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

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.