Something interesting has happened to our generation: we've set out to work very, very hard - at the expense of a great deal else. I’m here today to ask a very pressing question. It is a question that at first may seem absurd, but please bear with me. I put it to you: how long before we are all robots?
We all know the backstory by now: our forbearers have coasted through life on a wave of free education, low unemployment, cheap consumer goods, atomic-fuelled house prices and cheap-as-chips Easyjet holidays. They arrive at retirement just in time for the government to realise they’re the only ones who vote and reward them handsomely for it. But what do they see when they look in their rearview mirror?
Well, that’s us. And before the 2007 recession sent the record skipping, the party looked set to go on and on - and get better and better. The bar had been set high, our expectations higher. But then, as the cost of living started climbing and our incomes dropped, the music was soon drowned out by the hum of a collective anxiety. We won't get a job, or be able to buy a house, or pay off student loans. Motored by blind, low-level panic, we now strive like never before and, putting our heads down, often lose sight of what matters. While the basics seem out of reach, our dreams are far beyond: writing that book, making music, painting - or whatever - fall far, far down the list.
And how has this dogged pursuit of what was once taken for granted expressed itself aesthetically? Through, it would seem, a fade to grey. A shade, more than a colour, grey expresses indecision, a lack of solidity. Not an absence and not a full presence, but rather a hint. It is - at the same time - efficient, mechanical (the colour of metal and concrete) and corporate (the colour of skyscrapers and suits). Grey is the colour of machines, of robots.
"Nowadays we can't afford a hangover. For our generation, it’s smart drugs. Modafinil has replaced Martell. We must be switched on, top of our games, sharp as a knife, at all times."
Midway through the 2010s and commentators are pointing to grey as the colour of the decade. Our clothes are grey-marl, our laptops are silver-grey. Everyone from Alexander Wang to Phoebe Philo and Isabel Marant champion shades of slate and dove and battleship. The best-selling book of recent years gave us 50 shades of the stuff. We work in buildings that range from gunmetal to grey-blue, in jobs that can engender a sense of purposeleness (a position unclear; neither black nor white). And for when we get bored of it, there’s always greige.
This fade to grey is present across youth culture. Look at the recent winners of the Mercury prize: James Blake, the XX, Alt-J. Then there’s Mount Kimbie, Ghost Poet, Nicolas Jaar, Richie Hawtin, Lorde even. While they come from different corners genre-wise, they’re unified by something, a texture: a sparseness of sound. Sure, you might like them - and they might make great music - but it’s important to ask why is this the sound that has caught the collective ear of our generation? We used to make music to rebel to, to be angry to, to dance to. Now, there’s nothing to offend, no real edges: it’s just music to be to.
Another recent sign of our robotification came with the news that we have, as a generation, apparently stopped drinking. While this might be great for our livers, it could be seriously damaging for the arts. Empirically, it’s tough to deny a link between good art and hard living: Pollock, Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Dali, Dickens, Keats, Biggie Smalls, Bill Hicks... the list goes on. Art and debauchery used to both be about rebellion: getting out of it to actively get away from it; to turn off, to tune out.
"Together, we are confused, uncertain, jittering. Under-slept, overworked and herded like cattle, hanging to an ideology that belongs to a previous generation."
As Hicks himself once said you can judge a society by the drugs it takes. Speaking in the 90s, it was five days of caffeine-fuelled work, followed by two of alcohol to “keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in”. But nowadays we can't afford the hangover. For our generation, it’s smart drugs. Modafinil has replaced Martell. We must be switched on, top of our games, sharp as a knife, at all times. You never know when you might walk into the lift and your boss, or future employer, is stood there ready to catch a whiff of the night before or fire that killer, career-defining question.
What's bizarre, is that this process has taken place through a period of a prevailing ideology of the individual. But in all this, that is just what we’re losing: our individuality. Together, we are confused, uncertain, jittering. Under-slept, overworked and herded like cattle, hanging to an ideology that belongs to a previous generation, hoping that the balloon will magically reinflate. Because really, you are too busy to look around for an alternative. And while you're not sure what it is you've spent all your time doing, you know that it wasn’t the things you wanted to.
Sorry to be a killjoy. But I'm certain of one thing: youth culture should be fun, challenging and rule-breaking. But all this that’s going on now feels, well, a little boring in comparison. If I'm missing something, please do let me know. Otherwise, the logical conclusion seems to be to take the Excel spreadsheet as inspiration when we dress and stick in our headphones and listen to recordings of keyboards clacking and paper shredders shredding and the gentle hum of the photocopier machine. Welcome all, to life as a robot.