Anti-civilisation chef Pete Evans claims to know how people lived before the Neolithic Revolution. The rest of us just can’t be so certain. Even so, there’s one prehistoric guess we’d all probably make: younger people have been confounding older people from society’s very dawn.
We can imagine the Paleo elder feel the pain of her 35-year-old frame surge as the Paleo youth took down an elk with some new-fangled haft. To convey her confusion, her shame and disgust, she may have said, “ug.” This sentiment survives the millennia and us older Anthropocenes find new ways to say “ug” of the young.
Ug is an easy choice at present. Western youth appears to be making three primary political choices, at least two of which we are bound to find reprehensible. First, they choose no interest in democracy. Second, they follow around avowedly socialist leaders in great number. Finally, they park themselves behind right and so-called identitarian “causes” and switch the troublesome need for analysis with phrases like “triggered snowflake” and a racism barely concealed.
Ahead of the runoff vote, the first presidential election in France demonstrated all three trends. Turnout for an election, widely described in English-language press as a crucial plot point for democracy, was lower than the last. The preferred candidates for persons between the ages of 18 and 24 were Melenchon, whom centrists call far-left, and Le Pen, whom most respectable people call a monster. The allegiances of an age group about to become the largest in Western democracies are (a) I don’t give a shit (b) I’ll give this communism thing a go and (c) I don’t like foreigners.
We can say “ug” all we will and attribute this clear trend to youthful folly. We can say “young people just don’t think”, which helps us not to think about the failure of the median voter theory in which most of us implicitly believe. I can’t say that I am not sickened by the mood of the young alt-right; I am tempted to yell that they are stupid to explain the reality of their diminished opportunity with the fiction that “others” have stolen it. You may feel the same about those many Millennials who have begun to embrace socialism or those who can’t be arsed to vote. You may not, however, reasonably hope that any of them will just grow out of it. Young people might be a little bit flighty, but they haven’t been this committed to showing it within democracy in my lifetime. (I was born after May ’68.)
We older folk have a faith in centrism that young people just don’t share. We believe that political compromise is not only possible, but the only guarantee of good government. We have largely grown to maturity in conditions that did deliver us reasonable jobs, cheap educations and the possibility of both owning a home and raising children. Why would we think badly of Blair or of Clinton or of any champion of the Third Way who promised that we could have “social inclusion” even as, in many cases, our private debt increased?
Like it or not, young people can smell the techniques and sense the effects of neoliberalism. Even the young racists and the non-voters detect something whiffy about the “globalisation” we older Western folks have come to know as consonant with prosperity and peace. There is no ongoing boom for these people. They do not see that a world of borderless trade will deliver much to them, because it has not. I cannot imagine how politically perplexed I might feel if I had attended schools that had promised me a ribbon for any small victory then prompted me to dream big. Then, landed me into an era of stark wealth inequality unmatched since the Great Depression.
After Brexit, we old folks said that there was no explicit link between poverty and the desire to leave the EU. After the US election, we old folks said that there was no good reason for impoverished Americans to select what appeared like a new economic regime. We said that this was the simple result of intolerance — as though intolerance doesn’t itself prosper in particular economic conditions. We, surely, cannot ignore the connection between a young voter’s experience of joblessness and their politics after the French presidential result.
The explicitly left and youthful interest in Melenchon is not down, as has been reported, to a video game in which the candidate robs Christine Lagarde. He is not attracting young voters simply because they are naive. Le Pen does not attract young voters simply because they are racist. If these kids are not broke, they’re certainly staring down a future of wages that are stagnant-to-none. They cannot afford the austerity that a Macron type might hold as a solution. Both Le Pen and Mélenchon had promised better social services and labour conditions.
Centrism, which has largely meant neoliberalism with better manners, is not a future possibility in which young people can believe.
The world has changed, as it has had the habit of doing since someone first killed an elk. Our long elk boom is over and it is inevitable that young people will find new political weapons to target their survival. Ug.