Shortly after it was announced that those in favour of leaving the European Union had won the UK referendum, I was among the first to pounce on the fact that attachment to the European Union directly varied with age cohort: The older the voter, the lower the attachment. And the fact that (per usual) voter turnout also directly varied with age cohort – the older the voter, the more likely to vote - explained the ‘Vote Leave’ win: Had voter turnout been consistent across age cohorts, the ‘Vote Remain’ campaign would have won.
At the time, I argued that it speaks to the need to include ‘generation’ as a foundational category of sociological analysis, alongside race, class and gender. This is not a new idea. It was a cornerstone of Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, which could be used to explain, for example, why the very old and very young found Hitler an attractive leader, despite the consternation of the middle age population who flourished – however fitfully – under the Weimar Republic.
The basic intuition of generational analysis is that people at the same stage in their lives experience the same public events in similar ways. Of course, this is not meant as an overriding explanation of human behaviour, but it provides an orthogonal slice of the sociological pie from that offered by race, class and gender. The rise of ‘broadcast’ media from the mass circulation newspaper onward has generated a steady stream of such publicly experienced ‘events’ which serve as a common frame of reference in terms of which people’s judgements can be compared. The point is epitomized in the question: ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’
Perhaps the most notable feature of the social media fallout from Brexit with regard to generational analysis has been the antagonism between ‘old’ and ‘young’: The former castigating the latter for shirking their civic duty of voting; the latter accusing the former of selfishness and narrow-mindedness. Whatever one makes of these charges, it points to a real problem that not everyone is equally invested in the outcomes of a democratic process. In the case of irreversible decisions, as Brexit is purported to be, the young who voted against it will live with its consequences much longer than their elders who supported it. What constitutes intergenerational justice under the circumstances?
The fact that proportionally fewer young people voted is an irrelevance when answering this question. The failure of the young to represent themselves adequately is not grounds for exploiting them. It is easy to forget that democratic theory is very much preoccupied with the relationship of age to political participation: age to vote, age to serve in elected office, etc. 2500 years ago Plato famously argued that the then quite old age of fifty should be the threshold for political office because by then you would be impervious to corruption. Friedrich Hayek believed people should vote just once, at a hypothetical halfway point in life, when you had the optimal combination of wisdom from the past and stake in the future. My own view is that votes should be weighted by how long the voter would need to live with the consequences of the electoral outcome. This means that your vote would come to mean less as you grow older, and a premium would be placed on politicians projecting long-term horizons to appeal to the youth, who would always hold the balance of power in each election.
In any case, it’s time to return ‘generation’ to the front line of analytic categories in sociology.
Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the Department of sociology at University of Warwick. He tweets at @ProfSteveFuller.