A few weeks ago, I found myself squirrelled away in the corner of a posh party, talking politics with two teenage girls. Were I a right-wing hack addressing an audience of concerned Tory parents, this would be occasion for a stern, salivating rant about how today’s teenagers are abject, semi-criminal, knicker-dropping savages, weaned on violent video games and internet pornography. That’s why they are invariably the most interesting people at any party.
One of them smoked a succession of perfect, hand-rolled cigarettes of the sort I didn’t learn to construct until my twenties, and asked me intelligent questions about rape culture and the application of feminist theory to campaigning. The other had ambitions to be a foreign correspondent and was deeply suspicious of the culture of adventurism in conflict reporting.
They asked me about ethics, about how to deal with sexism at school, about privilege, about trauma. Staring up from the bottom of two gins, I tried to give helpful answers that weren’t simply asking them to please stop smoking, because it’s taken me years to quit and clearly we need young women like them around for a long time because the world isn’t going to save itself.
Almost every time I speak to teenagers, particularly to young female students who want to talk to me about feminism, I find myself staggered by how much they have read, how creatively they think and how curiously bullshit-resistant they are. Because of the subjects I write about, I am often contacted by younger people and I see it as part of my job to reply to all of them – and doing so has confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for some time. I think that the generation about to hit adulthood is going to be rather brilliant and that anyone else who has made it through the bio-existential maelstrom of puberty intact has a duty to give them every bit of help they ask for.
The generation coming up doesn’t even have a name yet, and that’s a good thing. Naming generations – the Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y – can be a facetious media shorthand that obscures as much as it reveals. In a 1994 commencement speech at Syracuse University, Kurt Vonnegut asked students: “You young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not; you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favours when they call you Generation X . . . two clicks from the very end of the alphabet.”
Chronologically, today’s teenagers ought to be Generation Z, but the finality of that cuts a little close to the marrow of modern suspicions that the end times are upon us. (I prefer to think of them as “the people for whom Kurt Cobain has always been dead” but that doesn’t fit neatly into a headline.)
Young people getting older is not, in itself, a fascinating new cultural trend. Nonetheless, the encroaching adulthood of people who grew up in a world where expanding technological access collided with the collapse of the neoliberal economic consensus is worth paying attention to. Because these kids are smart, cynical and resilient, and I don’t mind saying that they scare me a little.
Marc Bolan was wrong: the children of the revolution are depressingly easy to fool. The children of austerity, however, are not. They have grown up with the internet, they are keyed in to the news and they understand, most importantly, that adults have no idea what they are doing.
My generation figured that one out a little bit too late, leaving us fired up with furious energy but not necessarily equipped to tackle the sudden lack of jobs, public services and education. Today’s teenagers have simply always known. They know that there’s a war on and they won’t be taken in by empty promises that hard work, good behaviour and respect for one’s elders will lead to rewards by themselves. They are also facing unique pressures.
It is as hard to be a teenager as it ever was, especially with an uncertain future, the constant stress of exams and the bullies who can follow you home on Facebook. In Britain, the launch of a new support platform, MindFull, for the 850,000 young people in Britain with a diagnosable mental health condition, comes along with disturbing research detailing quite how many are self-harming, starving themselves and attempting suicide. “There’s a different set of pressures on young people now,” says MindFull’s director, Francis Burrows, “and a huge number of them are not getting the support they need.”
In my mid-teens, I had a severe breakdown that required hospitalisation. It worries me that many of the vital services that helped me to recover – fast, free treatment on the NHS, support in the community from my doctor and college nurse, and the guarantee of an affordable place at university that allowed me to continue my education – are no longer available. College fees have tripled, benefits have been slashed, the Education Maintenance Allowance has been cancelled. Funding for child and adult mental health services, which were never swimming in spare cash, has been reduced by over a third in some areas. Early-intervention services, helping to support young people before they reach the point of collapse, are particularly under threat. Just when today’s teenagers need help most, that help is being snatched away.
Those are the facts. Now here’s a feeling: today’s teenagers are going to grow up to save the world. I get the feeling – too cautious and unformed to be an honest hope yet – that with the right support, this cohort of young people has the tools my generation lacked to hack a way out of the economic and environmental crisis closing in on us.
It’s up to us to help them and that starts by listening to teenagers when they tell us what help they need, and by offering it without patronising. Oh, except about the cigarettes. Trust me on this one and lay off the fags – I promise, they’re not worth it.