Ben Thatcher was a Research Assistant at Common Vision, funded by the Q-Step Quantitative Data Internship Scheme. He recently graduated from University of Bristol where he studied Politics with a focus on immigration and populism in the UK. He wrote this piece for Common Vision during his internship, you can find the full version here.
Last Friday, I found myself face-to-face with Larry, who was sprawled out nonchalantly on the Downing Street carpet. I thought about asking for his views about Brexit, but I didn’t want to disturb him. Also, Larry is a cat and cats care very little about Brexit. Instead, I saved my comments for the meeting with the two special advisers who we were actually there to see.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Common Vision’s recent report on what millennials want to see from Brexit. Although it’s often challenging for anyone of any age to keep up with what’s going on in the negotiating process, the political debate often places greater emphasis on the concerns of older people, which means that many of the younger generation are put off from even trying to keep up. But we know that young people still care about Brexit, and want to understand what it means for their lives and their future. So rather than look backwards and focus on the negatives, we want to discuss a productive vision of how the government can begin to earn the attention and (whisper it) respect of young people.
Our recommendations focused on both the terms of engagement – how the government could communicate their goals in a way that appeals to the interests of younger people – as well as specific actions and policies that could help restore faith in the Brexit ‘project’ – or at least improve the current perceptions which millennials have on Brexit and Politics more generally.
Is it even possible to paint a less dismal picture of Brexit Britain given the uncertainty? Two important themes struck me as opportunities, based on the conversation we had at No.10.
The first is around a topic which is consistently important for young people when asked about their priorities for Brexit: jobs and skills. Even without Brexit, young people were already facing a series of challenges – or opportunities depending on how you look at them. A flexible, but more unstable, labour market. Rapidly changing technologies replacing, or augmenting, human skills. At the same time the private and public sectors require differing capabilities to those that were needed a generation ago. And inequality in the UK is still a sticky problem exacerbated by uneven distribution of human capital across the country.
But in this uncertain context, the economic shock of Brexit could present an opportunity to reconfigure the way in which millennials experience the job market and contribute to productivity (which matters because we will then be able to get paid more). To make Britain a success after Brexit it is recognised across the political spectrum that we are going to have become a more skilful nation. Here there’s a role for government, but there’s also a call to action we could pose collectively to employers – for businesses to do more to train and invest in the young employees they have.
The second topic where there seems to be an opportunity to ‘take back control’ relates to a topic which young people care much less about (especially compared to older people): immigration. If older voters’ main aim is to gain control of immigration and this does occur, then young people will be forced to think about immigration with the same intensity their parents and grandparents have. In my opinion, this may be a good thing: we are particularly well-placed to have this conversation because most of us share a positive view of immigration, something that is demonstrated both by young Remain voters (in supporting free movement of people across the EU) and many young leavers (in perceiving greater cultural and economic opportunities with countries outside of the EU).
Therefore Brexit has forced a debate on immigration that young people may have been excluded from or apathetic towards. Now from a position of shared values, we can lead a unified front in determining the type and amount of immigration we want. Even if this requires hard questions about what kind of country we are, what do we want to become and how we get there, as a generation we tend to agree that the UK should not step back from the world.
Moving forward as the Brexit negotiations start to take a concrete shape, focusing on employment and immigration are two ways millennials can shape a constructive, positive vision of our future.