We can't navigate Brexit without tackling the generational divide

This article was originally published in the Independent on the 25th June 2018.

Political divides between the generations suggest we are more divided by age today than at any other time in modern history.

Not only was age a huge determinant of how people voted in the 2016 referendum but there was a correlation with age and your propensity to vote Labour or Conservative in last year’s general election.

Research conducted by YouGov and charity The Challenge on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration (APPG), which I chair, shows that more than one in four Leave voters of retirement age believe that lower wages for the next generation would be a price worth paying for Brexit. Conversely more than one in four Remain backers aged 18 to 34 would be willing to see pensions for older people reduced if it meant Brexit was stopped.  

Worse still, almost three-quarters of young Remain voters believe older people are prejudiced and a similar percentage of older Leave voters think young people are entitled and unwilling to work hard.  

In 2017, age overtook income as an indicator of voting intention for the first time in modern political history. If you’re aged anything up to your mid-40s, the odds are that you didn’t vote Conservative. However, from your mid-40s, the older you are, the less likely you are to vote Labour.

More generally, political arguments pinning the blame for society’s ills on one generation or another are featuring more and more in debate, where we seem to be viewing people of other generations not as partners but as a hindrance to solving the challenges we face.

This is just a snapshot but we clearly have a problem.  

So, why the division? The relationship between different age groups in our country has changed fundamentally in a number of ways during the lifetime of my parents’ “baby boomer” generation – those born from the early 1940s up to the mid-1960s. These changes have, in turn, led to significant consequences for our politics, collective wellbeing and the future of our country. 

People from different generations are less likely to live in the same place now compared to years gone by. Research by the Intergenerational Foundation shows that children now have a mere five per cent chance of having someone aged over 65 living in their area compared to a 15 per cent chance in 1991, while the level of segregation between retirees and young adults has roughly doubled during the same period. 

I visited Manchester Metropolitan University’s school of architecture last week, where they are conducting studies into where and how different generations live. Their students told me how they came to realise that in their own lives, save for contact with their grandparents, they have very little interaction with older folk.  

I see this myself all the time. For example, when I’ve attended church in rural Gloucestershire – where we have family – I was struck that there are no people below the age of 50 to be seen, whereas the churches in my urban constituency have much younger congregations.

Our increasingly dysfunctional economy is fuelling this demographic polarisation, with age segregation being driven in part by rising housing costs and supply, as younger people have made rental properties in the middle of town and city centres their homes, rather than migrating to the suburbs as their parents and grandparents did. Young adults also leave rural areas and towns for cities in search of jobs and opportunities. They have needed to do so as our economy has become more and more imbalanced. 

This, in turn, has led to a loss of emotional as well as physical points of contact across the generations. As so many of us have moved away from the areas where we grew up in search of jobs, our sense of attachment to our hometowns has waned. As the industries around which whole towns and neighbourhoods were once organised have collapsed, the strong social ties which previously bound the young and old within tight-knit communities have been eroded. And, even when we do live in the same area as a substantial number of people from different age groups, we tend not to meet and mix socially but live separate lives.

It is true that these increasing age divides are in part the byproduct of changing norms and values. It’s only natural that each generation should view the world slightly differently – that is always the case. But people in modern Britain are masters of their own destiny like never before and as a result of scientific and social progress, we are living longer, having children later in life and forming families of all shapes and sizes. These trends are redefining the ways in which different generations relate to one another and see things. 

Why does this all matter? Studies show that meeting and mixing with people of different age groups makes us less susceptible to ageist attitudes, more trusting of others and more optimistic for the future. The net effect of the increasing age divide is to make people more prone to anxiety, isolation and loneliness, putting strain on our health and social care services. This crisis of social solidarity is often most keenly felt by older people who are less able to manage daily life away from strong networks of support. 

As our lives have grown more and more separate, baby boomers, Generation X (those born from the early 1960s up to the early 1980s, of which I am one) and millennials have come to understand the perspectives of one another less and less. 

So, how do we craft a programme that heals these divisions? To start with, it’s worth recognising that common ground between the generations is not actually in short supply. Despite our increasing tendency to juxtapose the views and interests of different generations against one another, older and younger voters agree much more than they disagree on most of the big issues facing our country, including welfare, taxation and investment in public services.   

Last year, while the APPG was conducting its inquiry into the integration of immigrants, I spent some time in Boston in Lincolnshire, the local authority area which voted to leave the EU by the greatest margin. In Boston, I met with a group of older residents as well as a number of local teenagers and young adults and encountered the radically different views which the young and old hold on immigration, multiculturalism and Europe firsthand. I did not, however, come across a great number of stereotypically narrow-minded, ageing racists or many stereotypically zealous “Remainiac” young people. We are more nuanced than our political debate often recognises. 

Any meaningful attempt to bridge the generational schism must include measures aimed at rejuvenating those parts of the UK left behind by de-industrialisation and globalisation. These require proper regional industrial strategies drawn up locally by politicians, businesses, civic society groups and other players working together – they are best placed to determine what it is about their region’s unique mixture of geography, history and demography that can make their area a world beater in the global market place. This will lead to more job opportunities in the area and more of an incentive for their younger generations to stay put than to uproot. 

Measures should be implemented that bring the generations together. In Manchester, mayor Andy Burnham and others have established Age Friendly Manchester, a partnership that works across public, private and community sectors to improve the quality of life of older people and to put in place activities and programmes to unite the generations. I visited one such project co-run by Manchester Cares in Levenshulme where younger and older neighbours are given a chance to learn from one another, to laugh, to tell stories and to build the types of friendships and social networks that really matter in life.  These kinds of activities need to be rolled out on a local level across the whole country.

Shared Lives Plus is a UK network for homeshares and shared lives, where young people or adults needing support are matched with Shared Lives carers who either visit regularly or move in with them permanently. There are other, similar schemes where university students move in with older people on reduced or no rent in return for helping to care for that older person and keep them company. We need more of this.

My colleague, Jo Cox, who was killed two years ago this month, famously said in her maiden speech to parliament that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. She was a passionate advocate of staying in the EU but she was also an advocate of working together, even – especially – when we disagree. What better way to honour her legacy and to sensibly navigate Brexit, than to remember her words in our interactions with other generations? It is, quite plainly, in all of our interests.