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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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