It’s time to build some intergenerational solidarity

We are now more divided by age than at any time in modern history. Let's fix that

January 04, 2018
article header image

The relationship between different age groups in our country has changed, bringing significant consequences for our politics, collective wellbeing and shared future. If you are in your mid-forties or younger, the odds are that you did not vote for the government of the day or side with the majority on the defining issue of our time in 2016’s Brexit referendum. Simply put, we are now more politically divided by age than at any time in modern history.

A new analysis of British Social Attitudes survey data for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration, which I chair, demonstrates that older and younger voters embrace divergent views on climate change, same-sex marriage, transgender rights and immigration.

It’s only natural that each generation should view the world slightly differently, but there are worrying signs that the political gap between people of different ages may be growing into a gulf as age overtakes income as an indicator of voting intention.

There can be no denying that Brexit is something of an intergenerational sore spot. New research conducted by YouGov and The Challenge charity on behalf of the APPG shows that 28 per cent of Leave voters of retirement age believe that lower wages for the next generation would for be a price worth paying for Brexit. Equally strikingly, a similar number of Remain-backers aged 18 to 34 would be willing to see pensions for older people reduced if it meant a stop to Brexit.
“28 per cent of Leave voters of retirement age believe lower wages for the next generation is a price worth paying for Brexit”
And it’s not just in politics that a chasm is opening up; in everyday life, young and old are living apart. Research by the Intergenerational Foundation shows that children now have a mere 5 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.

The changing structure of our economy has fuelled demographic polarisation, as young adults have left rural areas and towns for cities in search of jobs and opportunity. 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 parallel and separate lives.

We must now act to reaffirm our intergenerational social contract and speak to all that we have in common to foster feelings of intergenerational solidarity.

Last year, whilst 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. Older Bostonians told me they voted for Brexit for a variety of reasons—some felt that their town had changed beyond recognition in a short space of time and had “stopped feeling like home.”

Any meaningful attempt to bridge the generational schism embodied by Brexit must, therefore, include measures aimed at rejuvenating those parts of the UK left behind by deindustrialisation and globalisation. We must empower these communities to feel a sense of belonging within, and ownership of, the place they call home even as it changes, and build bonds of trust across generations. We must invest the same level of commitment, energy and thought into modernising and revitalising our communities as we do our public services and businesses.

A growing number of voices in our national debate have expressed concern that the unwritten social contract—that the next generation will enjoy a higher standard of living and more opportunity than the last—is at breaking point. But studies show that meeting and mixing with people of different age groups makes us less susceptible to ageist attitudes and more trusting of others. When we encounter one another, we see that we are on the same side.

Through a combination of political will and practical action, we can build a Britain in which the young, old and everyone in between feel a genuine sense of solidarity.

This is an edited extract taken from "Ages Apart? Ties and Divides Across the Generations," an essay collection published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration