Mind the Gap

The Brexit outcome tells us a lot about the insecurity felt by older voters

The tendency of older British voters to support leaving the European Union points to growing anxiety and a yearning for simpler times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2016, 4:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 10:26am

I realised where are all the 50 years and older, middle aged Hong Kong business people gathering to collectively exorcise their angst about the city’s economic and political future. It dawned on me last week when I attended an Air Supply concert.

Air Supply performed in front of a loyal Hong Kong crowd annually repeating the same songs from their 70s and 80s hit parade such as “Lost in Love” and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”. It isn’t as much as a concert, but a brief, shining, sentimental love-in between the band and its most affectionate fans.

When you’re aged and confronted with economic fear and uncertainty, your instincts tell you to defend whatever you have left of your world

Almost every soft rock hit from the 70s and 80s by bands like Bread or the Eagles is popular here. This is a city whose people psychologically seek to avert the future. Altogether it represents a tour of the tortured psyche of Hong Kong’s baby boomers who represent the city’s professional and business ownership classes.

Several years ago, I watched a one woman play, a tribute performance honouring 80s Cantonese pop superstar Anita Mui. The enthralled audience sang along to music reliving their childhood and briefly delivering themselves from what lies behind the curtain of Hong Kong’s future.

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Nostalgia is a delicate, but potent attraction to better days. It is an emotional twinge from your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. It takes us to a place where we long to go again – Hong Kong in the 70s and 80s when enough hope and opportunities existed for everyone.

Young people today try to visualise a Hong Kong in isolation, without China by not just dreaming of a return to the past (because so many of them can’t remember pre-1997 Hong Kong), but a vague, misty status quo ante. Paradoxically, in the UK older people wanted to return to a Britain that wasn’t bound to continental Europe.

Brexit surprised a nation with an apoplectic fit of referendum to return to a simpler time in Great Britain by the ageing baby boomer group. According to UK government polling figures this is how voting to remain in the EU broke down by age group: 75 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds; 56 per cent of 25 to 49 year olds; 44 per cent of 50 to 64 year olds; and 39 per cent of those aged 65 years and older.

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You might think younger voters would support more radical policies than their elders. But, older, unemployed or economically disenfranchised people who feel trampled under foot by the UK’s austerity policies appeared more likely to vote for leaving the EU. Younger people probably saw hope in the economic and lifestyle mobility that EU membership afforded. If you are older, your career and lifestyle options have likely dwindled. And when you’re aged and confronted with economic fear and uncertainty, your instincts tell you to defend whatever you have left of your world rather than venture into a brave new world.

This narrative runs through Donald Trump’s supporters, another economically disenfranchised group of working class unemployed who have grown to include the sprawling middle class. Mainstream media, sophisticated pollsters, traditional politicians and policy wonks cannot explain what is happening because all of them are out of completely out of touch. The future is always uncertain and forever unwritten.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker