It happens without warning. At some point between the first time you hear an ironic remix of the cartoon theme tunes of your childhood and the expiration of your Young Person’s Railcard, you wake up one morning and something has changed. Under the puppy fat and pimples, your face has begun to emerge, and so has your future. You have become, however inadvertently, an adult.
By the time I finish this column, I will be 25 years old. Growing up is always an odd process, but since I graduated from university, it has become more convoluted than usual. For many people my age — including most of my friends — secure, meaningful employment, marriage and home ownership all seem as distant and unimaginable as they were when we sat our GCSEs.
While we’ve been finding our first wrinkles and filling out our first dole forms, all the normal things that were supposed to make up for theuncomfortable position of suddenly having to take care of oneself have been confiscated by the forces of world finance. Little lifelines like the Future Jobs Fund and the Education Maintenance Allowance have been cut to save costs, just as university fees have been trebled by an administration happy to hand billions in subsidies to the investment banks that created the crisis.
The impetus behind this year’s uprisings in Egypt has been partly ascribed to the frustration of young adults unable to afford the transition into work, marriage and independence.
It’s tempting to frame all this as a generation war, an immense and predictable kick-off between the baby boomers, who enjoyed every benefit that the postwar consensus brought its fortunate children, and Generation Y, the ragtag, loosely defined group of late-cold-war babies who are old enough to have been promised a future of permanent growth and young enough to have been shafted when that future failed to emerge. This interpretation is madly convenient for many who would prefer not to engage with the realities of geopolitics. It is also wrong.
It is wrong because it allows the enormous crisis of capital and democracy sweeping Europe, the US and the Middle East to be reconfigured as an intercontinental temper tantrum. With a bit of imagination, it’s easy to see all the strikes, protests, riots and revolutions accompanying the disintegration of late capitalism as merely the international equivalent of a bedroom door slammed in fury — a worldwide whine of: “It’s not fair!”
In fact, it’s a little more complicated than that. Property, privilege and profit are not the sole preserve of the “power generation” now easing its way into precarious retirement.
There are baby boomers who have lived all their lives in poverty, and baby boomers who were marching, striking and fighting against the numbing tide of disaster capitalism when today’s activists were still in nappies; just as there are members of Generation Y who’d take a Jack Wills hoodie and a job at Goldman Sachs over global revolution any day.
Something larger and far more frightening is going on. The struggle going on across the world is not between old and young, but between the possessed and the dispossessed — most of whom just happen, like 52 per cent of the world’s population, to be under the age of 30.
Three years ago, I turned 22 just as the world’s stock markets were tumbling. Watching the news, I realised, like so many other middle-class young people in the west, that the future we had been promised would not be delivered after all, at least not without a fight that would finish far too late.
For many of us, it is already too late. Denied the trappings of adulthood, we grew up anyway, into unemployment, anger and disillusion, into a world that didn’t want us.
When I was 22, I was angry. Now that I’ve been 25 for a whole ten minutes, I’m still angry, but I’m also hopeful. All around me, and across the world, people are organising, educating themselves, building new, alternative communities, joining resistance movements, and starting to talk about the possibility of a future that our parents never expected.
Fed up with waiting for a better future to be delivered, we have realised that we are old enough and ugly enough to build one for ourselves. It’s not a generation war — but the power generation has every reason to be frightened.