European Youth Caution Older Generations: “Don’t Be Afraid of This Open World”

Viacom International spoke with European youth after the Brexit vote--and found that while they are disappointed in the political leanings of older generations, they remain optimistic about the future

In the days following the Brexit vote, Viacom International carried out a research project to re-contact and re-interview seven European young people who participated in a past study that explored global Millennials’ views of the future. The aim of this exercise was to find out their reactions to Brexit and see if their feelings about the future have shifted.

This is the last of three articles in this series. Earlier posts focused on what the EU means to young Europeans and what they think the impact of Brexit will be, and how they feel about the possibility of restricted travel to the UK.

In this one, we’ll delve in to the rift between the younger and older generations that the Brexit decision has revealed. 

Young Europeans see Brexit through a generational lens

According to a post-Brexit survey of referendum voters, 73% of 18 to 24-year-olds Brits voted to remain in the EU, compared to only 40% of those over 65*.

The young Europeans we spoke to had seen these types of statistics: young people voted to Remain, they told us, and older people to Leave. One of the clearest themes in conversation was that the older generation voted for something that younger people don’t want. And unlike the Scottish referendum, under 18s didn’t get to vote this time – a source of discontent when their lives will be affected.

This generation’s mind-set, expectations and circumstances differ from those of their parents in some profound ways. Compared with Baby Boomers, they are less likely to own property or stay in a job for a long period. The economic downturn hit their sense of loyalty, forcing them to make compromises in their careers. This younger generation has fewer certainties in life than their parents did.

This is an exploratory, adaptable generation. Several of the young Europeans with whom we spoke told us they have many ideas for the future (often including living/ working abroad) but no concrete plan; something one described as taking ‘a fluid approach to life’.

On the one hand, this fluid approach is exciting: it means all sorts of possibilities. Relatedly affluent, educated Europeans have the world at their feet. But on the other hand, it brings stresses, which events like Brexit only add to. Gloria’s description nicely encapsulates the mental strain young people can feel in this climate:

“[In Italy] we [youth] have our way of thinking – that is still developing – that’s about changing, being more fluid. But this is not a climate where I feel I can be fluid because I don’t know what will happen next. I could be fired any minute, the economic situation can change any minute, the banks can go bankrupt – I don’t know what to expect.” (Gloria, 21, Rome)

Young Europeans plead for open-mindedness

Another unifying theme from our conversations was around open- and closed-mindedness.

Young Europeans had heard that a proportion of the UK Leave vote may have been motivated by racist/xenophobic sentiment. And they’d picked up on the Remain and Leave campaigns being driven by fear. The result seems like a victory for closed-mindedness.

This shocked and disappointed young people, not least in the UK, where Jasmine (16, London) said that one impact of Brexit was feeling “more ashamed to be British.” The Leave vote seemed to have shaken her view of the UK as a progressive nation.

Likewise, Maria (19, Madrid) told us that while the UK economy will recover from Brexit, it will have social impacts, such as making the UK seem more closed-off and increasing British people’s sense of being outsiders abroad. In Spain, for example, it may make the climate worse for expatriates. Maria’s verdict was thus:

“I wouldn’t want to become more economically independent if I also became more closed-minded. It isn’t worth it.” (Maria, 19, Madrid) 

This apparent close-mindedness is sad and unsettling to a generation who have been taught to value diversity and international cooperation. Taman (27, Amsterdam) described himself as a “global citizen”. Others were proud to be open-minded, ‘big thinkers’. Luxisle (26, Paris) expressed her sadness in powerful terms, telling us:

“I feel disappointed because [fear of immigration] is not a good reason [to vote leave]: to be afraid of our partner, of another human being. I really want people to be more open-minded and not be afraid of this open world.” (Luxisle, 26, from Paris, now living in London). 

Disappointed, but still optimistic

So far, for the young Europeans we spoke to, the impact of Brexit is symbolic more than practical. It’s not clear what the repercussions will be. Much is unknown.

None of our young Europeans were positive about the prospect of Brexit. The Leave vote was a surprise and a source of sadness. But this generation is pragmatic: they’ll wait and see what happens, reacting to uncertainties by adapting. And despite this setback, they told us they remain optimistic about the future. Something good can and will come out of this.

* Lord Ashcroft Polls (July 2016). ‘How the United Kingdom voted and why