The vote to leave the EU felt personal for Amalie Rust O’Neill, a graphic design student born and brought up in Brighton but with family from Sweden, Poland and Ireland. “My family are the Polish builders. I am the person they are voting to keep out,” said the 22-year-old. “I felt sick, scared and sad.”
After years of work for a degree, her hopes for the next decade were crushed on the same day as she got her results. And she feels they were torn up by an older generation with no concern for either the future of their country or the dreams of its young people.
“As a creative, living and working abroad has always been a dream. The fact that it has been stripped away is horrible. The fact that people chose to strip it away is worse,” she says.
That anger and despair was echoed by young people around the country, who chose overwhelmingly to stay inside Europe and now feel betrayed by the older voters who secured victory for Brexit. About three-quarters of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted cast ballots for Remain, while three in five over-60s opted to Leave, surveys show.
“I feel quite bitter that the older generation can celebrate victory, while young people have suffered such defeat and will have to live longest with this decision,” said Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, an 18-year-old from Bristol who, along with most of her friends, voted to stay in the EU.
There were bleak jokes across social media, driven by a powerful anger at being sacrificed for the short-term self-interest of people who would not have to face all the consequences.
“The older generation voting to leave the EU is the same as your mate picking the film then leaving 20 minutes in,” one teenager joked on Facebook. Others took to Twitter. “I’m not giving up my seat to the elderly anymore. Eye for an eye.” said @DavidVujanic, a London-based comedian with Serbian roots.
Many also shared a comment by a Financial Times reader, lamenting not just the economic impact of the retreat from Europe as a weak economy plunges into unknown territories, but its incalculable personal cost. “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied,” the unidentified commentator said.
Some Europeans who had built lives in the UK are already grappling with the prospect of an abrupt and painful upheaval. “A friend said, ‘Let’s not overreact, it’s not the end of the world’. But it is the end of one world, of the world as we know it,” said Hortense Franc, a St Martin’s student.
At 10, she moved to the UK but now she doesn’t know if she can stay – or wants to. “Do I want to take a passport of a country that has these views? But moving to France would also be strange. I’ve lived here most of my life,” she added. Few of the youngest voters saw the Leave victory coming, perhaps because they underestimated the anger of an older generation whose lives look relatively comfortable.
“For my generation, our future is quite bleak. We’re told you may not have a pension, there are going to be no jobs, no houses for me and my friends to buy, we are going to rent for the rest of our lives. And now I’m not a European,” said Celeste Houlker, a 25-year-old youth mentor, who says many of the people she works with are despairing at another huge upheaval.
“We feel we have to live with these choices we haven’t made. They are being made by people who have already lived their lives. In 2016, the one thing we really want – stability – we don’t have.”
Still, amid the resentment there was some sympathy for an older generation adrift in the digital world that millennials navigate easily, and frustration about how all political parties had failed large swaths of the country.
“While there is clearly a big segment of Ukip voting leave, I think many are well-natured people simply feeling overworked, misinformed and alienated by a government that has prioritised investment in big cities over their working-class towns,” said Adam Smith, a 25-year-old from east Yorkshire who works in online marketing. “The issue is that they’ve listened to hate-fuelled propaganda, rather than facts, and directed their anger at the wrong target.
“I feel ashamed to call myself British. My only hope is that the strong Remain vote of the younger crowd means we will slowly move away from politics of fear and division.”
A small but significant minority of Britain’s young disagreed with Smith and sided with their elders to back leave, though perhaps for different reasons. Several who contacted the Observer were driven more by distaste for Europe than by fears of immigration. “I voted to leave because of the undemocratic nature of the EU,” said 25-year-old Christian Thomas, from Cornwall. “I feel that we have been forced into this union without being asked.”
There were also many young people who did not vote, though some say they are regretting leaving the decision to baby boomers who apparently went to the polls in higher numbers.
Turnout was lower in areas with a more youthful population and, before the actual vote, only half of those aged 18 to 24 said they were certain they would vote, compared with two thirds of those over 65.
That reflects a decade-long decline in youth participation in British elections, said James Sloam, an expert in political participation of young people at the University of Royal Holloway. Turnout for the group has slipped from an average of about 60% two decades ago to just 40% at the last general election.
It is a trend not mirrored in other European countries and there has been a dangerous tendency to blame voters for disengaging, rather than asking why politicians cannot inspire them, Sloam and younger activists said.
“I have heard from many older, but also Leave voters, that it is our own fault, that young people are getting exactly what they deserve for not voting, but this is such a damaging view,” said Izabela Pawlic, a politics student at Royal Holloway University who organised a voter registration drive. She pointed to widespread frustration at both the timing of the referendum, as students were moving home or to take up summer jobs, and a change in voter registration rules that confused many first-time voters at universities and college.
When university students did vote, they supported Remain by an even more overwhelming 82%, but many seemed to feel that their voices would not be heard even if they did cast a ballot.
“It often seems as if we are forgotten about on campaign trails … We’ll be used for a photo opportunity that a politician can post to their social media accounts saying, ‘Look at me engaging with young people’, but after that we’re simply disregarded,” said James Dobson, a 24-year-old teaching abroad who cast his vote by proxy in Caernarfon, Wales.
One glimmer of hope for some is that the frustration of defeat, and awareness of what they have lost, may push young people toward political engagement. “There appears to be more mounting pressure from younger people for the voting age to be lowered to 16 or 17,” said Phoebe Warneford-Thomson in Bristol.
“Instead of feeling dejected, I think this result has led many young people to become more determined to have their say.”