Young people: selfish individuals or uninformed and insecure?

Young people. Who are they? What do they do? And what influences them to be the way they are?

The press, the government, think-tanks and research centres are concerned about young people in the UK… they are unemployed, they have few skills, they are in debt, they don’t care about their neighbours, they are less likely to support welfare and they think the NHS isn’t that great. This is evidenced in scary statistics. Then again, some of these young people are engaged, protesting government cuts to public services, demonstrating at power stations and volunteering in unprecedented numbers.

Last week, the Guardian ran a story called Generation Self, which explored the paradox that young people – historically more inclined to hold values on the political Left – are now more negative than ever towards the traditional institutions that symbolise those values.

In trying to explain this trend, James Ball and Tom Clark touch on several valuable insights: one is that young people, flummoxed and crushed by the paralysis engendered by their position in a society that has consistently favoured policies supporting older generations, have responded ‘not by imagining collective fight-back, but by plotting individual escape’.

It would be easy to suggest that attitudes towards the welfare state have corroded across generations, influenced by the impact of recession, political wrangling, bad press and controversy. This corrosion might naturally have resulted in a new generation of young, independent hardliners.

But voting figures amongst young people would suggest that they are not interested in traditional politics anyway: only 44% of 18-24 years olds and 55% of 25–34 year-olds showed up to vote in the 2010 national elections. Issues of taxation, healthcare, benefits and so on are fought in this conventional political domain, only dominated by ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ politics within this sphere. If young people are not interested in the usual channels of political debate, then where are they shaping their ‘selfish’ opinions on the issues that are fought over within these usual channels?

According to Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, this move towards ‘selfishness’ amongst young people is caused by cosmopolitanism: being less interested in national boundaries due to the commonality of the internet, young people have come to feel less allegiance to their geographical location. “The NHS has been described as ‘the People’s Romance’: virtuous not because it’s the best, but because we’re all involved – it’s unifying. In another generation, that role might have belonged to the army. It makes sense in this modern world that people are becoming less interested in these national institutions.”

In fact, though young people are now unified through new systems and across global boundaries, in formative years we are all linked by something very particular to the community – school. The nation does not always need a war to unite itself (although it might seem so). A strong army stirs up national pride, social media opens windows on interests further afield, but school instils a sense of lived-in location, togetherness and cohesiveness.

Young people are ‘plotting individual escape’ not ‘imagining collective fightback’. And here is the key – young people are struggling to imagine collective action, or even the procedures involved living collectively because they have no food for their imaginations. Not only is school a place in which we learn why we ever left the wilderness and started interacting with other humans, it is also the grounds in which we consider and envision the ways in which we might ourselves interact with other communities. This is why some young people continue to engage in protest and community engagement – these are actions that they have been encouraged to believe in and understand.

Party politics might make the shocking surveys concerned with youth attitudes towards welfare seem like this is about young people becoming more Conservative; in fact what the attitudes show is that children are now growing up without the general knowledge about their positions in society, that form the basis of these opinions. They are individuals, working hard to stay afloat in a negative and pessimistic environment – concerned that they not be judged lazy or unlucky.

Not only does citizenship as a subject serve to bolster young people’s understandings of the institutions and procedures that build our collective place in society. More importantly, every subject that they encounter can help foster an element of democratic procedure – whether that’s in economics, learning about taxation policy; in science, considering ways in which governments fund research; food technology, learning about rights and responsibilities surrounding nutrition… Imagination is essential for young people to be able to conceive of their place in a difficult and over-communicated world.

Originally published on the Citizenhsip Foundation website.


Dried mango, bikinis and Frida Kahlo…

I am trying to avoid reaching 50 years old and then totting up how many hours of my life were spent looking at hopeless boxes of dried mango with bikini-clad models on them in the Sainsbury’s checkout queue.

‘She has nothing in her head but idiocies, such as how to have new dresses made, how to paint her face, how to comb her hair so that she looks better, and she talks all day of ‘fashions’ and of stupidities that don’t amount to anything, and not only that, but in addition she does it with a pretentiousness that leaves one cold’.

This is how Frida Kahlo once described a woman she was obliged to socialise with from time to time. We can only imagine Frida, vivacious, guttural and a legendary wildcard, meeting this particular upper-class airhead… Feeling nonplussed by the tedious inanities pouring forth from a fellow in womankind.

It doesn’t take much to envisage the scene, the woman in love with herself and her face cream. Why? Because we all know her. Maybe you work with her, she’s probably your friend, she definitely presents television, she is women’s mags personified: is she you? She is everywhere we look and I am beginning to realise why, despite decades of concerted efforts to demonstrate that women in contemporary society can equal men in every sense… it’s impossible to prove. With nothing in our heads but idiocies where do we begin to move past the barriers we put on ourselves?

Frida describes this uppity lady without mention of men, media, or fashion folklore. But the context is clear – reading between the lines I hear the cruel pages of a magazine fluttering in the background, the whisper of other ladies passing comment, the derision of a group of men for a woman who fails to be ‘becoming’. Frida’s acquaintance’s stupidities are her prerequisite to social acceptance, her chilling pretentiousness emanates from the high esteem she has been accorded through a paradoxical system of rank – the more able you are to dumb down as a woman, the more attention you might be paid.

Where do those idiocies come from? They are sadly self-perpetuating, they are a reaction to a world written and pictured by men and though we might think we have more control than ever over our choices and actions, we are it seems to me, ever-enslaved to an atmosphere fostered by mutual self-doubt. Wrong trousers? Bad nails? Too fat? Too tall? Too pale? Lacklustre hair? Blond eyelashes? Big nostrils?

How many times have I had a conversation that has been based on other women’s assumptions, how many times have I repeated it to others as fact… and did those women imbibe it? We absorb so much of what we hear that no matter how intelligent we have been brought up to be – to read things with a critical eye and have our own strength of conviction, if there is constant chafe born upon a breeze within ears’ distance, we are always contending with a large amount of wastrel nonsense paraphrased with a believable twang.

Oh if I had a pound for every woman I’ve seen in shops and cafes, pondering how many calories there are in a stack of yoghurt pots… subsistence on Itsu noodle pots and haribo comes at a price – soupy, vapid brain (a medical term).

I leave you with my clumsily updated version of Frida’s description – to mirror the deep craters such idiocies have forged into the modern female psyche:

‘She has nothing in her head but fallacies, the notion that she determines her own dress is flawed, as is the belief that she chooses her make-up, equally so – her hair, and she talks all day of fashion and of stupidities that don’t amount to anything, and not only that, but she does it with such conviction it leaves one hollow.’

I am trying to avoid reaching 50 years old and then totting up how many hours of my life were spent looking at hopeless boxes of dried mango with bikini-clad models on them in the Sainsbury’s checkout queue. And hoping that any daughter of mine won’t contend with such ridiculous messaging.