Change probably won’t come with a hemline or a haircut this time round. Rock bands, festivals and drugs have largely been co-opted by the old. But there is a world outside mobile phone sponsored nights out, parliamentary politics and commercial radio which young people are coming to dominate. And though the youth of today may have it harder than ever before, Sam Wolfson says that’s all the more reason to rise up and do something about it.
Some time between the fall of Nirvana and the rise of The Thrills, pop culture stopped pitting generation against generation. Festivals and football matches, once youth pursuits, became fun for the whole family. New buzzwords like “kidult” and “adultescent” were used to brand the extension of youth into middle age. Parents, still on a comedown from their summer of love, were acting like teenagers.
The Sunday supplements had a field day. They ran cringe-worthy headlines like ‘If My Mum Becomes Me’, ‘It’s hip being a kidult, so cancel the slippers’ and ‘Generation gap? So not’. By 2000, nine out of ten young people reported they were very close to their parents. Over half listened to the same music as them. Parents started to worry if their kids didn’t rebel. Mum left the pink hair dye on Tabitha’s bed. Dad took Sebastian to Latitude. Age wasn’t anything but a number.
Moments which young people could call their own were fleeting. Scenes like bassline and grime burnt brightly then burnt out. Those who made it big did so by leaving their generation behind. Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal built their following from wry social commentary and young fans swapping their songs online but within a few years both were playing stadium gigs to children and homeowners. Who can blame them? By 2010, just 17% of music was bought by people aged 20-29.
We stopped caring that young people were losing a sense of shared identity, that youth culture, or what was left of it, was fragmenting until it was almost imperceptible. We didn’t notice when squats were closed down, nightclubs were bought up by chains and youth unemployment started to rise. We weren’t prepared for the generational crisis that was looming upon us.
Now it’s 2014 and things are looking bleak. One in five young people are not in education, employment or training. The promise of a decent job for those who obtain the right qualifications has degraded into a farce, with thousands of graduates applying for the same free internship. The minimum wage for a 17-year-old is a pitiful £3.68, slightly over half of the adult rate. If Cameron’s re-elected he’s promised to withdraw housing benefits from under-25s, despite the majority of young people claiming them being parents themselves. But being a recent graduate myself, I am not disheartened. In fact, I think we are on the precipice of an epoch-making time to be a young person in the UK.
To see why, you have to go back to before the riots and the Arab spring, before Wiley met Dizzee or Kanye met Jay-Z, before the Hacienda and Spike Island, before Larry Clark, Spike Lee and MTV, before Dylan swaggered on at Newport in a leather jacket, before John Lennon tried LSD, before draft dodging and student protests, before the word “teenager” even existed, to an old Hungarian theorist who inadvertently predicted that young people might one day change the world.
In 1923, Karl Mannheim suggested that generations could be as important to the fabric of society as social classes. You can’t choose how old you are, but people the same age as you are likely to share similar experiences, feel the same way about politics, culture and each other. Mannheim thought that just as workers had become class conscious and revolted in Russia, so a generation, if conscious of their participation in a common destiny, would win the power to change it. In times of rapid social and cultural transformation, when traditional thought and expression are no longer possible, a generation can come together, bound by shared circumstances and set history on a different course. Mannheim died in 1947 but ten years later, his prediction of a generational consciousness was proved right. For decades young people occupied centre stage in society. They created a global culture in their image, alchemising the bleak post-war years into pop, style and consumerism. In 1967, 80% of music purchases were made by people under 24. Out on the streets, young people shifted the political climate towards ideologies of pacifism and environmentalism. Youth, wrote the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, were “the vanguard of social change” and “what principally made the difference was precisely their age.”
Parents and politicians responded in terror. “The young want to take America under siege,” an up-and-coming Ronald Reagan told a sympathetic audience in 1969. What started as a generation gap became a gorge and then a chasm, with the elders on the wrong side of history. Today “youth” is more often followed by the words “crime” and “unemployment” than it is culture or politics. While parents are happy to hang out with their own kids, as a society we see young people as vulnerable and directionless. Youth have gone from being the front line of humanity to society’s irreparable victims.
Negative perceptions are shared by young people themselves. The rate of mental health disorders among young people has never been higher. 19,000 attempted suicide in Britain last year. Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalism Realism who blogs as K-Punk, argues that “being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness.” I believe we are on the verge of a generational revolution once again. What’s unusual about our current situation is that things are getting worse no matter how well you did at school or how much your parents earn. Last year students who left school at eighteen found it easier to get a job than those leaving with degrees. What most young people share today is not a cultural sensibility but a structural deficit. Youth are a persecuted constituency at a time of rapid social change.
Traditional thought and expression are no longer possible. Just like Mannheim predicted, this generation is becoming conscious and taking action. It began at the student uprisings in 2010. Ostensibly a march about legislation that would make university more expensive, the protests, kettles and Millbank became about young people finding their voice. The poorest 16-year-olds in the country said get your hands off our 30 quid a week EMA. University students who wouldn’t be affected by the changes said don’t ruin it for the next generation. Young people blasted music at the police that had an undeniable age tag: JME, Vybz Kartel, Donaeo and Lethal B.
The student movement constituted not just a protest but a creative youth culture. It brought young people from an individualised mileux to recognise a wider generational allegiance. In the end, it fizzled out. But things changed in the kettle. Dubstep heads from Bristol uni raved with fifteen-year-olds from Croydon, listening to the same tunes they did in their bedrooms, fighting the same struggle. After the first protest an alternative youth press emerged almost over night. It is typified by free PDF books like Fight Back!, a compendium of young journalists’ perspectives compiled by Dan Hancox on youth, protest and alternatives to austerity; Growth Markets, the Deterritorial Support Group’s hashtag-heavy nine point plan to change world; and authors like 19-year-old Andre ‘Zoom’ Anderson, whose brilliantly erratic The Manifesto was written entirely in caps lock on his BlackBerry. Addressing young people exclusively, he wrote:
“No longer will we push our destiny to the back of the to-do pile... In reaction we will come with a solution through our art. These works will not be selfish or self-centred. Nah. We will create in order to liberate a people.”
To translate into lower case: As old opportunities and routes to success are sealed off, young people set up camp in the cracks of the economy. What would have taken 60s revolutionaries months of faffing takes a teenager a few minutes. You want to put on a rave, start a magazine, organise direct action and meet other people who want to do the same: it’s almost disturbingly easy.
The riots were, in some ways, the perfect example of how quickly we can mobilise. Young people came together, harnessing mobile technology to smash up phone shops, putting aside gang rivalries to loot, destroy and burn. It’s heartbreaking to think that such commanding use of technology, tactics and camaraderie was wasted on petty crime. Imagine if that binding force was directed at more deserving victims. “£13 trillion hoard hidden from taxman by global elite,” says today’s paper. That might be a good place to start.
This generation is at a nascent stage of consciousness. But as more exceptional candidates get turned away from their dream jobs, as the controlling nature of the police and big promoters turn the summer holidays into a nightmare, as young people realise that nothing’s going to change unless they do something, so people will turn away from paths well trodden and start something new.
2014 is when we stop waiting for the cogs of industry to dish out pellets of culture, stop joining the youth wing of a political party in the dire hope that one day they might be able to change from within. What many are struggling with is that youth culture isn’t reappearing in the places it did before. Change probably won’t come with a hemline or a haircut this time round. Rock bands, festivals and drugs have largely been co-opted by the old. But there is a world outside mobile phone sponsored nights out, parliamentary politics and commercial radio which young people are coming to dominate.
I believe we are on the verge of generational revolution because the alternative is too grim. Millions of young people working longer hours, for less money, at shitter jobs, to pay higher rents, until later in their life? A depression epidemic among teenagers who see no place for themselves in a brutalised economy? £200 festivals headlined by Kasabian and Snow Patrol for ever and ever and ever? That’s a future I refuse to contemplate. And I know I’m not the only one.