The Youth of Today
Kids These Days – being young in 2016
Not long ago, I found myself in conversation with a certain friend of my father at a dinner party.
“Every generation has something that defines it,” he said, taking a considered sip of sauvignon blanc and leaning back on his chair, clearly appreciating deeply the genius of what he was about to say. “Some characteristic atmosphere unique to their youth, y’know? But I can’t pinpoint the culture that defines your lot. The music is bad and loud and lacks character, the activism lacks focus, the fashion is too wide-ranging to categorise as a unique movement in style. This generation is confusing, aimless like no other.”
This was one of many times when idle discussion with my parents’ middle-aged intellectual friends turned to the topic of my generation’s part in the rich and obscure tapestry of the future.
Everyone seems to have something to say about those of us in that transitional period between the Millennials and Generation Z, and yet no adult is able to look upon another person’s youth without seeing it through the veil of their own experiences – it’s like looking back in time and looking into the future all at once, which is sure to be somewhat disorientating.
As far as this most recent discussion is concerned, I had much to say in response – but I also had a piece of cake in front of me, so I decided to let this one go with only the mildest of rebuttals. As I chewed, quickly and with relish, I considered the musings of this particular family friend. An adult man’s inability to connect with youth culture is nothing new, but at the same time, I couldn’t deny that I too struggled to understand what (if anything) might sum up the experience of being young in 2016.
There is so much contradiction around us: look one way, and the world seems to be ending – global warming delivers its final, fatal wounds to the planet as humanity edges closer to destroying itself using a combination of mindless violence and misunderstanding; look the other way, and humanity is making great progress in practically every way possible – innovation in science, inspiration in art, people learning to tolerate and even accept each other in a way that we never have before. Though progress is all around us, crisis seems to be one thing that truly defines our time. Is the progress still there in spite of the crisis, or is crisis a backlash against the progress? The answer to this question is unclear: it is an answer that our generation is responsible for shaping to the best of our ability in the future that we want.
Bear with me a moment while we take a look at Trump. Now, he’s a man who doesn’t care for political correctness, so I’m going to do away with all that silly diplomacy and just call him evil. Evil as he may be, though, he’s got himself more supporters than most of the world thought possible when he arrived on scene with his ‘small loan’ and his blatant racism, and now, his people gather in their thousands holding posters proclaiming that Trump stands for the ‘silent majority’. Originally, Nixon used that term to address those Americans who did not partake in contemporary counterculture, or in demonstrations against the Vietnam war: the people whom the media supposedly ignored in favour of giving voices to a rowdy minority. With Trump supporters having reclaimed the term, the implication is that when Trump campaigns to do away with the equal opportunities he dismisses as political correctness gone mad, or to mark all Muslims ‘for security’, or to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, he campaigns against the modern-day equivalent of the peace marches and counterculture of Nixon’s time, and people who feel threatened by it flock to his side.
I see the Trump campaign simply as another manifestation of backlash against progress: the energy surrounding his campaign is equivalent to the paranoid rage of a men’s rights activist, of someone who responds to #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter. It wouldn’t be happening if we hadn’t reached the beginnings of a widespread shedding of age-old prejudices. Tensions are mounting between progress pushing forward and backlash pushing back: either the fabric of modern global society stretches and changes and continues to progress, or it tears and leaves us at the bottom of a long, arduous journey back up to somewhere near square one.
Speaking of activism and prejudice, there is another defining feature of our time: the Internet. It is home to information, to communication, to massive amounts of potential. It is home also to the heated debate over tolerance: what tolerance is, whether tolerance is enough, who tolerates whom, who needs to be told to ‘educate yourself’, whose ‘anger is justified’, who is us and who is them. The Internet provides a place not only for discussion and debate, but also for shallow, spiteful argument. There are corners of Twitter and Tumblr in particular that act as hellish echo chambers where people who agree with each other make each other feel clever, never interacting with anyone who challenges their ideas other than to exchange insults. This mentality mirrors both sides of the Brexit campaign – perhaps the ugliest and most shameful event in recent UK politics, where a nasty divide between the more educated and the less so led to xenophobic fear mongering on one side and intellectual snobbery on the other. The Internet is something which promises so much: there is more information available to us now than ever before, but if we fail to take the opportunities it offers us, it has as much potential to reinforce ignorance as it does to spread knowledge, compassion and understanding.
What we see here is not exactly what we might want to: prejudice is not actually disappearing just yet – it’s shifting. Where the upper classes could once get away with blatant disrespect for those below them in the social hierarchy, or the old could command much more disciplined respect from the young, or any man could virtually always count on getting away with disrespecting any woman, or no person in an ethnic minority would think of making fun of white people in front of white people, the internet (as well as a general shift in social climate) has exposed them to criticism from those who did not have the means to voice their dissatisfaction until relatively recently. This is what should be happening. The balance needs to shift to get closer to equality, and the fact that more people these days are reacting to LGBT pride with “let’s have a Straight Pride too!” than with “this is disgusting and should be illegal” is a very uplifting one, however annoying people find it. Small steps. While there is no danger of straight people, white people, rich people or men being turned into an oppressed minority, there seems to me to be one small, controversial truth that our generation (particularly on the internet) doesn’t want to confront: we are in danger of missing our opportunity to weaken the divisions between groups of people who used to be in opposition. Instead of feeling resentful and excluded from a minority community, we must make the effort to be respectful and understanding. Rather than feeling superior and contemptuous towards those who don’t fit into our own community, we must make the effort to reach out and invite people on the outside to understand and enjoy the culture of that community. Though there is still an indisputable need for safe spaces for minorities, we are at a point in time where the prejudice has shifted and more diverse voices than ever can make themselves heard, meaning that we can afford not to treat minority groups like cliques; meanwhile, the level of uncertainty – with a potential presidential candidate spouting what is effectively racist propaganda, and with the no-brainer debate over gun control still going on even in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy of Orlando and all 120 mass shootings in the US since – we can’t afford not to support communities we’re not part of in union against fear and violence.
And this, I think, really, is what defines us. We are a generation with some extremely heavy responsibilities, because we’re living in a time when so much change is going on in so many different areas of life that we barely have time to get used to anything, and we barely realise the influence we have over how the present changes into our future. We have progress to make in science, in the arts, in global prosperity and happiness, and we’re up against some serious challenges on both local and global scales. It takes effort, compromise, risk and perseverance to combat the fear of the unknown that casts such a shadow over the time in which we live. It is our responsibility to learn to respect those who don’t share our values. We are a generation living in a pivotal moment of human history; our future is Schrödinger’s cat – heading simultaneously towards calamity and towards the next Golden Age of humanity. The only difference is that we have some power to determine through our everyday actions what it is that we see when we open the box.