WASHINGTON — It can be difficult to notice history as it happens. Pivotal moments are often recognizable only in hindsight; decisions that seem minor at the time turn out to mean everything.
Thursday’s referendum in Britain is different. If Britain chooses to leave the European Union — a “Brexit” (Britain + exit, get it?) — we know with certainty that this decision will change the future of the country and of Europe.
Leaving the union would gouge a hole in Britain’s economy as well as Europe’s. In the longer term, a Brexit could weaken the European Union and give momentum to nationalist politics already simmering across the Continent.
To grasp why Britons might choose the risky path of independence over the safer status quo, you need to understand the deep divisions within the country — and that, for many voters, it is a referendum on the present as much as the future.
A referendum’s meaning is in the eye of the voter
If there is one chart that sums up the Brexit debate, it is this one. For Britons who want to “Remain” in the union, the most important driver is the economy, far outweighing the hot-button issue of immigration.
For “Leave” voters, the calculus is almost precisely the opposite. In other words, this isn’t just a split over what the effects of Brexit will be. Rather, the divide is over what is important — and the two sides of the debate prioritize totally different things.
A generational split is about more than age
This second chart, showing the age split between “Leave” and “Remain” backers, helps explain why the two sides have such starkly different priorities.
The split isn’t just about divergent generational attitudes; different age groups have different stakes in the economy.
Older voters are more likely to be retired and on a pension or other fixed income. That could mean they feel insulated from any short-term economic downturns caused by a Brexit — and that they don’t expect to share in future economic gains from staying. Younger voters have more to gain and lose from the economy’s performance — and from being able to freely work across Europe.
The age gap may also be connected to differing views of immigration, which in turn may be linked to geography. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often highest in towns with few immigrants — places where the problem isn’t foreigners competing with natives for jobs, but the absence of economic opportunities over all.
Opposition to immigration has become an indirect way to express anxiety over the changes globalization has brought to Britain, said Alexandra Cirone, a fellow at the London School of Economics.
“Framing this globalization problem as immigration,” she said, “can tug on the heartstrings of potential voters, regardless of the actual facts.”
In recent decades, Britain’s economy has shifted away from industry and manufacturing and toward services. That means many older Britons who once worked in factories or mines have seen their former employers shuttered and their communities become poorer, even as the country as a whole has become wealthier. They have also seen their towns wither as their children move to cities to find jobs.
To people outside those communities, Britain today is a wealthy country, with low unemployment and vibrant cities, a place where young people have plentiful and exciting opportunities. But in the areas hit hardest by economic change, all that success feels like a shift away from a comfortable past and toward a frightening future.
For voters who feel left behind by globalization and the rapid social changes that have come with it, a vote to leave the European Union can feel like a vote to restore Britain to its former greatness.
“Britain was a world power. They had an empire,” said Terrence Peterson, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. A vote to leave the bloc, therefore, can feel like vote to return to Britain as it once was.