People have started asking me and my friends when we’re going to sell out, move on and get real jobs, like they did after the Sixties. We are told that pretty soon, we’ll need to face reality.
Whenever anyone tells you that, it’s important to remember that the so-called ‘reality’ that we’re being ordered to face, in the way that one might be told to face the wall, was and is built on debt and sand: it is a specific agenda whose survival depends on everyone else continuing to believe that there is no alternative. As an anonymous aide told writer Ron Suskind in the early Bush years: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’
Young people today don’t get to sell out. We don’t get to slink away into comfortable jobs, because for a great many of us, there are no jobs: 25 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds in Britain and North America are unemployed or under-employed, rising to 50 per cent in Greece and Spain. We don’t get to retreat into the country and live off the land, because the land is being torn apart for the last dregs of dirty oil.
The concept of generation war usually obscures as much as it reveals. This is not least because the notion allows a class conflict that is unique to its historical moment to be phrased as an everyday tantrum against mum and dad, experienced collectively, the kids kicking off against the old folks, inevitable and, ultimately, dismissible.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing the least bit Oedipal about the uprisings swelling and fading and swelling again in waves across the world right now. Oedipus, in the old myth, killed the king his father, on the road to Thebes and went on to take over the kingdom. In our story, if young people don’t stand and defend it, there’s not going to be a kingdom left to inherit.
Aspects of this conflict are inevitably generational for one reason and one reason only. The people currently in charge of the money, resources and the political capital – call them the ‘one per cent’, call them oligarchs or call them, if you’ve a certain sort of surname, mum and dad – aren’t going to be around by the time the real shit hits the fan.
When the levee breaks
By the time the oil runs out, by the time the flood waters start to break the levees of wealthy Western cities, by the time the social safety net has been eroded to the point at which none of us without private doctors can imagine old age without fear, all of those people will be safely in the ground, in hardwood coffins in the cold earth far away from human suffering. That’s all it is. An accident of timing. The schedule we’re working with allows those currently in power to gamble on debt futures and profit from resource wars that their grandchildren will have to finish without fearing for their own personal comfort; and that affects every decision being made or delayed in our names.
In some ways, what we’re seeing now is the end of those particular Sixties: the point at which the anxious, calcifying faux-freedom that people were sold in place of the intimate, dreadful, total cultural liberation they craved reached its logical conclusion in financial feudalism and social collapse.
What differentiates it from the 1960s is that so many young people don’t have homes to go back to. Many of them never will, not homes of their own, especially if they are growing up without assets, saddled with student debt and credit-card loans. Graduates and school-leavers across the developed world are facing a future where they are almost certainly going to be poorer, sicker and less prosperous than their parents. That in itself makes this generation, as journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason puts it, ‘the human expression of a broken economic model’.
Where the ‘baby boomers’ almost universally enjoyed better healthcare, welfare and education than their parents and walked out of school into a world of easy employment, the future we grew up expecting – one in which growth continued, jobs were available and a trajectory of marriage, mortgage and pension plan was relatively easy to come by in return for a lifetime of extremely hard work – is in ruins. The resistance movements of 2010-12 have been, more than anything else, an expression of betrayal; a realization of what has been lost. What comes next has to be the blueprint for a different sort of future.
The young people currently negotiating direct action in the face of a future mortgaged to finance the gambling of the super-rich have no time to wait for their hair to grow. The drugs are worse these days, anyway, and the police more efficient. This is not a generation war, but a new class war expressing itself along generational lines.
A lot of lies and half-truths have been told about the Occupy generation and its equivalents. Some of them have been fostered by movement members themselves. When I visited Occupy London in January, some of its spokespeople were keen for me not to write a story giving away the fact that so many long-term residents of the protest camp on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral were homeless people with multiple mental health and substance abuse problems. In fact, it’s been the young, the lost and the homeless who have driven these movements from the start – and to say otherwise would be doing a great disservice to everyone involved.
Everywhere the so-called futureless generation is discovering that it has to invent the future for itself, with whatever tools it has to hand, even if it’s just a row of bashed-up tents and a way with anti-surveillance software. The greatest weakness and most-mocked feature of the new protest movements – that they’re peopled by youngsters grown old before their time, by lost kids and self-destructive vagrants, by nervous proto-revolutionaries hiding their cynicism behind straggly protest beards and unwashed hippies in V for Vendetta masks – is also their greatest strength. They don’t get to sell out, and they don’t get to go home. Somehow or other, they’ve got to make a new future.
Laurie Penny, 25, is a feminist author and journalist who writes for The Independent, New Statesman and The Nation, among others.