Britain's Brexit: How Baby Boomers Defeated Millennials in Historic Vote

Image: Young remain supporters
Remain supporters react as the EU referendum results are announced at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Friday.ROB STOTHARD / AFP - Getty Images

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By Alexander Smith

LONDON — The United Kingdom's decision to sever itself from the European Union on Friday exposed something approaching an intergenerational war of ideas.

While the "Leave" campaign won the referendum with 51.9 percent of the vote, young people — the ones who will likely grapple with the decision for decades — overwhelmingly wanted to remain part of the EU.

According to data gathered by the British pollster YouGovon election day, a staggering 75 percent of people aged between 18 and 24 voted for Remain.

Remain supporters react as the EU referendum results are announced at the Royal Festival Hall in London on Friday.ROB STOTHARD / AFP - Getty Images

But this youthful bloc was outweighed by an even stronger force.

What pushed the country toward Brexit, according to pollsters, was a remarkably high turnout among white, working-class older people — most of whom who voted Leave.

"The young have lost the referendum and the old have won," according to Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, another British polling company.

Sixty-one percent of people over the age of 65 voted Leave, according to YouGov's data.

Related: Britain's Brexit: What Are the Next Steps After Historic Vote?

There is no official government breakdown of how people voted by age, and YouGov's statistics came from polling that saw it (along with others) incorrectly call the result for Remain.

But while the percentages may shift by a point or two, pollsters agree the trend is undeniable.

This generational disconnect led some Remain-supporters on Twitter to suggest that older voters had saddled the younger generation with a EU-free life they did not choose.

"If you're of the view that, 'The old aren't going to be around forever,' then there's some truth in that," said Page. "But your vote isn't weighted on how old you are."

He pointed out that the real reason this youthful Remain voice was drowned out is their turnout was not high enough. "The Leavers were motivated and they turned out and ultimately the Remainers were less excited," he added.

But why was the older, working-class turnout so high?

In the past, middle class baby boomers have been more likely to vote because of a sense of civic duty and that because voting is "the right thing to do," according to Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at YouGov.

This time, however, huge numbers of working-class over-65s turned out for different reasons.

"It was about a feeling that they are disaffected about the way things are going in this country, whether that's the EU, Westminster or just life in general," Twyman said. "The world has moved on in a way they are not comfortable with and in a way they did not consent to."

According to YouGov, the main reasons people voted Leave were immigration and sovereignty, the latter being the Euroskeptic idea that the U.K. has given away power to the EU.

The Leave campaign successfully persuaded these people that experts' warnings about the economy — Remain's biggest argument — were overblown, according to Twyman. Many people were persuaded that the vote would not affect their personal finances.

"It then became an issue about sovereignty, control and immigration. It was a free hit to display your dissatisfaction," he said. "For them it was a vote for what has come before, or otherwise. And boy did they vote otherwise."

Page, at Ipsos MORI, agreed. The Leave vote was likely fueled by "older, working class people with no education, who are fed up of life, fed up of the way Britain is going and they used the referendum to punish politicians."