Young Britons fear for their post-Brexit future

Emily Dobson had planned her life around the EU. After moving to France with her parents as a child, the 21-year-old completed a degree in international business in the Netherlands and hoped to spend her career working across the continent.

“I’ve always seen myself as an EU citizen and the rights that came with that meant I could go anywhere,” she said.

But Brexit has thrown her plans into disarray. Without the income to qualify for French citizenship, she can no longer work freely in 27 countries and finds herself disadvantaged in the international jobs market. “Now Brexit has happened it’s shutting all those doors,” she said.

Most British under-40s have grown up taking for granted the freedom of movement that allowed them to study and work anywhere in the EU without bureaucratic hurdles and research suggests a majority are worried about what the future holds outside Europe.

According to a parliamentary inquiry into a “better Brexit for young people’’, the economic impact of leaving the EU, rising nationalist sentiment, and the loss of European rights and entitlements, including freedom of movement, are chief among their concerns.

Emily Dobson who is living in Paris and facing an unclear settlement situation following Brexit
Emily Dobson’s plans have been thrown into disarray by Brexit © Leo Novel/FT

Youth advocacy organisations are now working to guarantee the continuation of mobility schemes such as the Erasmus Programme, which funds and facilitates periods abroad for EU students, helping send 17,000 Britons to Europe annually, as the government negotiates Britain’s relationship with the bloc. The scheme accounts for more than half of UK students’ time spent abroad worldwide.

Last month MPs voted against requiring the government to negotiate full membership of the scheme after Brexit, and although Boris Johnson has insisted there is “no threat” to the programme, the National Union of Students has pledged to campaign for its continuation.

If the Brexit vote had been decided by young people, the UK would likely have stayed in the EU. Although there are no official age breakdowns of how people voted in the referendum, polls suggest that 72-75 per cent of under-25s backed Remain. A later survey completed on behalf of the anti-Brexit youth organisation Our Future, Our Choice found 74 per cent of those too young to vote in 2016 would have backed Remain and 55 per cent said they would be angry if Britain left the EU.

Bar chart of EU referendum vote share, by age group (%) showing Young people voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU

“Young people feel cheated by Brexit,” said Mete Coban, the 27-year-old founder of non-governmental organisation My Life My Say, which carried out parliament’s better Brexit project with the London School of Economics. “My generation feels very unlucky. It seems that we’re going backwards.”

In the course of speaking with thousands of under-30s, Mr Coban found that many view the decision to leave the EU as a continuation of the neglect and disadvantage that they feel has been dealt to their generation and is linked in part to austerity.

“We saw the education maintenance allowance get scrapped, tuition fees increase, rents and house prices are sky high,” he said. “Then Brexit happened. We’re left thinking, can this get any worse?”

27/01/2020 Brexit & Young People Mete Coban of My Life My Say. Photographed in Stratford this afternoon.
Mete Coban says his generation feels unlucky and “it seems that we’re going backwards” © Charlie Bibby/FT

Eden Ladley, 24, who spent a year at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, said she would not have been able to afford to live abroad without EU funding. “I wanted an international community that contrasted, perhaps, with where I’d come from,” she said.

The need for a visa to work in Europe, combined with potential hits to international business post-Brexit, may also block overseas possibilities that in the past have offered young people both a holiday experience and a leg up in the jobs market.

Seasonal Business in Travel, a trade body representing 200 businesses in the sector, said that in 2018 British travel companies had cut an average of 30 per cent of their workforce since 2016, with the majority of lost jobs suffered by 18- to 34-year-olds. It warned 25,000 jobs could be at risk and said there had already been a 7 per cent reduction in UK workers posted to the EU.

“It’s a much harder market now and much less young adult friendly,” said Ella Norman, who completed her first ski season when she was 18. Now 26, she has built a career from her early overseas work experience and is an operations manager with holiday company Skiworld. She expects managing life between France and Britain will become harder, and jobs more competitive, after Brexit.

“What was amazing was coming out here to work without a visa, getting better life skills and experiences than I would have at home,” Ms Norman said. “I haven’t looked back. I have no idea what I’d do in England.”

Picture by Jon Super for The Financial Times newspaper. Pic fao Marcus Cotton Picture shows NUS Trans Officer Eden Ladley photographed at the NUS offices in Macclesfield, 28 Jan. 2020. (Photo/Jon Super 07974 356-333)
Eden Ladley says she would not have been able to live abroad without EU funding © Jon Super/FT

The economic consequences of Brexit are also likely to be felt more keenly by young people in the UK. EU funding — including the European Social Fund, which since 2014 has spent more than £4bn on employability and youth projects — is due to end this year. The Local Government Association said Westminter’s plans to replace this are uncertain, leaving youth projects unable to plan for their future.

Not everyone agrees. Joe Porter, 23, is a Conservative councillor in Staffordshire. He campaigned to leave the EU and believes the country can now begin a “healing process” based around building a better future for young people. That includes taking a more “open and global” approach to trade and setting a progressive environmental policy to be an “example to the rest of the world”, he said.

“It means we can set our own legislation that can be an example across the world. We can get on with things, as an independent sovereign nation,” he said.

Other young people say the situation is more complex. Ruby, who asked not to use her full name, spent much of last year in a migrant camp in Greece and sees the EU “as an institution based on exclusion”.

She believes that nationalism and racism turned leaving the EU into a toxic process. “We didn’t have to feel hopeless and small-minded in this way,” she said.

Now that Britain has left the bloc, My Life MySay is focusing on advocacy for protections, particularly in workers rights, the environment and free movement, that are open to question as the terms of Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU are worked out.

Mr Coban said that while young people as a demographic are unhappy at leaving the bloc, few are invested in the EU project itself.

“They identify Leave with people that have politics and policies against those that they value — like openness and diversity,” he said. “Brexit has politicised this generation but we now need to find a way to talk to each other and do what is best for young people.”


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