My grandparents have been a very important part of my life. Hearing about their lives and struggles has helped form my character and enriched my understanding of the world. I respect their opinions, but I prefer to focus our conversations on the past rather than the present. With the exception of my maternal grandmother, who had a late-life transformation and travelled the world solo at the age of 50, my grandparents often lapse into an intolerance that jars with me. There is not a doubt in my mind that they are intelligent and caring individuals, but there’s a fixedness to their views that you rarely find in young people.
The scary thing is that these grey voters hold a significant amount of power when it comes to elections and referendums. In the EU referendum there was a 90% turnout of over 65s in comparison with a 64% turnout of under 25s. A simplistic way of explaining this is to say that young voters are apathetic and that if they really cared they would have voted… But isn’t it a bit naive to think that a third of young people do not care about their futures? Doesn’t it make more sense to read this as a failure of the political system to serve and engage a key demographic rather than tar all young people with an apathetic characteristic brush?
Professor David Runciman, head of the department of International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge has spoken of democracy “failing forward”, referring to Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and the election of Trump as indications that democracy as we know it is on its way out. However, we human beings are known for our powerful ability to adapt and change. It’s possible to imagine a series of adaptations to our political system that will make it relevant and fair in today’s world. What we must not do is blindly follow the rule-book, ignoring the changes around us in an attempt to paper over the cracks of a widening intergenerational and educational divide.
Democracy has changed. The population has aged. Geographical borders and national identities are losing meaning in an age of nomadic digital labourers and rich, multicultural societies. And yet we continue with antiquated political and voting systems that fail to take into account the technological tidal wave that has hit our society. As with all shifts in technology and social views, parts of the older generation have been left behind.
Maja Založnik writes in the Independent that an age-weighted voting system is being investigated by Japanese political scientists as a possible solution to this phenomenon of “intergenerational warfare”. My view is that the older population should have an equal say in who governs the country, but that certain policies that affect young people tangibly and old people ideologically should be decided upon by those it impacts the most.
What does that mean? That means that we could have referendums on drug regulation, prison reform, educational reform, the European Union and immigration policy that disclude over 65s or over 70s (sorry, Nan). This would stop the elder generation holding the younger hostage and slowing down the process of structural adaptation mirroring changing social attitudes.
For example, Brexit will mean less freedom of movement for young people across Britain and Europe and less European investment in educational and cultural schemes such as the Erasmus exchange and European City of Culture. It will disconnect some of the lines connecting young people across the continent, both ways. This slows down the social trend of increased collaboration evidenced by open source companies, crowdfunded projects, and a new emphasis on diversity measures. With a second referendum prioritising young people, whose lives will be affected significantly more than older voters, we would remain connected.
Secondly, controlled substances are not controlled. The result of this is that young people die from bad or super-strength batches of recreational drugs, young people become involved in gangs to make fast money from dealing, some going on to become victims of violence, and young people with problems are criminalised. Nevertheless, even the relatively low-risk move of legalising cannabis, withdrawing a large profit from criminal gangs and putting it into the pockets of the government, is not considered viable by either main party because of the backlash from older voters. Once again, an ideological monster puts the breaks on the forces of change. With a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis, excluding older voters, the motion to legalise would pass, the government would have a windfall, criminal gangs would lose a source of income and the substance could finally become “controlled”.
This is not about excluding older voters from democracy, I’m not proposing we deny them the right to vote in general elections and on any issue they have a vested interest in. This is about stopping the fear and morality of yesteryear halting governmental and social change. This is about engaging and listening to younger people who will have to live in the world that’s left to them. This is about updating our thought systems and perspectives to match the world we see around us, not the one we wish to see.