Brexit: A Generational Divide

You’ve undoubtedly already heard the hubbub about Great Britain’s shocking decision to leave the European Union. But did you notice the stunning generational divide that underlies the voting results?

An overwhelming three quarters of all voters aged 18 to 24 desired to remain in Europe. And a clear majority of voters aged 25 to 49 did so as well. But older voters favored the opposing position, with almost two thirds of senior citizens preferring to leave, and a clear majority of voters aged 50 to 64 also opting to depart.

Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once derisively referred to the established Western European nations as “Old Europe,” while praising the emerging nations of the East as “New Europe.” Apparently, the Brexit vote revealed a similar split between the citizens of “Old Britain” and “New Britain.”

Why does this cleavage matter? Because global history is full of ostensibly irreversible cultural attitudes that were washed aside by a deluge of generational change.

Consider the issue of gay marriage in the United States, for instance. In 1996, a Democratic President signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. That act defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and explicitly gave every state the right to refuse to recognize gay marriages. And yet, for its time, it was considered a relatively moderate law because it implicitly permitted individual states to sanction such unions.

Just twenty years later, though, gay marriage was recognized by Supreme Court as a fundamental human right. Why the change? Younger generations, advancing into adulthood, overwhelmingly supported the progressive position.

Indeed, gay marriage proponents ultimately prevailed by convincing the younger generations of the wisdom of their position, and then by simply waiting for those generations to come of age. So what lesson may their experience convey to the disappointed young Britons who wish to remain in the European Union?

To put it simply: time is on your side. Be patient, and recognize that the inevitable generational tide is flowing in your direction.