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Opinion | Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Millennials, Brexit is your wakeup call

Protesters demonstrate against the EU referendum result outside the Houses of Parliament on June 28 in London. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

A week after Britons demanded a divorce from Europe, those who were happy in the 43-year marriage have passed through the first stage of grief over a ruptured relationship denial — and are fully embracing the second: anger.

Young Britons — who overwhelmingly wanted to retain freedom to work and travel in a common market — are shocked and furious at elders for saddling them with a future they didn’t want. We Americans are questioning whether a protest vote by older, less-educated whites in the UK is a harbinger of the US presidential election. It’s bad news for Hillary Clinton if voters here who share similar concerns turn out in high numbers.

Let’s first survey the damage across the pond. Markets sent the pound plunging to its lowest value in three decades. Standard and Poor’s stripped the UK of its triple-A credit rating. Goldman Sachs forecast Britain will suffer a recession. Dire warnings of economic turmoil if Britain voted to exit the 28-nation economic and political bloc seem prescient now.

In the harsh light of the day after the Brexit victory, the UK has a throbbing national hangover. Shocked millennials are petitioning for a new referendum and decrying elders who cast the die for them. But guess what? Young people are also to blame, because not enough of them bothered to vote. Surveys before the referendum showed the overwhelming majority of young adults wanted a unified Europe; elders did not. Three-quarters of those aged 18-to-24 who voted said they chose Remain, according to YouGov and Lord Ashcroft Polls. Similarly, 62 percent of voters aged 25-to-34 voted to stay in the EU, Ashcroft found. There were no official exit polls, but only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds planned to cast a ballot, according to Sky News data. Turnout was lower in areas with higher youth populations.

British millennials have lived their whole lives as citizens of a European community, and take for granted the freedom to study, work, and travel, and the presence of immigrants, who, studies show, contribute more to Britain’s economy and tax revenue than they cost its system. Millennials are angry over Brexit, but millions should be angry at themselves for not exercising their democratic right. Studies show young people are engaged in politics online and as consumers — buying or not buying certain products — but they’re unlikely to vote. Posting a Facebook update with an EU flag and earning “likes” feels good, but it carries no weight. Older people aren’t as visible in the social media echo chambers, but they cast ballots at very high rates. The margin between Leave and Remain was 1.27 million votes, and if all 13 million British millennials voted, they could have changed the outcome.


Which brings us back to the United States — and the lesson from Brexit to anyone who assumes logic and consequences will sway the minds of disaffected voters eager to punish politicians. The US millennial generation is now equal in size to Baby Boomers, representing a third of the electorate. American youth are more socially and economically liberal than the rest of the country, but only 46 percent of eligible millennials turned out to vote in 2012, according to Pew Research Center. Millennials in 2016 are less likely to vote than the ’80s generation or Baby Boomers did when they came of age, according to analysis by Russell Dalton of the University of California, Irvine.


Voter turnout increases as people age and settle into families and jobs, but it also depends on enthusiasm for candidates and feelings about the direction of the country. Millennials may not feel excited about Clinton, but if they would rue the day President Trump got elected, they need to show up and vote.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.