In 2010 the young people of England found their voice. Caught up in the first of the protests outside Tory HQ, I found it exhilarating. At last, the slumbering beast has awakened! For the first time in a long time, the people are setting the agenda, and they’re not waiting to be told what to think about things by mass media. They’re organising themselves through new channels, exploiting new technologies and forcing the authorities onto the backfoot. Yay the kids!
It seems to me that the real anger comes from the betrayal. These young people voted – many of them for the first time – for the people who said they would protect their interests. And those interests have been sold down the river by those very people. It’s the first heartbreak.
What shames me is that this has been wrought by MY generation. The new cabal of political leaders in the UK – Clegg, Cameron and Milliband – are all bona fide Gen-Xers (Obama, and Australia’s Gillard, fall into the disputed era of the very early 60s). So far, it’s a pretty poor showing. Clegg may never recover from rescinding his pledge to vote against tuition fees. Cameron’s continuing the Blair legacy of political spin covering regressive policy, and Milliband has said nothing of substance about anything. Is this what we want from the first Gen-X leaders? Is this good enough?
As I look back on my adult life, I say no. We did stand for something. How did the generation that made their parents stop using fluorocarbons get so rotten with climate-change sceptics? How can the Live Aid generation have done so little to advance the cause of developing nations? How can a generation that genuinely embraces diversity be so accepting of discrimination?
I left school high on idealism. It was 1986 and Girls Could Do Anything! I chose journalism (Pulitzer Prize) because the university I wanted to go to didn’t offer Cyrillic languages (interpreter at the United Nations). Not going to university never crossed my mind. That I was entitled to a free education was something I took for granted. Like healthcare.
It was a heady time. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the spectral Cold War that had us ducking and covering for nuclear bomb drills at primary school seemed consigned to the pages of history. Australia had won the America’s Cup and Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. The sort of bloke who gave you a day off work to celebrate a national sporting victory and swore like a truckie seemed like a bloke you could rely on. I was young and living in a country that believed in a fair go in a time when it really seemed like we could make the world a better place.
Fast forward a few years and me and my generation had learned a few things. For one thing, we learned we were Generation X. The slackers who rejected or mocked so many of the things their forebears – the Baby Boomers – stood for. We’d also learned those fuckers weren’t finished with ruining running the world. By the time Thatcherism was making its exit from the scene in the UK, down under we were all learning that economic rationalism meant that free education was no longer free. We’d all be making a ‘contribution’. We learned that the old divisions in politics were increasingly meaningless because politicians of every stripe were worshipping the god of Growth.
But we were busy figuring out what to do with our lives. The media decried our nihilism and our apathy but we were working hard just to stay alive. Unemployment was high, and among young people it was obscene. We’d been told all our lives if we got a good education we’d get a good job but there we were with our paradigms and our theorems being turned down for cleaning jobs because we didn’t have any experience. Interest rates were above 15% but few of us had shares, it just meant our newly acquired student debt grew faster.
A few years later still and between the debt we’d incurred getting an education and baby boomers buying up investment properties at inflated prices, the Australian Dream of a house and two kids was way out of reach, even as interest rates went into freefall. The papers (this was before the interweb really took off, remember) fretted over what might happen if a whole generation side-stepped the one thing that stopped poverty in old age but, having finally gained employment, we were happy to spend our money on other things. And by golly, weren’t there so many things to acquire! We rejected consumerism but still wanted to have lovely stuff.
By the end of the nineties, a lot of Australians looked longingly to old Blighty, where it seemed like a fresh new wind might blow all that was old and stale out of modern politics. We believed the promise of New Labour too.
But Tony Blair turned out to be just another boomer and New Labour turned out to be a lot like Old Tory. And after Al Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Centre, we all started the slow process of discovering the extent to which the boomers were prepared to conspire and lie to the general populace in order to make sure nothing interfered with their business interests. And if we were still in denial about what was really important, being forced to bail out the banks certainly sharpened our focus. And yet, what have we done? As a generation, where is our protest?
There’s a new management buzzword – middlescence. It refers to people aged 35-54 (Gen-X!) who are burned out or bored in their careers. I think it’s an apt term. In many ways Gen-X is a teenager sulking because we can’t have our way. The baby boom generation outnumbers Gen-X enormously and they have governed our lives since birth. We have been so worn down by the hegemony of their belief systems that we’ve stopped engaging. They have had the cake and left us with the crumbs and we’re so pathetically grateful that some of us have even gone all Stockholm syndrome and started supporting their policies, believing what they believe – even when it’s no good for us.
In 2011, en masse, the baby boomers are reaching retirement age and the reigns of power will pass to us. Will we take up the challenge? Or are we so worn out that we should just let the kids have it their way?
I think we have to re-discover our idealism. There’s a hoary old chestnut along the lines that if you’re not an idealist when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re an idealist when you’re old you have no brain. Bullshit. Let’s take our lead from Henry Rollins, who says cynicism is just intellectual cowardice. Let’s feed on the energy of the young people behind us and say no to the things we know are wrong. Because we can change the world, and now is our time.
There’s a great essay by Patrick Neate about the unsung achievements of Generation X. Maybe reading it will inspire you to take up the baton.
Twitter is a great source of inspiration. It’s not the empty-headed, narcissistic chatter you might imagine. Try searching for #ukuncuts or #solidarity and follow the links you find there for starters.
Need something to get angry about? Read how democracy is being hijacked by big business – with the help of the people we elected to represent our interests.