The British vote to leave the EU clearly has many fathers. A system of global financial capitalism that has exclusion and inequality in its architecture. The premature implementation of monetary union, which—lacking adequate fiscal or financial integration—magnified the effects of financial crisis. A shift toward a technocratic paradigm ever more distant from the concerns of people, hindering their participation. The greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, brought about by climate change and disastrous military intervention.
These are all valid concerns. They all played some part in turning the British people against the EU. But there is another factor, a cultural factor reflected in a stark generational divide. Evidence suggests that support for leaving the EU was concentrated among people over 50. Among the 18-24 year olds, 75 percent opposed Brexit. So it can’t be just concerns about economic insecurity or the democratic deficit, issues that affect all generations. There’s also an ugly undertone of nationalistic xenophobia at play here. Indeed, what drove the leave vote seems to have been more cultural than economic—to put it bluntly, fear and loathing over rising immigration and greater cultural diversity. This is exactly the same dynamic playing out across the Atlantic with the rise of Trump—a cultural backlash of older whiter people lashing out against demographic forces that they see as threatening their historically privileged position.
We should not underestimate the destructive force of these generational antics. It goes well beyond looking at the world through ethnicity-tinted glasses. Brexit is just the latest move by a generation that inherited a remarkable postwar achievement in social/Christian democracy—on both sides of the Atlantic—and trashed it. A generation that sought maximum freedom with minimum responsibility. The generation of Reagan and Thatcher, habituated in putting personal gain over the common good—choosing tax cuts for themselves over investment in the future (making sure their own benefits were untouched, of course) and refusing to do anything about climate change because of the sheer inconvenience. To misquote Auden, it’s been a low, dishonest few decades.
Catholic social teaching, of course, emphasizes solidarity within generations and between generations—this is a key point of Laudato Si’. We are told to stand with the poor and excluded of both today and tomorrow, through a “new and universal solidarity” that does not freeze people out based on race or nationality. And Catholic social teaching strongly supports supranational institutions, on grounds of both solidarity and subsidiarity.
On this point, the EU is a special case. It is a Catholic experiment—its foundation lies in Catholic social teaching and its founding fathers were sincere Catholics. Its aim was to permanently end conflict through peaceful economic cooperation—linking arms instead of locking swords. For sure, there are huge problems with the current structure and direction of the EU that need to be fixed. But this cannot justify simply walking away from this enormous achievement in a temper tantrum.
The sad fact is that the younger people will be the ones dealing with the consequences of their parents’ tantrum. It is their future at stake. It’s the same dynamic across the board. The infrastructure is crumbling. There is no serious attempt to come up with the money to invest in sustainable development. The baby boomers will not be around to witness the worst consequences of their irresponsibility—especially when it comes to climate change. But so many of them don’t seem to care.
It’s time to put our faith in the much-maligned millennials, I think. They might be our only hope.