Vicky Spratt

The Brexit debate is a luxury many young people can’t afford

The Brexit debate is a luxury many young people can't afford
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Newsflash: young people don’t care about the EU referendum. On the whole, we are neither Eurosceptic nor Europhobic. I work as features editor of millennial female news lifestyle site, The Debrief. When we asked our readers how they were going to vote on 23 June, an overwhelming 71 per cent said they would vote to remain. 19 per cent said they didn’t know. As a millennial myself I know that my peers have hardly found the Brexit debate inspiring – the prospect of leaving the EU is not something many of us had considered and we resent it being forced upon us.

The EU – complete with fisheries, Jean-Claude Juncker, Schengen and Maastricht – has hardly been on the tip of our tongues in recent years. Unless, of course, we were planning our next cheap trip to Berlin. Brexit: the pros and cons - has not been the go-to subject of discussion when we get together at the pub or shout at one another in nightclubs (and this isn’t just because we drink less, do fewer drugs and go out less than our parents).

A quick look at Ipsos Mori’s comprehensive Generations project confirms this. Their polling demonstrates that we ‘yoof’ are significantly less in favour of leaving the European Union than our generational forbears are now, or were at our age. Indeed, we are less in favour of reducing the EU’s powers than our parents and grandparents’ generations. Young people are also, on the whole, in favour of maintaining the status quo when it comes to the EU.

That said, I’m sure many of us wouldn’t exactly describe ourselves as Europhiles either. We grew up as part of Europe – it’s not something we’ve ever had to consider.  In fact, we are pretty sick of hearing this debate and, to be frank, we don’t really understand why we’re having it. Many of us are rather baffled that we’re having this conversation about leaving the EU full stop. Why is this? No, it’s not because we’re all apathetic, politically ignorant and too busy snapchatting to give a damn about the future of this country. And, before you say it, no it’s not because we didn’t live through a world war and it’s not because we aren’t patriotic. It’s because we’ve got bigger fish to fry. A bigger fish than the EU? Surely not.

Talk to us about housing, for instance, and you’ll find we are far from apathetic. In fact, over a quarter of a million people have signed The Debrief’s petition to ban letting agency fees. We receive comments, emails and tweets every day about housing. Earlier today, I was outside Parliament with a bunch of other young people, standing alongside Baroness Grender of the Lib Dems campaigning on this issue.

This discussion – this referendum - is a conversation which is, largely, being dominated by older men of a certain age and class. They are out of touch with the realities of twenty-something life today. Why? Because they graduated from university debt free, they have pensions, they’ve had their families and they own the homes they live in. My generation cannot say the same.

Today the average British homebuyer must save for 24 years in order to be able to put down a deposit on their first home. But it’s not this that preoccupies us. No, for many of us owning a house is a fast-fading glimmer in the distance, a goal post that keeps moving, a pipe dream. If we’re not stuck living back at home with our parents (according to the ONS, young adults aged 20-to-34 in the UK are more likely to be sharing a home with their parents than any time since 1996), we’re preoccupied with the rental market and trying to keep our heads above water in it.

We don’t have time to question whether or not we want to be in the EU. Wouldn’t that be a luxury? To have enough time and headspace to challenge the status quo like that? We’re too busy trying to make ends meet. Being a Brexiteer is a rather indulgent position. It’s one you can take, I suppose, if you aren’t worrying about where you’ll be living next year when your landlord, inevitably, puts the rent up.

Successive governments, of all political persuasions, have failed to build enough houses.  Demand has outstripped supply and house prices have soared, far out-pacing wages. An overwhelming number of my generation don’t think we’ll ever own our own homes. As a result, the number of young people relying on the private rental sector has been rising steadily as a result. We know from the English Housing Survey that this doesn’t just affect the young, although we are at the sharp end. The private rental market has doubled since 2002, and the proportion of families with children living in it increased from 30 per cent in 2004-05 to 37 per cent in 2014-15. This equates to about 912,000 more households with children in the private rented sector in the past 10 years.

Housing aside, you have to remember that my generation grew up online. We have only ever looked outwards – we’ve been connected with the entire world for as long as we can remember. Many of us have benefited from cheap travel and those of us who were lucky enough to go to university have European friends we made as part of Erasmus schemes. We’ve also never felt limited to Europe; the world has always been our oyster. We buy cheap goods from China on eBay, we browse South Korean beauty trends via Instagram and we aspire to travel cheaply in South America. We’re a global generation already and we don’t feel that Britain’s membership of the EU has hindered that. Perhaps because of this we aren’t as worried about immigration as other generations. For instance, we’re more likely than any other generation to think people should be allowed to wear traditional dress to school if they want to.

So, when it comes to the EU, I’m afraid we’ve got more pressing things to worry about. Brexit is so far removed from our reality that its central arguments feel irrelevant. Those campaigning for us to vote leave will tell you that they represent ‘the people’. They’re misguided. If you look at Ipsos Mori’s trend reports on EU membership, you’ll see clearly that the number of people who want to leave the EU has been steadily decreasing in recent decades. Indeed, people of all ages have become increasingly less in favour of leaving over time. ‘What of the rise of Ukip then?’ I hear you ask. Yes, both Labour and the Tories were wounded by Ukip in 2015. But, let’s not get carried away; remember that Ukip have only one parliamentary seat. Their own leader couldn’t get elected.

Brexit is not a populist position. Euroscepticism is by no means mainstream. Wanting to leave the EU is the view of those who are secure enough to take risks and gamble with the future.  Having time to debate this, energy to muck about with a referendum and boldness to risk Britain's economy are luxuries that many young people simply cannot afford.

The truth -- that neither Leave nor Remain will offer up easily -- is this: we don’t know what would happen if we left the EU. The figures being bandied around are conjecture – this is really about sovereignty and we aren’t interested. For young people, leaving signals one thing: a whole lot of uncertainty. Would the sky fall? Probably not. Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy, we could probably go it alone. Would things be a bit rocky for a while? Quite possibly and we’d be at the sharp end once again. For a generation which faces great uncertainty for our own futures as things stand – Will we ever pay off our student loans? Will we ever escape the private rental market and own our own homes? Will we have pensions to fall back on when we retire? Will we ever be able to afford to have children? – possibilities and probabilities just aren't good enough.

Things are different now, but older politicians don’t seem to have noticed. We are Generation Rent, the struggle is very real and policy needs to start to reflect that. If we witness Brexit - and a triumph for Vote Leave - it will be an accidental victory. Won because Britain’s busy, preoccupied and disillusioned young people didn’t turn out to vote - and the older people, with their pension pots and secure homes - did. But it is my generation who will carry the burden of this decision the most.

Vicky Spratt is features editor at The Debrief. She is currently running a campaign to Make Renting Fair

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