Paul's column: the old people are coming

13 March 2018

I am often asked how we should engage young people in politics and encourage them to vote. It’s an important issue and something that we should all be doing more about. With this question in mind I was recently asked to give an address in the Chapel at Fettes College in Edinburgh on 9thMarch 2018. This is what I said:

I am here this morning to give you a warning.  Not a warning about smoking or drinking alcohol or taking drugs.  Rather I bring you a warning about old people.  Or to put it another way, I’m warning you that the old people are coming.  Let me explain.

I represent the North East of England in the European Parliament in Brussels.  There are 751 MEPs in the Parliament representing between us the 28 member states of the EU.  The UK is represented by 73 MEPs. 

Two years ago the UK held a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU or leave the EU and the people of the UK voted, by a narrow margin, to leave.  Scotland voted Remain.  Northern Ireland voted Remain.  Wales voted Leave. England voted Leave. 

No one here this morning has ever seen a dodo in the wild. The dodo was a plump, feathered, flightless bird, found on the island of Mauritius in 1598 and by 1662 it had been hunted into extinction.  You can see the last stuffed dodo in Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History.

I too will shortly become extinct like the dodo but hopefully not stuffed!  For at the end of March 2019 the UK will leave the EU and the British MEP will become extinct. 

In the future you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren that once, long ago, when you were young, you heard the now extinct species the British MEP speak in the chapel of your old school.

Now back to my main task, to warn you that the old people are coming.  After the Second World War the birth rate slowly increased, people were living longer and the population grew, peaking in 1964.  I was born in 1962, I am 55 years old, I am part of the 1960s baby boom and there are a lot of us, about 9 million. In 10-20 years’ time we will be retiring and when this happens the UK will have more old people than it has ever had before, both in number and as a percentage of the total population.  

And who is going to be looking after us? Paying for us?

You are.  Your taxes will be supporting millions of us old people, paying the cost of our NHS and social care, for our meals on wheels, and our free bus passes.

Herein lies the danger for you and your generation.  Older people are more likely to vote.  Younger people are less likely to vote.  In last year’s general election 84% of over 65s voted but only 57% of 18 – 40 year olds voted, making older people a third more likely to vote.

Politicians need people to vote for them to get elected, so who are the politicians most likely to listen to?  Why would politicians respond to the concerns of young people if young people don’t vote?  Why would politicians ignore older voters if they do vote?

If you doubt my argument think about what happened in the EU referendum two years ago.  Essentially older people voted leave and young people voted remain but, and crucially, more older people went to the ballot box than young.  Brexit was a victory for the old over the young.

The danger for you is that my generation, a generation that is big in numbers, will turn out to vote en masse and that your generation won’t vote in the same numbers. As a consequence your generation will be out voted time and time again by mine.  My generation will dictate government policy, yours will have to follow it.

So my message to you today is when you become old enough to vote make sure that you use that hard won right and keep using it to make sure the politicians hear what you have to say.

For you have been warned, the old people are coming.

This column was originally published in The Journal newspaper.



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