Don’t assume Brexit attitudes will die out

‘What do you think?” said my daughter, parading up and down the kitchen in a pale pink dress and a pair of heavy black lace-up ankle boots with two-inch platforms. They looked like the sort of thing that polio victims used to wear to increase the length of a limb foreshortened by disease. Torn between honesty and appeasement I made, as usual, the wrong choice. “The dress is lovely. Couldn’t you wear some pretty shoes with it?”

“Omigod you just want to make me look like something out of your childhood,” she said, and stomped out. The boots may be hideous, but they emote effectively.

I thought of this conversation while reading a report from Global Future, a think tank, on “openness”. The young are consistently more “open” than the old and the differences are vast. When asked whether immigration is a force for good, there’s a 51 percentage point difference between the 18 to 44-year-olds and the over-45s. On multiculturalism, the EU and overseas aid, the differences are 48 per cent, 60 per cent and 53 per cent respectively. These differences are far bigger than those separating any demographic — age, income or geographic — along with what used to be the country’s principal political divide, tax and redistribution.

Lord Cooper of Windrush, a pollster and former Conservative Party strategist who is on Global Future’s advisory board, concludes from the data that the future is “open”. The age at which the number of “closed” people outnumbers the “open” ones — about 45 at present — is rising and “closed” people are dying off. “There is no good reason,” he says, “to believe the generation that has come of age in the last 25 years is going to change its worldview as it grows older.”

As a fully paid-up member of the globalised metropolitan elite, so enthusiastic about openness that I had a refugee to stay for three months and boasted about it in The Times I very much hope he is right. I shall applaud from my bathchair if the nation is populated by rainbow-skinned transsexuals doing Masai dances around our maypoles in 40 years’ time. But I’m not as convinced that things are going inexorably our way as Lord Cooper is.

When you look at data that show behaviour or attitudes differentiated by age, you have to ask whether you’re looking at a cohort effect or an age effect. A cohort effect happens because what was going on when a generation was young affects their behaviour for life. So in the 1960s young people listened to pop music but old people didn’t, whereas now both old and young listen to pop (except that younger ones have to call it something cooler). That’s because the cohort who grew up in the 1960s got the habit of listening to pop music and never lost it. Short skirts, by contrast, display an age effect. In the 1960s, young women wore them and old ones didn’t. That is still, by and large, the case. Short-skirt-wearing behaviour tends, fortunately, to change with age, in a way that musical tastes do not.

Lord Cooper is assuming that the Global Future’s data on openness is more like music than skirts, and there are some reasons for thinking he may be right. Education is one. People with a university education tend to be more “open” than those without one, and the proportion of the population going to university has risen from one in 20 in the early 1960s to nearly half now. Another is that people are shaped by the world they grew up in. You see that in voting patterns: those who came of age in the conservative 1950s or the greedy 1980s are more likely to vote Tory than those who were young adults in the rebellious 1960s or turbulent 1970s.

The Britain that middle-aged and old people grew up in was very different to the one that shaped today’s young. People travelled less and there were fewer immigrants. Such experiences shape our consciousness. Those who have been abroad are less likely to regard foreigners as alien and those who live among lots of immigrants are more favourable to them than those who don’t, so it is not surprising that young people are more comfortable with diversity than the old are.

Yet it is also pretty clear that attitudes change with age. Mine, for instance. The only time I ever swore at my mother (O tempora! O mores!) was when I was 17 and she said that she wouldn’t have wanted me to go to a school that was 97 per cent Muslim. I thought she was being outrageously prejudiced; now I think that she was right. “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains,” as Winston Churchill — or Benjamin Disraeli, or Victor Hugo or somebody else jolly wise — said. There’s data to back it up, too. James Tilley, a politics professor at Oxford University, has looked at the voting behaviour of thousands of people over time and discovered that, on average, their tendency to vote Tory increases by 0.35 percentage points every year. That accounts for the entire 20 percentage point difference between support for Tories among 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds.

The way people’s values change maps perfectly on to the open/closed divide that Global Future’s report examined. Younger people prize excitement and novelty more than older people do; older people value religion and tradition more than young ones. My daughter likes her horrid boots because she wants to look cool and fashionable, just as I remember flinging aside a ballgown my mother wanted me to wear to the Conservative Party Winter Ball and going in black spandex. I want my daughter to look the image of timeless feminine chic, just as my mother wanted me to. That is the way the world turns and I would be surprised if today’s young didn’t find themselves keener on the familiar and less enthusiastic about all that is new as the years creep by.

This fascinating research is certainly right in its central perception that open/closed, not
left/right, is the big divide. The bitterness over Brexit and splits in both main parties support that. But I don’t think my side of the argument has necessarily won. While the young are clearly more open than their seniors now, they may become less so as they age. And as for the generation after that, the people who are children now, who knows? As the resurgence of the far right in Europe shows, pendulums have a habit of swinging.

Emma Duncan is social policy editor of The Economist.

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