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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5 scenarios that will definitely happen in Ukip Britain

The Ukip general election 2017 manifesto is out. 

On 8 June 2017, Ukip defied expectations and pulled off a 392 majority in the general election. Prime Minister Paul Nuttall swiftly enacted his manifesto pledges – all 63 pages of them.

Now, thanks to Ukip, Britons no longer have to worry about silly things like the EU and multiculturalism. But not everyone has managed to adjust immediately to the Brexit paradise.

1. The beekeeper

Tommy knew right away his bees weren’t happy. They were swarming all over him, buzzing like a razor on a rampage, ready to sting. It was just as well he was wearing his beekeeping suit.

Except, wait a minute? Hadn’t the new Ukip government banned face coverings? Tommy was proud of being a law-abiding citizen. As he slowly removed his protective helmet, he shouted a parting message to his wife: “Enjoy our British honey when I’m gone.”

2. The job

“Thanks for coming,” Martin said to the three job applicants sitting in the glass-walled office. “I’m looking for someone who will be able to monitor the world’s FX markets, and identify any kind of insider trading.”

“I did my PhD in fraudulent FX and spent the last ten years tracking white collar criminals down,” said Gretchen.

“I’m a former trader who worked at three different central banks and makes my own beer on the side,” said Pierre.

“I’m young, unemployed, have no real qualifications to speak of and am under the age of 25,” said Stu. “I’m British.”

Martin shook Stu’s hand. “Welcome aboard,” he said.

3. The rescue

Stanley dodged the falling buildings as he made his way to the harbour, where a red-faced man in khaki was standing looking confused.

“Have you brought vital supplies?” Stanley shouted over the rumble of the earthquake.

“I’m from Britain and I’ve got nosh,” the man said.

“Nosh?” Stanley repeated. “What kind of country sends snacks to an impoverished country in the middle of an earthquake?”

“It’s the Naval Ocean-Going Surgical Hospital,” the man said. “We scrapped our foreign aid target.”

“Oh fuck off,” said Stanley.

4. The family

Helen knew something was different as soon as she stepped inside her parents’ house. “What have you changed this time?” she asked her octogenarian mother. “Is it the cushions? Did you give the door a fresh coat of paint?”

“No, darling,” her father said. “We just installed a sauna and hot tub complex along with an outdoor pool.”

Helen scratched her head. “I know Ukip has kept the triple lock pension guarantee,” she said. “But how can you possibly afford it?”

Her parents giggled so hard Helen began to worry they were having seizures. “Haven’t you heard of inheritable mortgages?” her mother managed to say. “One day, all this debt will be yours.”

5. The clouds

Ronald rubbed his eyes, and peered through the window again. No, he wasn’t seeing things. There was no sun. He stepped out of the house and stared at the sky. Where the bloody hell was it?

Then he remembered the referendum the month before. It had asked Gibraltarians if they wanted to be truly British, and he had ticked yes.

It began to rain.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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