Perceptions and (Dis)-Possessions of the Future Post-Brexit

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Last month’s post explored correlations and possible complications between British national identities, the European Championships and the now much reported EU referendum. An exhausting amount has happened and been written since then. Footballing escapades made for contrasting symbolism, as newly ‘independent’ England failed disastrously, whilst Wales showed the quintessential qualities professed by ‘Leave’ of unity and self-determination. Regarding the referendum, commenting has shifted from analysing and essentially blaming different voter demographics to stirring in-fighting within political parties. In terms of the more ‘on the ground’ implications of what Brexit might mean, this is just the beginning. It is a generation defining period for young people and now takes an even more central role in this geographically-themed, future-oriented research.

Differing perceptions and notions of possession towards the future have been at the heart of the Brexit furore. Those of us studying young people have picked up on these contrasting sentiments of futures being gambled, stolen or saved. Regardless of one’s stance, the future – especially for young people – has taken on increasingly assured uncertainty. UCL Institute of Education’s ‘Growing Up and Global Austerity: comparing youth opportunities, aspirations and civic values around the world’ was gate-crashed by the recent Leave vote that gave the conference even more significance, fuelling angers and anxieties that affirmed the need for more research. Similarly, the temporal theme of the subsequent ASA conference in Durham ‘Footprints and Futures: the time of anthropology’ became all the more salient. In an engaging panel on ‘Living Histories, making futures: temporality and young lives’, Patrick presented his work on high school leavers in New York City and London and discussed the emergent framework of ‘quantum personhood’ as an alternative take to the study of aspiration, such as he has previously researched. Whilst many of the papers covered familiar themes in youth research, such an international collaboration also highlighted the disparities and varieties of youth experience. Key to this is the issue of inequality.

With regard to the Brexit vote, those who do not feel entitled to an abundant and mobile future, and who aren’t threatened by warnings of economic uncertainty when it’s all they already know, may feel they don’t have much of a future to gamble, and not the pounds to devalue or opportunities to lose. Jon Harris makes a fantastic life course analogy comparing graduates from the University of Manchester, unanimously Remain, to Leavers he’d met earlier that day in South Wales:

“I’ve got quite a vivid sense of what inequality means in practice here; ‘cos I feel that those people that we met in Merthyr are at the bottom of a great big escalator, down there, that’s not working. And these people are getting on an escalator which is going up – at speed.”

The experiences, contacts and qualifications of going to university – noting that a staggering 84% of students voted Remain – seems to instil an optimistic sense of ammunition, assets and having a “future”. This language of possession is echoed in the protestations, whether on social media or in the streets, that “our” [young people’s] futures have been stolen by an older generation. These futures are not just temporal, but also imagined spatially, in the form of international prospects. A much shared remark from an unnamed commenter on the FT lamented: “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied”. This is very true, and very sad, yet it is precisely this kind of dynamic, jet-set vision of one’s spatial and experiential horizons that many working-class, northern and rural voters have felt they never had in the first place.

The alleged urban-rural dichotomy has been much spoken about post-Brexit, and also happens to form the focus of our research. A weakness, yet also strength of our sample, is that they do not conform to the ideal typical urban-opportunity – rural-deprivation post-Brexit stereotype. Our rural participants are from Oxfordshire – one of the few Remain counties in England – and are largely middle-class. London is generally portrayed as being pro-Remain, yet our participants are less affluent than their Oxfordshire counterparts – and it is those ‘without’ that are generalized as being Leavers. However, the Londoners are predominantly non-white and hence add a further, much needed layer of complexity to the debate; analyses largely portray the British “working-classes” as monolithic, assumedly white and pro-Leave, distorting, for example, the 73% of black Brits and 67% of British Asians who voted to Remain. Using “the future” and the geographical imagination as paradigms, all of this serves to strengthen the research, as we unpack complicated and generalizing terms to do with class, ethnicity, identity and region – in need of timely attention.

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