By Layla Zaidane and Stefanie Merchant
Last Thursday, voters in the United Kingdom elected to leave the European Union (EU), a shocking turn of events that is rocking not only Britain, but political establishments and financial markets worldwide. Prime Minister David Cameron, long supportive of remaining in the EU, resigned from his post shortly after the vote was decided, saying his country deserved a leader committed to “carrying out the will of the people.”
But this was not the will of all people: young Britons overwhelmingly supported remaining in the bloc to enjoy the many rights and privileges that come along with EU membership. Despite this support, low youth turnout was a major factor in the Remain campaign’s defeat. Turnout, however, was not the only factor at fault: as political institutions continue to fail at engaging young voters in a consistent way, young people are naturally less inclined to participate in the political system. And if the U.S. does not learn from Brexit when it comes to these two lessons, we are bound to lose progressive fights in the future, too.
The Leave campaign preyed upon nativist fears sweeping across the West. Their tactics tapped into the feelings of fear and disaffection by Britain’s economically stressed, predominantly working-class communities. Powered by a sense of injustice in the global arena and suspicion of the outside, the Leave campaign is part of a larger wave of populism that has only grown in popularity since the 2015 Paris attacks.
For Millennials, this negative approach is rarely successful. Membership in the European Union provided young Britons the opportunity to easily seek employment in other EU nations, making the economic co-operation between EU countries both visible and practical. Additionally, our generation tends to be more tolerant and accepting of immigration, making the Leave campaign’s sensationalist claims much less effective.
For the youth who voted in Thursday’s referendum, the ‘leave’ decision is a slap in the face from an older generation. Indeed, the stark age gradient in voting reveals a tremendous gap in values. Nearly 75 percent of Britons ages 25 and younger voted to remain, as did a majority of Britons ages 49 and younger. Nearly 60 percent of pensioners ages 65 and older voted to leave.
While older voters turned out in droves, younger voters, many thwarted by the individual voter registration system and the scheduling of the vote over a higher education holiday, did not turn out in numbers as high. Some estimates of turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds run as low as 36 percent, compared with the 83 percent turnout among those ages 65 and older. These numbers tell a clear story: despite overwhelming support for remaining in the EU, young people were outvoted and lost.
As a result, Baby Boomers mortgaged away the free education, attractive pensions, and social mobility afforded to them by bygone eras of economic booms, in favor of insulating themselves from their EU counterparts. But young people, too, let each other down by failing to vote, and gave up their voice in deciding their future.
The implications for future U.S political contests is clear. Research conducted across 22 countries as a part of the “Millennial Dialogue Project” found that in the United Kingdom and the U.S., Millennials hold overwhelmingly progressive views on most issues. However, in both countries, lack of trust in politicians drives lower youth turnout. As the Brexit vote showed us, even if we tend to hold more progressive and inclusive viewpoints, it has little effect if those viewpoints are not translated into votes.
In the United States, low Millennial voter turnout happens all too frequently. In 2014, Millennial voter turnout fell to its lowest ever recorded level and saw a host of Senate leaders lose their elections to less progressive challengers. Conversely, record youth turnout in 2008 helped elect President Barack Obama and usher in eight years of progressive policies. As a member of the biggest generation, our vote — or lack thereof — can make all the difference.
But institutions, too, need to do better to connect with a generation that feels increasingly disconnected from the political process. Research shows that globally, Millennials believe “politicians largely ignore the views of young people.” We rarely see ourselves represented in government: there are painfully few young elected officials, and people of color and women are also not proportionally represented in public office. It is hard to feel connected to a body of politicians who are not relatable.
For many, the European Union or the U.S. Congress are examples of big bureaucratic bodies that support their citizens, but in ways that we can’t see or don’t connect with. Institutions, parties, and politicians need to intentionally engage Millennials, and highlight or create policies that take into consideration issues that are critically important to our generation. If not, these institutions risk alienating an entire cohort of people who hold tremendous political power.
The Remain campaign failed to do exactly this. It failed to draw attention to the ramifications of Brexit on higher educational fees and programs. And it failed to be more vocal about the fact that leaving the EU would compromise UK students’ access to EU research grants, resources, data, and infrastructure, and could jeopardize the ability of students to engage in academic exchanges. Had it done so, more young people may have mobilized to protect these benefits. Political institutions must play a role in helping young people identify as stakeholders in the political process in order to incentivize them to participate.
For the United States to take the relevant lessons from Brexit, our elected leaders, institutions, campaigns, and candidates must also acknowledge and work to counter systemic challenges facing young people who want to vote. This means addressing our antiquated state-by-state voter registration system and ensuring that policies proven to increase turnout are implemented, such as voting by mail and same-day registration.
But Millennials must also take initiative. At the end of the day, it isn’t enough to think your opinion strongly — you need to vote it loudly as well. And if young people in the United States fail to voice their opinions via voting in November and beyond, our generation must be prepared to face the dangerous potential for long-term social and economic damage.
Post-Brexit, this moment should be a wake-up call to U.S. voters and candidates alike. In the United States, the number of Millennial voters for the 2016 election is equal to the number of Baby Boomer voters. If, through a combination of low youth turnout and institutional unwillingness to truly engage Millennials, young people don’t participate in the political process this November, we risk losing our futures like young people in the UK have lost theirs.
Layla Zaidane is the Managing Director of Generation Progress. Stefanie Merchant is a member of the National Security/ International Policy team at American Progress. The authors would like to thank Simi Roopra and Priya Misra, current interns at CAP, for their contributions to this article.