutions. He argues that young people tend to see the world in 'black or white' terms: as good versus evil. If you look at some of the behavior of young Jeremy Corbyn supporters on social media, this trend is evident. If you support anybody but him then you must be a bad, uncaring person. “This black/white way of seeing the world explains why young people are so excited about revolutions.” Joe told me. You see examples of this throughout history; the French Revolution, the cultural revolution of the 60’s in the US, even the Arab Spring was spearheaded by disgruntled young people keen for change. “There is something characteristically youthful about the idea that the world the previous generation made was corrupt.” Britain and America are yet to descend into full-on revolution, but there has been a shift in the way both sides view their politics: mostly uncompromising and unyielding.
Yet the young appear to be at loggerheads with the generation that spearheaded the Summer of Love, and the Vietnam protests. These acts of counter-culture rebellion would suggest the so-called baby boomers should hold similar values to those they’re voting against.
Bruce Gibney doesn’t think so. A venture capitalist from San Francisco, and one of the early investors in Facebook, Bruce wondered “why we weren’t richer” and when researching the subject noticed that the ‘boomers’ had made some terrible decisions since taking power. “I found their behaviour to be sufficiently strange and frustrating enough to warrant a book.” That book was A Generation Of Sociopaths, a somewhat incendiary title for an otherwise well researched and engaging read.
He is quick to point out that he is not accusing all boomers of gross negligence and self-preservation, but those who hold the levers of power. On Vietnam, he found data at the time that suggested the young were actually a great deal more hawkish and pro-interventionist compared to their parents, who had lived through at least one great war as well as Korea, and far from being the war heroes they have the reputation of being, the ones who would eventually take power tended to use loopholes to avoid the draft, including George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Just like now, it was the poor who ended up fighting a war, the difference being that their age-peers were in favour of the conflict.
Bruce believes the boomer generation voted for Trump and Brexit for entertainment; to see what they can get away with. “They’re insulated by the state and are free to indulge in whatever feels good at the time.” He points out that the elements that will affect the young long-term; national debt, higher education, the environment, were barely mentioned in either the Brexit campaigns or the Presidential debates: “the list of grievances for the young is much larger.”
One key criterion for a vote for Trump or Brexit, according to the Resolution Foundation, is a fear of immigration, an occurrence that I found with most, but certainly not all, of the pro-Brexit and Trump voters I interviewed. A 74-year-old woman from Brighton, who wished to not be named, insisted her vote to leave wasn’t about immigration, before spending half our conversation describing various crimes Eastern-Europeans had apparently committed in her neighbourhood. Tara-Jane Bloomfield from Ipswich explained how her father had lost his job to outsourcing, and had struggled ever since. “I think this affected his view on all immigration,” even though his wife, Tara’s mother, is German.
And Justin Brown, a director of photography originally from Somerset, told me his Mum is terrified of the alleged floods of people coming in from the continent. “I speak to my Mum and her husband and they’re scared that immigrants are going to take their jobs.” The problem Justin has with the older generation voting to leave, however, is the opportunities for young British people to go the other way. It is easy to say that British labour will always be welcome in the EU, but with 450 million other people vying for those jobs, will companies stump up for visa costs to bring a British person in? He continues: “Maybe you didn’t take the opportunities, but at least you had the opportunities. They don’t seem to see that as an issue, that they’re taking that away from the younger generation.”
When I asked leave voter Douglas Finlayson, a recruitment consultant in his 70’s, what he would say to a worried young person about Brexit, he replied he’d been around a lot longer. Despite being clearly very clued up on the intricacies of the vote, he was rather dismissive of the political leanings of the young. After Jeremy Corbyn exceeded expectations, partly due to the 18-24’s getting out to vote, he shrugged off their enthusiasm “It’s probably the thing to do, it’s probably fashionable. I don’t take the views of young people particularly seriously.” He cited that most of these voters were unaware that Labour brought in tuition fees and the Local Housing Allowance (a precursor to the Bedroom Tax) and that young people just wanted their schooling paid for.
Stephen Clarke, however, pointed out that in both the general election and the EU referendum, the age threshold for the leave/remain and Tory/Labour split was around 44, with the vast majority of them past the point of being able to benefit from free university education, “They weren’t going to be bought off by the tuition fees pledge.”
Another accusation consistently leveled at the young from the old Edna Miller was all too willing to volunteer. She chuckled when I asked her about her opinion of the young. “I think they’re the entitled generation. They’re whiners. They think they should have everything handed to them.” It’s a charge you hear a lot of, especially on the right of the media. Those young people who refuse to get off their phone and grow up. That is why they vote for more liberal policies. “Liberal stands for gimme gimme gimme, and they won’t have to do anything for it.”
Bruce Gibney thinks this argument is hypocritical. He points to the fact that Social Security and Medicare are untouchable in the United States, even from the Republicans who should theoretically abhore such policies. It was the only thing Trump and Clinton appeared to agree on during the election campaign, and Bruce believes “These systems can’t be sustained beyond the early 2030’s.” The boomers always win on this issue, and it is such an expensive plan that there is not a great deal left in the budget to do something meaningful with. Could it be that it is the ‘boomer’ generation that is the entitled one?
It is impossible to deny that young people today are in a historically unique position. According to the Resolution Foundation “We know on hard data that their incomes are lower than the last generation’s at the same age, which is unheard of.” They will be the first to be worse off than their parents, and that can be difficult to swallow. In 2013, a This Is Money study showed that if the cost of a roast chicken followed the same rate of inflation of a house in Britain since 1971, the chicken would now cost £51.31. Wages, at the same rate, would be at an average of £87,720, and yet they remain stagnant. Job security is low, it is impossible to save, rent is sky high, the environment is being ignored and now the added uncertainty of Brexit has left the young in an even more anxious and precarious position.
Justin remembers his Dad telling him that Britain had ‘endured worse’. “I just think ‘why would we want to do that?’” Tara-Jane has similar concerns, “I see that my financial struggles will continue as food prices and house prices rise, yet wages will likely continue to stagnate.” Not being able to buy a house is not the be all and end all, but young people mostly feel let down about not being offered the same opportunities as their parents, which includes the chance to set up house. It’s tough to take that, in a great example of ‘passive wealth’, or doing little-to-nothing for the money a person earns, young people’s hard earned money goes straight to the generation above in the form of exorbitant rents, instead of paying off their own mortgage.
Since the initial shock of the Brexit and Trump results, it has been the young people who have tried to figure out why the old voted how they did, with varying results. I interviewed Angelique before her mother, and she successfully predicted Edna’s views on Obama (divisive and racist) on her number one issue (abortion) and her reasons for supporting the travel ban and the border wall (integration). Edna thought Angelique tended to vote more liberally because she moved to the city, and has been heavily influenced by college professors. Angelique is aware of this. “I think they’ve made a snap judgment about me, and have associated my voting patterns with the fact that I’m now in the so-called ‘Liberal Elite’.”
Justin is similarly struggling to find answers. “I just want to understand why. It’s not like your life was bad. It could be a lot worse now, and you’ve chosen that.” It has made for some uneasy discussions and heated arguments, as Justin pushes his parents for answers. They’ve told him they don’t look up to the EU flag, that there were too many rules and that fishing regulations were unfair. Now they tell him to shut up because “They’re sick of having to defend themselves.”
These votes have caused, on occasion, rifts within families. Kat Morgan, a 27-year-old Virginian now living in San Francisco, got to the point where she didn’t want to come home to visit her Trump supporting family, now living in Rust Belt Illinois. “I’m so angry with them, because I know they’re not evil, but how could they do this? I haven’t been able to get any compelling justification for why they voted for him.”
Damages to the family unit aside, it is an intriguing development in politics, this generational split. It is important to note that this may be an anomaly due to the vitriolic nature of the campaigns and the personnel involved, as these generational splits aren’t usually this defined. We will have to see what happens in 2020 in the US and 2022 in the UK for whether this trend continues.
Meanwhile, families will just have to learn to live with the fact they have differing views. Edna still remembers when Angelique rushed home from school to see George W Bush on the campaign trail in 2000. “It’s hard for me to assimilate that this die-hard Republican daughter has…” she laughs to herself, shaking her head. But she knows that politics, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t as important to her. I speak to her on her visit to the UK as Angelique is due to give birth in a matter of days. “I don’t want to talk politics with Angelique. I know we disagree, but I’m here to support her.”