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'A generation endlessly resitting exams until they pass thinks you can revolt until the stupid wrinklies vote the correct way'

Any teachers tempted to endorse a generation-war approach to the referendum result should step back. Young people need to take the reins, rather than complain, says the director of the Institute of Ideas

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There has been a tone of despair and sorrow from many Remainers in education, reflected in a number of post-Brexit TES blogs thus far. While disappointment is fine from those committed to the EU, it seems especially crucial that pro-Remain teachers should not allow subjective views to cloud their judgement or even stoke up fears in terms of the way pupils interpret recent events.  

Tone is important, as I was reminded by my sensible sisters as we sat and discussed the referendum last night. In a family split on Leave/Remain voting, we know how seriously we all thought through how we voted and why. So the acrimonious name-calling and impugning of others’ motives for voting either way reflects a dangerous undermining of democratic decision-making.

Sadly, some who are angry at the result seem determined to exacerbate divisions and, in the name of being opposed to bigots, end up expressing their own brand of bigotry. When Noel Gallagher declared in response to the vote for Brexit that “99 per cent of the people are thick as pig shit”, we might write off the comment as celeb bad-boy banter. But when Cardiff University cognitive neuroscientist Professor Chris Chambers rather hysterically blogs that the referendum has “lanced the boil of hatred and xenophobia in this country and the poison is already destroying everything the world once admired about us” before launching a xenophobic, hateful attack against the Welsh for stupidly voting Brexit, we might notice a worrying trend.

Annoyed that Wales, which the academic alleges has “benefited enormously from EU funding and migration… STILL it voted to leave” (how very dare Welsh people refuse to be bought off by crumbs from the Brussels top table), he compares them to “turkeys voting for Christmas”, concluding that they “just didn’t give a shit and thought, hey, this oven looks like a change of scene, and that must be good, right?” Charming. 

'Wrinkly bastards'

One popular line of intolerance that might appeal to pupils is the fashionable complaint that younger generations have been selfishly betrayed by the “wrinkly bastards” who voted Brexit (a phrase coined by Times writer Giles Coren and constantly repeated on Twitter over the last few days).

It would be too easy for teachers in particular to allow these self-pitying wails of generational betrayal to go unchecked. And plenty of adults have indeed bemoaned the vote through the prism of generational treachery, with a dose of self-loathing. Gary Lineker wrote: “Feel ashamed of my generation – we’ve let down our children and their children.” James Corden apologised: “I’m so sorry to the youth of Britain. I fear you’ve been let down today.” 

TV news presenter Jon Snow went into fact-free mea culpa meltdown, having met two sixth-formers earning extra cash at “the bakery this morning”, who allegedly told him in tears: “What have these old people who voted Leave done to our lives?” Instead of reassuring them, Jon hyped up the misery by concluding: “They are now about to lose the right to study, live, love and work in 27 other countries.” Dear Jon (and sixth-formers), believe me, this is scaremongering nonsense. 

Such adult indulgence can also fuel a me-me-me special pleading response to politics, rather than encouraging the young to transcend their own preoccupations. Many of the complaints by students, for example, concentrate on their own personal “tragedies” – such as one 21-year-old Glasgow University student who was “left reeling by the decision” because it might jeopardise his plans to study in Romania on the EU’s student-exchange Erasmus programme. 

Nasty seeds of generational discord

Meanwhile, Guardian journalist Shiv Malik, author of Jilted Generation, which he wrote when he was in the millennial age-range – but now at 35 should know better – has been sowing some nasty seeds of generational discord by claiming that “one half of me wants to tell young people to abandon England – a country that clearly hates them”.

Hates them? This is a terrible, inaccurate and irresponsible description to feed to the young. And while Malik claims he doesn’t hate old people, he goes on to say he believes “they really despise their young”. What a mean-spirited message about the millions of adults who rear, care for, love, socialise and educate younger generations – a real insult to millions of teachers, carers, parents. 

For any educators tempted to endorse such a generation-war approach to the referendum, it might be worth taking a step back and considering some of the rather unpleasant sides to this particular version of lashing out. Social media, special yoof-friendly media reports and the ubiquitous declarations by performers and attendees at Glastonbury waking up to the referendum result, and quoted endlessly in newspapers, reveal a toxic mix of woe-is-me victimhood, an unattractive sense of entitlement and some pretty vicious views of older people. 

“This is what it looks like when the old screw the young,” says one 20-something, before complaining that, “Britain's IQ is considerably lower than previously acknowledged.” A further selection of random quotes from Twitter and newspaper interviews gives a flavour of the bitterness and bile: 

  • “Thank you baby boomers for the last nail in my generation's coffin.”
  • “Waking up to the #EURefResults and realising the older generation have just ruined our future.” 
  • “Truly gutted that our grandparents have effectively decided that they hate foreigners more than they love us and our futures.” 
  • “Our economy is in tatters [because] our grandparents cared more about their comfort than our future.” 
  • “Your generation has burnt the house down and ruined our life chances. Nothing personal, Dad.”
  • “A generation given everything: free education, golden pensions, social mobility, have voted to strip my generation’s future.”

Much retweeted was the particularly vicious, “What have you done to us? Hurry up and die – you will not be missed.” We should remind those slamming older people that such appalling intolerance is unsavoury, whatever age they are. For so many young Remainers, who claim to be the very embodiment of tolerance and are usually so quick to say “I find that offensive”, and call out discrimination such as racism and sexism, why is it OK to spout such unthinking, bilious ageism?

Seeking revenge

The fury and sense of revenge-seeking really has been extraordinary. A much-shared chart listed voters alongside the “average number of years they have to live with the decision”. Others complained: “We’re the ones who’ve got to live with it for a long time, but a group of pensioners have managed to make a decision for us” or they're not going to have to deal with the consequences”.

The inference is that older voters should count for less because they have fewer years to live. Should teenage voters get three votes and 70 year olds only half a vote each? Maybe the terminally ill should be denied the franchise altogether? Inevitably, acidic Coren drew out the misanthropic logic: “Rewrite the franchise to start at 16 and end at 60.” Meanwhile, GQ writer George Chesterton suggested that, as “we take pensioners' driving licences away... why not their right to vote?” 

While many teachers worry, understandably, about any rise in racist attitudes or abuse directed at immigrants in today’s febrile post-Brexit Britain, we should not look the other way or excuse this sort of vile lashing out at older voters in the name of, or by, young people seemingly so used to getting their own way that they can’t handle defeat. Adults are so used to indulging them that hardly anyone in authority has condemned them for it.

Unsurprisingly, it has been youth voices who have been leading the campaign for a referendum re-run by setting up a fashionable “if it you don’t like it, ban it” online petition. It is as though a minority, demanding that 17.5 million voters’ wishes can be overturned, is on a par with student demands to no-platform speakers or policies they don’t like. Or maybe a generation that is educated into an assessment regime in which you can endlessly resit exams until you pass thinks you can revolt until the stupid wrinklies vote the correct way. 

Disregard for democracy

This casual generational disregard for democracy is matched by a lack of willingness to understand that their worldview is not shared by everyone, and that they cannot trump others by playing either the youth or victim card.

Yes, 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Remain, but that does not give them the right to speak on behalf of a generation. What of the 25 per cent of their peers who voted Brexit? Don’t their views count? Have they wondered or even asked why more than a quarter of their age group wanted to leave the EU? Perhaps not, as Brexiters are routinely dismissed as ignorant, duped or knuckle-dragging racists. Perhaps, because it’s assumed Leave voters don’t have a university degree, they can be ignored by the ever-so-educated Remain youth wing? Such illiberal liberals, who claim to know better than their elders, might also mull over the fact that only 36 per cent of 18-24s voted at all, despite the deadline to register being extended by two days after a mass voter-registration drive and an overall turnout of 72 per cent among the overall population (the highest for decades).

So, before claiming the moral high ground of representing 75 per cent, we need to remind the youthful complainers that, actually, only 36 per cent of the under-25 cohort could be arsed to vote. Perhaps the energy they are now exhibiting complaining about oldies might be better spent trying to win some arguments with their peers.

Of course, beyond nastiness, there is no doubt that there is heartfelt despair at the result. Those of us who work with young people can, of course, empathise with their dashed hopes. But let’s not over-romanticise their views. Scratch the surface and one can find a quite hollowed-out view of politics and democracy.

Take the reins

Eighteen-year-old A-level pupil Keir Mather wrote in TES of his despondency and anger “because my generation will never get its moment in the sun”. Sincere, no doubt, but Keir – if you don’t mind me saying – as vice-chair of a Young Labour branch and obviously politically active, this attitude seems surprisingly passive. It would be wrong for me as an adult to indulge such fatalistic pessimism. You need to get over your grumble that “we are a generation robbed” and start to create conditions to make the world a better place (as, indeed, your parents’ and grandparents’ generations did).

Your nervousness about having to “navigate through an uncertain, unprecedented era in which those who tipped the vote to Leave are likely to have departed” is true of every generation, and now it’s your challenge to rise to. You need to take responsibility for making something happen, rather than bemoaning what didn’t happen.

Forget the special pleading – this referendum has shaken up politics. This is democracy beyond a paper exercise and it means something. Something has really happened; change is possible (with all the positive and negative aspects of any historic disruption). Take the reins, rather than complaining. 

Regardless of which way young and old people voted, we now all have a responsibility to behave like grown-ups, put personal disappointment behind us and rise to the challenge. This means debating how we build an outward-facing, European (if not EU) society. Teachers’ responsibility is to ensure that the young are open-minded enough to have that debate across generations, with opponents as well as allies, rather than cosseting them in an echo-chamber of Remain grievance-mongering. 

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

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