They have been tested, examined, judged and graded since childhood; told they must excel, compete and succeed. But thanks to COVID-19, across Europe a generation of school and college leavers face a bleak present and an uncertain future.
When Europeans in their late teens and early 20s were asked how the pandemic has made them feel, you might have expected an outpouring of frustration: over jobs lost, friendships forcibly attenuated, dates canceled. What arrived was a critique of capitalism.
Like their predecessors in the uprisings that followed the 2008 crisis, this generation of young people is ready to draw systemic conclusions from the way political elites have handled the pandemic. They know they will be paying higher taxes, carrying bigger personal debts and facing more uncertainty than any generation since the second world war.
They understand that, on top of the aftermath of COVID-19, they will be dealing with a climate emergency for the foreseeable future. And they are equally certain they cannot influence the political present.
This, as we are likely to see as summer arrives, is an explosive mixture. From Dublin to Cardiff, Barcelona to Berlin, young people are responding to the easing of lockdown restrictions with demonstrative partying: flashmob raves, sudden beach invasions, instant gatherings in the clubbing districts of various cities. Wherever there is political protest — such as the two pro-Palestine demonstrations in London last month — they have turned up in large, vocal and defiant groups.
But as the testimonies show, behind the release there is deep frustration. Because while older people have mainly borne the physical health risks of COVID, the young have borne the mental health risks.
“The past year was a wooden stage and I fell right through it,” one respondent writes. Another tells of experiencing something equivalent to a “midlife crisis” at the age of 22. The anger and despair are evident, but so is the political conclusion many have drawn: that society is run by the old, for the old.
The young were ordered to put their lives on hold to protect a generation that had already lived theirs. If that had been accompanied by money, support and above all some gestural sympathy towards the socially liberal views and culture of the under-24s, the blow might have been softened. Instead they heard their views and lifestyles ridiculed as “woke,” and saw politicians on all sides obsessed with placating social conservatism and meeting the material needs of homeowners, businessowners and those already on a stable career path.
Generation Z already knew they would be poorer than their parents: their late-millennial siblings had learned that lesson after the 2008 crisis. But the future, bleak as it looked to the generation who occupied the squares in 2011, at least seemed to promise a binary and certain struggle — against racism, sexism, austerity and climate denial.
In these testimonies the leitmotif is uncertainty. They are ready to believe, as one respondent puts it, “the world could end tomorrow;” that civilization could collapse; that the current system is “held together with tape and toothpicks;” that the present is as “unpredictable as it is monotonous.”
And they are correct. Measured against the risks, the world’s climate mitigation efforts are a joke. The unspoken subtext of this year’s Cop26 climate conference is clear to the young: that we, the suit-wearing, SUV-driving generation, will do our best within the limits of what big business can tolerate, and what elderly voters will accept. We’re prepared to fail because we won’t be around to live with the consequences.
As for mitigating the risk of new pandemics, in most of the countries from which responses came, young people tend to view the actions of those in power as incompetent, short-sighted or corrupt.
In retrospect, the entire political cycle since 2008 can be read as a response to the financial crisis. Eighteen-year-olds back then saw their future canceled. They took to the streets, got water-cannoned and in response got involved in political movements such as Podemos, Syriza, Corbynism and the Sanders campaign.
The COVID shock is, in many ways, bigger than the shock of 2008. It has revealed to an entire generation that when the dirt hits the fan, there is nobody there to help you and — thanks to aging — politics are stacked against you.
So the question is, how do the young react? They will party everywhere, and in some places riot. And they will search for political alternatives.
If I had to predict where this goes next, it would not be towards the anarchism of the early anti-globalization movement, but towards the kind of “climate Bolshevism” advocated by the Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm.
Social democracy, says Malm, has no theory of catastrophe: the same could be said of liberalism and mainstream Green politics. They are not designed for sudden and urgent action. Their replacement has to be radical, centralist and merciless.
This generation has a theory of catastrophe. They have seen how effectively centralized power can be wielded; how swiftly injustice can be meted out; how hollow the claims to legitimacy of a government that cannot organize a lockdown or vaccination campaign. If they discover a new, collective project, I doubt it will be gradualist, or its ambitions small.
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