by Richard King
I wonder, do you believe that children are our future? I do. In fact, I often catch myself thinking how important it is to teach them well, and indeed to let them lead the way. Hell, some days I even resolve to show them all the beauty they possess inside – you know, give them a sense of pride, to make it easier, right? And their laughter reminds me … Okay I'll stop now.
Whitney had one thing right, at least. Children, young people, are the future. Or rather, they'll experience more of the future than I, at 46, am likely to. Not a difficult point to grasp, or a difficult point to make, and of course we should keep our hands on our wallets when politicians invoke The Young. Such invocations are to politics what The Bodyguard is to cinema: transcendentally anodyne.
And yet, and yet … Young people, youth, the kids, whatever, are facing a very uncertain future, and their place in it is fast becoming an inescapable modern theme. Indeed a healthy sense of grievance would appear to be brewing in their hormone-addled brains. The young are revolting, and by that I don't mean that their complexions resemble pizza dough or that their hair smells like a forest floor. No. I mean that they're pissed off with the world and with the indifference of our political Kevin Costners to their current and future prospects within it.
Certainly the young are well represented in the ranks of what we might call “the new old left”. In the US, where last year Millennials overtook the Baby Boomers as America's largest generation, more young people supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries than supported Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump put together. Nor was it a close-run thing. According to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, more than 2 million young people cast ballots for Sanders in the states that voted before June 1, while Clinton and Trump combined received less than 1.6 million votes. Similarly the first round of the French presidential elections saw socialist elder Jean-Luc Mélenchon take an impressive 30 percent of the youth vote (18-24 year-olds), up from just 8 percent in 2012, while François Fillon and Benoît Hamon could muster only 18 percent between them. (Emmanuel Macron took 18 percent and Marine Le Pen 21 percent, which is remarkable for a far-right party.) As for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom Theresa May is hoping to crush before the UK remembers that it likes his policies – which, by the way, it very much does – his support among the young was the crucial factor in his rise to the Labour leadership. Ditto the rise of Syriza and Podemos.
Plus ça change, the greybeards will say, staring into the fire, rugs over their knees: young people are always more idealistic than their parents; it is in the Natural Way of Things. Ah yes, and did not Churchill say that if you're not a liberal at 20 you have no heart and not a conservative at 40 you have no head? No, actually, as you'd be able to guess from the fact that Churchill was a Conservative at 20 and, um, a Liberal at 40. Still, nice try pops. Cuppa tea?
No, this is not a generational tantrum. There is something edgier going on here, and it has to do with the economy, stupid, or rather with the stupid economy. As we approach what Wolfgang Streeck has called the “long, post-capitalist interregnum”, our more intelligent younger people are beginning to regard askance the centrist mantras of moderate reform. They want a new kind of politics, and a new kind of society on the end of it.
It isn't hard to understand why. In the US and Europe young people felt the effects of the recession more than any other cohort, suffering higher unemployment and a steeper fall in their wages. The triple whammy of slow economic growth, rising inequality and out-of-control debt is one they will have to bear all their lives, absent a truly epochal turnaround, while the coming wave of automation will push many of them into low-skill jobs or out of waged work altogether. A life of precarious labour beckons, and the centrists' answer, education, which comes served with another dollop of debt and no guarantee of a job at the end, sounds more desperate with every passing year. (There are entrepreneurs in residence now, as if the very fact of having one around will inspire enterprise and innovation in the cohort.) Oh, and just to top it off, the environment is fucked and nukes back in fashion. Perhaps the coolhunters can come up with a garment that will look good in the event of an apocalypse.
Though not precisely gerontocratic, our system clearly disfavours the young. In the absence of concerted efforts to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, the dynamics of cumulative advantage mean that those with assets will improve their position relative to the rest of society over time, such that the Matthew Principle – “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath” – begins to take on a generational cast. The young, of course, don't do themselves any favours by disdaining to vote in sufficient numbers to really hold their elders to account. But such apathy is itself a political phenomenon that reflects a deep cynicism about mainstream politics – a lack of belief in its power to change things.
Yes, there will be inheritances for the rich kids, and to that extent the dynamics of class cut across the generational divide, as indeed do the dynamics of race and gender and disability, which also cut across each other (thank you, intersectionality, for stating the bloody obvious). But looked at in the broad, the economic position looks bad for the Millennials, and no one from the “centre” of politics seems to have much to say about it. Meanwhile, the universities hang their posters: eager students, smiling broadly, tastefully lit by their own bright futures …
As I've written before – in this space and others – the generations that bequeathed these problems have bequeathed as well a form of politics that is almost entirely irrelevant to them. Forged in the '70s and honed in the '90s, the spurious identity politics that characterised Hilary Clinton's campaign is neoliberal ideology in skinny jeans and Birkenstocks: the belief that you, and only you, in all your post-material difference, have the power to change the world for the better. (Is it just me, or are bumper stickers reading “Be the change you want to see” enough to make you choke on your falafel?) Little wonder that the Clintonoids accused Sanders of practising “brocialism” and that Corbyn was singled out as a misogynist for giving too few of the “top” portfolios to women in his shadow cabinet. Such barbs are all the centre-left now has in its diminished kit: divide and conquer in an eye-catching new outfit.
The material left should take heart from the fact that a growing number of Millennials can see through such opportunistic posturing, and, indeed, should put the interests of those Millennials at the centre of its politics. And it should, as far as is humanly possible, resist the lesser evilism that is (and will be) demanded of it in the ideological contests to come. Studies show that Millennials value authenticity over presentation, which explains why so many of them are willing to come out for politicians who look like geography teachers. If the left wants to build a new constituency in the hearts and minds of Generation Y it will have to stick to its principles, while being very creative about how to advance them.
Perhaps the biggest problem the left faces right now is that neoliberal capitalism, in bringing us to the point where solidarity is essential, has destroyed much of the ground from which solidarity can emerge. That is why we're seeing a reversion to nationalism and other ancient atavisms: with nothing to connect individual citizens in increasingly fragmented societies, it is the lowest common denominators of race and nation that are easiest to sell. The left needs an alternative narrative, and this largely tolerant, precarious generation (staring into their fricken iPhones likes monks at study in the monastery grounds) is the one they'll need to flog it to. Best make it about them, and to let their laughter remind us – why not! – of how it used to be.
Visit me at The Bloody Crossroads.