Today's teenagers are going to grow up to save the world. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on today’s teenagers: smarter, tougher and braver than my generation – and yours, too

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.

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496