06/22/2016 03:33 pm ET

This Is Not Your Grandma’s First Brexit

The Brexit debate has exposed a generational divide in the U.K., but talking to older voters might help bridge that gap.

Neil Hall/Reuters
Older British voters are much more likely to support leaving the European Union than younger voters, but their views are far from uniform. Above, participants in a pro-EU referendum rally in London on Sunday.

The U.K. is starkly divided over Thursday’s referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union. Polls show that proponents of leaving and remaining in the EU have been locked in a neck-and-neck race for months.

These divides don’t fall neatly along party lines, however. The greatest divisions are socioeconomic, regional -- and above all, generational.

The latest YouGov poll found that 64 percent of respondents ages 18-24 want to stay in the EU, while 24 percent support a "Brexit," or a British exit from the 28-country bloc. Meanwhile, the figures for respondents ages 65 and over are almost the opposite -- 58 percent of them support a Brexit, while 33 percent want to stay in the EU.

As one British journalist summarized: “The fewer wrinkles you have, the much more likely it is that you want to remain in the EU; the thinner your hair, the much more likely you are to yearn for Brexit.”

Since older people tend to vote at much higher rates than younger people, this poses a problem for the "in" camp. Campaigns such as "Bite the Ballot have tried to drum up more enthusiasm from young voters, partnering with Starbucks, Uber and Tinder to promote the upcoming referendum.

Toby Melville/Reuters
Young voters have much lower turnout rates than older voters, posing a dilemma for the pro-EU campaign. But these young racegoers had no problem showing their enthusiasm for the referendum in June.

Liam Brennan, a 34-year-old advertising executive in London and a fierce supporter of staying in the EU, worried that the "in" campaign risks preaching to the choir.

Last Thursday night, with just one week to go before the referendum, he sat down to create the website, an appeal to young Britons to reach out to their grandparents and persuade them to vote to stay in the EU. The site includes a cheat sheet of discussion topics on the referendum.

“Everyone's Nan is important, but your Nan can also prevent the UK leaving the EU,” the site reads. “It's time for an intergenerational chit chat.”

Brennan said his strategy was to “use the passionate, under 35-year-old audience -- who are posting about the EU referendum in their social feeds but to people who already think in the same way -- and get them to try to sway the older segment, who still read traditional media and aren't exposed to a variety of sources and arguments beyond immigration and identity.”

His website echoes official appeals -- Britain’s education secretary earlier this year urged young people “to go out and make the case to others, and in particular, your older friends and relatives.”


At least some grandmas didn’t take kindly to this approach.

“I am a Nan, with my own mind, and I have already voted. I have kept very quiet during this campaign, but I find it offensive and ageist that you think older people need to be told to vote,” Libby Williams, a grandmother living in London, wrote on Facebook in response to “I try always to persuade younger women to use their vote as women died to get them the vote. Stereotypes are good for nothing. P.S. I go to Zumba as well!” 

Analysts and commentators have suggested many possible reasons for the generational divide: Younger voters are more educated, more cosmopolitan and more risk-averse when it comes to their futuresnational sovereignty and independence matter more to older voters, who are more concerned about immigration and have been consuming news from Britain’s Euroskeptic press much longer.

I find it offensive and ageist that you think older people need to be told to vote. I try always to persuade younger women to use their vote as women died to get them the vote. Stereotypes are good for nothing. Libby Williams

The data does show that generational priorities diverge. According to the recent YouGov poll, the top factor influencing the referendum vote of respondents under 50 is the economy and jobs, while for the most important issue for those 50 and over is Britain’s right to act independently.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Younger voters are most concerned about how the EU referendum will affect the economy and jobs, according to a recent poll.

Young voters may feel their elders are out of touch, but members of the older generation have a powerful retort -- this is not their first Brexit referendum, and perhaps younger voters have something to learn from their experience.

In 1975, the U.K. voted in its first-ever national referendum on whether to remain a part of the EU's precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC), which Britain had joined two years earlier. In the end, 67 percent voted to stay.

Separated by four decades, there are striking parallels between the two referendums. In both cases, a new leader from a traditionally Euroskeptic political party came to power, pledged to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and then gave people a vote on membership. Both times, the prime minister campaigned to remain in Europe with the support of the political opposition, while a vociferous branch of their own party demanded to leave.

But there's one notable reversal -- in 1975, the ruling Euroskeptic party was the center-left Labour Party, and today, it's the center-right Conservative Party.

P. Floyd/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Then-Conservative opposition leader Margaret Thatcher wears a sweater with European flags as she campaigns to "Keep Britain in Europe" in London in June 1975.

A major reason for the political shift is that in 1975, the EEC was made up of nine countries, and the debate over membership focused primarily on economic issues -- Labour Party members were concerned about protecting British workers, and Conservatives were firm advocates of free trade.

Today, the EU has 28 members and a vast array of functions, from protecting human rights to facilitating the free movement of citizens between nations. Conservatives are concerned about bureaucracy and national sovereignty, while trade unions say that EU policies actually help protect workers' rights and jobs.

There are other major differences. In 1975, migration was a fringe issue in the referendum. The EEC didn’t yet allow citizens to move freely between states, and economically struggling Britain was, in any case, more concerned about people leaving the country than entering. This year, migration has been front and center in the debate, spurring xenophobia and scaremongering from British nationalist groups.

Keystone/Getty Images
"Out" campaigners in May 1975. In the end, 67 percent of British voters chose to stay in the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU.

Members of the generation that voted in the 1975 referendum and watched Europe develop into what it is today have strong feelings about Europe, and they are far from uniform.

Gransnet, a British social networking site for older people, surveyed around 1,000 of its users earlier this year. Of those who voted to stay in the EEC in 1975, 36 percent said they would now vote to stay in the EU, while 38 percent said they would vote to leave.

The WorldPost asked users of a Gransnet online forum if and how their views had changed since 1975. Here are some of their responses, which have been lightly edited and condensed:

“I was born in 1943 and will be 73 in August. I voted 'in' last time we had a vote, but feel we were grievously hoodwinked. We were told this was to join a major trading bloc and the rest of the agenda was kept very quiet. Is it the same this time? What is on the secret agenda, for I am sure there is one!

I have already voted by post, and am definitely a Brexit voter. I hate the way our sovereignty has been eroded and power seized by the unelected and seemingly unaccountable EU. We are a very old democratic country with a long and proud history, which has never been subject to foreign rule -- unlike most of the European countries. We do not need to be part of what is looking more and more like a federal body.

I think the EU will implode anyway. All empires are doomed eventually, and the EU is no different. Would we be applying to join it today if we were not already in? No way!”

-- Kate Wheelwright, 72

“I voted for the UK to enter the Common Market too. Back then, I liked the idea of a federal Europe. Now I don't. The undemocratic treatment of Greece after they voted for a slower pace of austerity measures was one of the deciding factors.

I grew up in Yorkshire and Lancashire. I was living in Dundee in 1975, and was a student at the university there. For the last 10 years, I've lived in Argyll, Scotland, and at the moment, I'm studying botany and being a gardener.

I'll be voting 'out' on Thursday, though I suspect the 'remainer' vote will win. As I understand it, Greece had a general election in 2015 and the Greek anti-austerity party Syriza won. However, under pressure from the EU Troika, Greece was forced into hefty austerity measures that have been devastating for many Greeks. Not what they voted for. For me, the main issue about Europe is individual countries' democracies seem to be being undermined.”

-- Helen Ap-Rhisiart, 60

“I voted in the first time and will be voting 'remain' this time. In the years between, my husband has worked for a British company in Europe, earning money for the British economy, my son has lived and worked in Spain for over 20 years and we have retired to France. I want those opportunities for free movement to continue for the generations to come.

Whilst I do not think the EU has got everything right in the last 43 years, I firmly believe that we are better off having a voice and working in partnership in Europe, rather than looking back to some mythical vision of the past.

I have watched in horror as sections of the British press have, for many years, printed distortions, exaggerations and downright lies about the EU and people have fallen for it. I think that leaving the EU would be a short, medium and long-term catastrophe for the British economy, impacting most on our children and grandchildren.”

-- Mamie [preferred to withhold full name], 66

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Voters who participated in the 1975 referendum have a unique perspective on the referendum vote this week. Above, a pedestrian holds a cane festooned with the British flag.

In 40 years, much has changed for the 1975 referendum voters. Christopher and Philadelphia Stockwell were newly engaged consultants in London in 1975. Now, they run a holiday cottage business in the Cotswolds and have several grandchildren. They supported "in" in 1975 and will do so again in 2016.

“We were born into a generation that experienced the longest period of peace in Europe that has ever been,” Philadelphia Stockwell, 65, explained. “It was an opportunity not to be missed, and we were right.”

“Sovereignty is gained, not diminished, by working together,” Christopher Stockwell, 66, said. “It’s like a couple who get married -- they don’t lose their sovereignty, they get stronger together.”