Over the last ten years, EU investment in youth initiatives has been substantial but has the end result been the rise in populism while middle income earners and older generations feel neglected and left out of the union? This was a discussion between a number the team and so we decided to what we do best and put our thoughts into writing. There were two opposing theories on this and here we look at one side by Brian Milne who argues that there is indeed to much focus on the youth and a lack of investment in many of the EU’s other demographics. This is two part debate and you can read an alternative theory on this by Yannis Karamitsios also published today.

A few weeks ago, Ken Sweeney shared a link with the writing team. It was a piece written for the European Parliament ‘What is the European Youth Event (EYE2018)?’and detailed an event on 1-2 June 2018 in the European Parliament’s seat in Strasbourg that brought more than eight thousand young people from all over Europe together to come up with ideas for the future of Europe which they discussed with European decision makers. There is a schedule for the use of what came out of discussions being taken forward. I am asking why those discussions are not offered to all age and socioeconomic groups.

Is this only for the young?

Ken raised the question why such an event is exclusive to youth. He suggested the EU needs to connect with middle income earners who he believed, saved the EU during the financial crisis in 2009. He added that it would be incredibly productive if we could get eight thousand citizens from all walks of life to Strasbourg for a civil society strategy event. In further comments he and I agreed that neither of us had anything against the event itself but that to limit this to youth is not the best way forward. Fellow writer,  Yannis Karamitsios also saw the piece and proposed that youth is an investment since they will become the middle income earners of the 2020s, 30s and 40s and thus by increasing our investment on their vocational training, employment opportunities and also their rapport with the accomplishments, projects and opportunities offered by the EU being pro-European in their twinties they will remain so for another 50 or more years. That argument does not hold with me. I also take into account something Ken added in the above discussion: ‘Far be it for me to be critical about kids but it seems that the main representation from Ireland was a very expensive boarding school based in a well to do Dublin suburb.’ He draws attention to the well established bad habit of taking ‘middle class’ young people as somehow as cross-sectional representation of the whole of their age group. That is utterly absurd as any social researcher will immediately point out. There are probably many more bottom of ‘lower middle class’ down to conventional working class people from low paid households then further down the scale to impoverished young people who are probably the most frequently excluded, with the occasional exception of what I consider a token presence.

I am a social scientist who has made a career in research. For most of that time my research has been with ‘children’. I do include ‘youth’ in as much as the upper age of internationally recognised childhood is 18 years as against the EYE2018 event that was, I would assume, was for something in the range of 16 to 25, with the middle to upper age range predominant on the premise that youth somehow transcends early adulthood and that the lower end, for instance, puberty that is the physical beginning of youth, is when young people are generally considered not mature enough for the kind of discussion these events enter into. I entirely disagree, but then I must. I am not going to use examples from my own work but if people wish to know what I base my arguments on the use Google or sites like Researchgate and Academia to look at a sample of articles and books in which I have written about children’s participation in civil society and their citizenship. I am all inclusive, theoretically 0 to 18 years, although I shall admit the lower age ranges are little examined for probably quite obvious reasons. However, here I am going to enter into dispute with Yannis’ proposition and argue for a more all age inclusive approach. I also wish to move away from the old and discredited ‘respectable class’ attitude that commonly governs discourse on socioeconomic matters.

At present we have the perfect case study available. The United Kingdom.

Two referendums, one country, two outcomes

In 1965 the UK was asked to vote in the European Communities membership referendum on 5 June 1975. On a turnout of 64.62%, which is in the range of high for the UK, 67.23% voted to stay in out of an almost 100% valid vote. By any calculation that is a majority. On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, also known as either the EU or Brexit referendum, took place. It was an advisory referendum that was to be used as a means of gauging support for the EU without any binding decision drawn from the outcome. However, on a 72.21% turnout, truly high, 51.89% vote to leave against 48.11% to remain with again an almost 100% valid vote. That was a narrow margin of only 3.78% which would normally be considered too close to declare a valid reason for it being taken as a reliable majority decision. It was contentious anyway, much criticised for not granting people below 18 years of age a vote, unlike the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, when the vote was extended to 16 and 17 year old. There was also the exclusion of UK citizens living abroad who were excluded by the so-called 15 year rule that excludes all people who have lived outside the UK for 15 years or longer from voting that was included in the manifesto of the governing party as a priority matter for abolition. Commonwealth, including Cypriot and Maltese, and Irish citizens resident in the UK were able to vote but EU citizens who were long term in the UK were excluded. There were many other irregularities including late and non-arrival of postal votes and registration for proxies. Then there was the campaigning, some of which is at present being exposed as probably illegal or, at least, outright lies.

Nonetheless, after the Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised ‘the will of the people’ would be honoured then resigned, his successor, Theresa May, eventually  took the commitment to leave the EU to parliament which passed the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 empowering her to invoke Article 50 on 29 March 2017. However, the UK is divided. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU, something the Westminster government has resisted acknowledging properly and has used some politically sinister manoeuvres to attempt to get round. Recent polls have shown that in Scotland over 70% of youth see their future in the EU and a similar but slightly lower percentage has been shown in a number of Northern Ireland polls of all ages. The UK is divided, but age is met by economic status and class as contributing factors that need to be taken into account in planning any EU future.

What is wrong with the concentration on youth?

In a space of 41 years and 18 days Yannis’ argument has been disproved as a convincing indicator. In 1975 people in their 20s and 30s had supported membership. The same people in the 60s and 70s have had 43 years of membership in which they had seen the UK go from the ‘sick man of Europe’ in a recession that looked like the beginning of the end of British influence in the world with total industrial, trading and financial collapse impending into a once again thriving economy thanks to the EC, later the EU. In other words, neither ‘yesterday’s’ nor today’s youth are the ensured future. What has changed is that people who by age would have been able to vote in 1975 and those who would have at least a childhood memory of the situation in the UK have not reacted positively to the benefits of membership. Indeed, one can only assume that those who campaigned for a referendum and then to leave the EU had got their message across well enough to convince a previously pro-European cohort that leaving was the better option as the table below shows.

Comparison of remain and leave percentages in 1975 and 2016 referendums by ages 

Age group Remain Leave
1975 2016 1975 2016
18 – 29 62 38
18 – 24 71 29
25 – 49 54 46
30 – 44 72 28
45 – 64 73 27
50 – 64 40 60
65+ 80 20
65+ 36 64

The age intervals available have changed, but not too significantly to use for comparison

Age was largely irrelevant in 1975, just the size of the majority which voted to remain in the EEC in each group. The over age 65 group was the largest majority for remaining in, which comes as no surprise when one considers how many of them would have had the experience of WW2 and a not inconsiderable number would have remembered WW1, thus too the period of depression and European disunity between the wars. However, 41 years on, the lowest aged voters in 1975 and some of the next group up would have been part of the majority for remaining in the EEC who fell into the 65+ group in 2016. The youngest ages had increased their majority for staying in against the over 65s as a close percentage for remaining in then in 1975 at 62% as young voters who became 64% for out as older voters. What had made them change their minds in the interim?

Since the time in the EEC, later EU, was marked by the UK’s recovery within the community, one might expect those benefits to outweigh many other reasons for wishing to leave. Thus one might believe it is a socioeconomic question.

Voting to remain or leave by socioeconomic status in 1975 and 2016 by percentages

Social class* 1975 2016
Remain Leave Remain Leave
AB 85 16 60 40
C1 75 25 54 46
C2 64 36 40 60
DE 62 38 41 59

If we break down the socioeconomic status by age it reveals that the most advantaged young people and least advantaged older people are diametric opposites.

Remain Leave
AB 71 29
C1 71 29
C2 54 46
DE 56 44
AB 61 39
C1 53 47
C2 35 65
DE 36 64
AB 48 52
C1 37 63
C2 32 68
DE 30 70

More detailed demographic data shows voting to remain in the EU was somewhat higher amongst women than men and was much more prevalent amongst younger people in 2016, reflecting generational differences in Euro-scepticism. That was not the case in 1975 when electoral demographic data was less detailed but nevertheless provide clues on what has changed. Leave voting was higher amongst those in lower income groups such as those renting their homes in the public sector as against home owners in both 1975 and 2016; it was the less well off and economically insecure who were most likely to vote to leave.

Although not precisely measured in 1975 since it was probably not considered pertinent at that time, educational attainment in 2016 shows there was a huge differential based on levels of qualification. People with degrees or equivalent qualifications were those most likely to have voted to remain in the EU, whereas those with no qualifications were more likely to have voted to leave. However, voting patterns in 2016 based on political factors show significant differences from those prevalent in 1975, which is down to the fact that Euroscepticism over recent decades has been on the right of UK politics, although the ‘hard left’ is anti-EU normally. Leave voters were mostly backers of parties on the right such as 98% of UKIP supporters voting to leave and 58% of Tories, however around 70% of people with no apparent allegiance did so as well. Labour was critically divided in 1975, whereby senior ministers campaigned for or against the EEC on the basis of personal positions, thus their voters not being given clear or consistent party leads on what to choose. In 2016 only 36% of Labour supporters voted to leave, as too did 26% of Liberal Democrats, 21% of Greens and 26% among other parties such as the SNP.

Newspaper readers showed the highest support for leave amongst those who read predominantly right wing tabloids: the Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail and Star, plus broadsheet Daily Telegraph readers. It was lower amongst Daily Mirror readers and those who read no papers at all, but lowest amongst readers of broadsheets including the Times, Guardian, Independent, Huffington Post and Financial Times. In 1975, people who read the Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and Daily Mail were the strongest backers of EEC membership.

Ideology, information and change

Ideologically, in 2016, there was little difference in the leave vote across those classifiable as right, left or centre, but leave was more prevalent amongst those with a right leaning authoritarian orientation compared to those who were liberal and open-minded or neither. It was also more widespread amongst those with an anti-welfare point of view compared to those who were pro-welfare or remained neutral.

If we compare voting patterns, support for membership in both popular votes was concentrated amongst higher socioeconomic status groups. In 1975, leave vote were more common amongst those in younger age groups; the opposite to 2016. In 1975 people living in Scotland, Labour party supporters and further left wing were the strongest proponents of the anti-Common Market vote, as too readers of the Daily Mirror. In 2016, the balance had changed so that supporters of the right, whether ukip or Tories, ideologically anti welfare and pro social authoritarian or right leaning newspaper readers were essential part of the decision to leave the EU.

Yannis argued that we should increase our investment on the vocational training of the young such as we have seen in Germany, fund their employment opportunities and also on their knowledge of the achievements, projects and opportunities offered by the EU. His view is that once you make an individual pro-European in his or her 20s, you gain the confidence of that person for at least 50 years. In that respect he sees youth is an investment worth working on since they will become the middle income earners of the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. My counter argument, and that is borne out by the UK example, is that that places emphasis fully on the elite in educational terms, precisely the best informed and most advantaged already. Therefore the question arises; what about the rest, the vast majority, in whom investment is possibly far more important?

Selectiveness versus inclusion

Ken’s point about representation from Ireland coming from a very expensive boarding school based in a well to do Dublin suburb typifies the selectiveness of not only such events but the participants in far too many events. He made it clear though, that he was not specifically making a point about investment in youth but raising the issue of the lack of investment in other sectors of society. That did invite the question about the working class young who deserve the same access to a European future? Youth are indeed ‘the future’, but they should never become an ‘exclusive’ group for very clear reasons. Civil society begins at birth for its participants, after which it can end for some after a century in this world. Youth is often a misnomer anyway when very often the age group 16 to 25 are meant, yet 18 year olds are already adults with full franchise. Objectively seen, 10 year olds have a hard six years ahead of them until crucial exams that decide where they go next, some go to work, others head on to the next round of exams then some of those to university, others train or enter apprenticeships but many fall by the way, unemployed and out of sight, but who really gives a damn about them? Over 25s are not necessarily different to those aged under 25 for a margin of several years; the distinctions youth and early prime age adult simply a measuring device that says nothing about the group it describes. So it continues; prime age group people are left to fend for themselves generally, but are then expected to be sensible and do things like support and vote in elections out of which they get little in return. People of ‘age’, of which I am one but have teenage children thus sit astride a strange divide, regularly get patronising leftovers thrown at them. In social terms in the present world this is perverse, either we have a level playing field in terms of age, class and gender with a few other necessary denominators like religion, racial origins, disability and the like taken into account rather than offering preferential treatment to what are likely to be well heeled young people from a posh Dublin suburb whose education is a cut above the rest but should really only ever be entitled to the same as everybody else, but without forgetting anybody else.

Flawed communication

So-called youth events are often relatively well publicised and reported on, mainly showing how well the EU is communicating with younger people, but if we scratch the surface we see that they do not spend as much time and effort to communicate with the current generations aged over thirty at any meaningful level which is a huge mistake since we are seeing the long term damage manifest itself and a kind of chain reaction underway for which we can only wait for the ‘cure’ rather than the earlier preventive ‘vaccination’. Even in contemporary European civil society age tends to be hierarchical, so that ultimately everybody still does what older people think is best. Who do we see seated in our parliaments? There are very few young people there. In some countries younger people are highly valued, not the youngest but those who are productive and the mainstay of the economy and older generations are generally kept conveniently out of sight unless they are part of the hegemony that governs and economically controls their country. In between most countries pay scant attention to the development of roughly forty years worth of people who actually do the real work driving society and most of the work. When attention turns to those prime age socio-economic groups it is far too often for reasons such as mass redundancies rather than the real value of their economic and social performance at the heart of society. By somehow neglecting them and more so by that neglect increasing as we progress down socioeconomic class groups, we almost encourage bitterness.

Prime age, lower income and educational level people lack the investment in terms of communication, continuing civic education and genuine inclusion. It is as though they have the period of privilege when a questionably representative age group is offered a great deal of attention that falls away once they are ‘grown up’. By the time they are in the oldest age groups they have been all but forgotten for three or four decades. It is all very well to try to capture the hearts and souls of a few young people but maintaining that is important. Equally important is then moving on to doing the same progressively as those people age. One of the points about the UK that makes it an ideal case study is that the same young people who were for the EEC are now part of the age group in which as many of them forty one years on are proportionately the same but of the opposite view. Just over 60% want to leave the EU. Had citizen participation begun early on in the life of the then expanding European community, it is highly likely that enough of those people would have been adequately informed so to have wished to leave the union that took their country from the ‘sick man of Europe’ to one of the more thriving. Along the way nobody has told them what is going on, drawn them into real decision making and appreciation of the EU as something other than a mysterious hierarchy in Brussels about which assumptions are made, based on misunderstandings and blatant lies that have swung the votes in an election.

Focus on youth: right or wrong?

One might agree with Yannis’ basic principle, but not with the degree of emphasis on involving the young. All ages and classes need equal involvement and attention to maintain continuing support. Where one of the mistakes within the younger groups is most apparent is that youth unemployment is high is much of Europe, thus rather than taking people from a milieu that tends to be less exposed to that, that Brussels, Strasbourg and other key centres bring together those young people without opportunities and certain futures. However, in equal measure the age groups between who are the driving force of the EU need to enjoy similar well publicised events, indeed the least privileged even more so. A major meeting of homeless people from across the union would be almost revolutionary and as for bringing the poorest and most deprived elderly together, perhaps the age group that has the most against the EU for lack of anywhere else to apportion blame, that would be a ground breaking precedent. The UK ‘divorce’ would almost certainly not be happening at this point in time and the frustration of ‘no future’ youth, disillusioned prime age people and particularly older people who feel left out and betrayed by a vast apparatus in Brussels that feeds populism and nationalism takes grip. A final irony to note is that when we look at populist movements, their leadership appears to be those people who will almost certainly have been most involved when young, cut off once their ‘youth’ ended, then have had time to become sour, often going from being radical to reactionary as disillusion takes hold. The illusion of concentration on the young in order to keep them for the coming decades is that once forgotten the assumptions are without recognition of what being ‘forgotten’ can bring with them, especially when the elite of the young taking part in these events is both among the better educated and those earmarked for leadership already. It is already too late to undo the damage done but never too late to not repeat that in the future.

The point made by using the UK polls to illustrate possible mistakes throughout the EU, is that rather than assuming that focus on a particular group has any real value, taking into account national and even regional variations, is that inclusion needs to be all inclusion instead of selective, non-discriminatory and also that whilst different age and socioeconomic groups is a useful approach, perhaps an all age shared continuing information and education process would be valuable. What is almost too remarkable to ignore is the fact that both the youngest age group and the two lower socioeconomic groups who should have been those to have remembered they were benefactors of membership of the union in the 1975 referendum are now almost diametrically the opposite although, to a large extent, the same people. The assumption can be that through exclusion and events that are more likely to have been national rather than EU wide, they have formed views that could have been avoided had they been consistently informed and consulted. Now we have Brexit upon us, not that in itself but the ‘post mortem’ of causality that looks like a failure of communication and inclusion.

*AB Higher & intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations
  C1 Supervisory, clerical & junior managerial, administrative, professional occupations
  C2 Skilled manual occupations
  DE Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, Casual or lowest grade workers, pensioners, and others who depend on the welfare state for their income.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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      1. It should be okay now Eve.

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