The generation reaching adulthood in the latter part of this decade has not yet been named. The reason for this may well be superstition. First, we had Generation X, the anhedonic children of the 1980s and 1990s; then there was Generation Y, the anxious, driven millennials who grew up just in time to inherit the financial crisis. What can today’s teenagers call themselves that doesn’t sound apocalyptic? Where else is there for them to go but the end of the alphabet? It’s a little too prophetic for comfort, because if ever there was a cohort born to save the world or die trying, it’s these kids. No wonder they all love The Hunger Games.
Most teenagers I know spend a frightening amount of time reading dystopian fiction, when they are not half killing themselves trying to get into universities that they know are no longer a guarantee of employment. Suzanne Collins’s dark trilogy, which tells the story of a teenage girl forced by a decadent, repressive state into a televised fight to the death with other working-class young people, has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. It has become the defining mythos for this generation in the way that the Harry Potter books were for millennials. In a recent study, the economist Noreena Hertz suggested naming the young people born after 1995 “Generation K”, after the traumatised, tough-as-nails protagonist of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. The logic is sound. The teenagers whom Hertz interviewed were beset by anxieties, distrusted authority and anticipated lives of struggle in a dangerous, uncertain world.
Every exciting, well-told adventure tale is a comfort to lonely children but some stories are much more than that. When I was at school, Harry Potter and his friends were more important than the Greek pantheon. Harry, Ron and Hermione spoke to the values of my millennial cohort, who grew up convinced that if we were talented and worked hard, we would go to the equivalent of wizard school and lead magical lives in which good would ultimately prevail.
We were wrong. Today’s young people have no such faith in the system. Not everyone gets a happy ending in The Hunger Games. The final instalment of the film adaptations of the books, which have smashed box-office records and made a superstar of Jennifer Lawrence, opens on 19 November. There is even a theme park planned, which seems rather redundant, as young people looking for the full Hunger Games experience – fighting to survive by stepping on the backs of other young people in an opulent, degenerate megacity – might as well try to get a graduate job in London.
Generational politics can obscure as much as they reveal. All of us, however, are marked by the collective political and cultural realities of the time when we grew up. The generation born after the mid-1990s is about to reach adulthood in a dark and threatening world, a world of surveillance and police repression, of financial uncertainty and environmental crisis, of exploitation at work and abuse on the internet. It will have to navigate this bleak future without the soothing coverlet of late-capitalist naivety that carried millennials through school and university until it was cruelly snatched away by the financial crisis in 2008. That was the year The Hunger Games was first published. Sometimes, the right story arrives at the right time.
The “young adult” section of every bookshop is now flooded with dystopian titles, from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series to Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, which envisions a future in which women are trained from birth to be perfect wives and handmaidens, rather like a horror-movie remix of Teen Vogue. The publishing industry prefers to follow trends rather than set them but the inexhaustible hunger of Generation K for dystopian stories is partly a search for answers to questions that aren’t being addressed at home or at school, such as: “How will I survive when the world I know collapses?” and “How will I protect my family?”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Potter universe and today’s dystopian stories lies in how the young protagonists relate to authority. Harry Potter and his friends are surrounded by sympathetic grown-ups, some of them wise, some of them kindly and some of them able to transform into furry animals. Sometimes authority goes wrong – such as when the hateful Dolores Umbridge takes over Hogwarts – but the problem is never with the system.
In The Hunger Games, the few adults who can be trusted have a tendency to be murdered by the state. Katniss cannot rely on any grown-up for help: not her drunken, shambolic mentor, not her traumatised mother and certainly not the agents of the Capitol, who are out to exploit her for their own ends. That mistrust tallies with the attitudes of today’s teenage readers, according to Hertz. They do not trust authority or institutions and why should they? Adults have made an Orwellian nightmare of half of the world and set fire to the rest. They might mean well but ultimately they do not have your best interests at heart, so it is up to you and your friends to keep fighting. This isn’t Hogwarts. You’ve got responsibilities and you’ll have to grow up fast.
If the moral of Harry Potter is that good will ultimately triumph, the message of The Hunger Games is that we are all doomed, adults can’t be trusted and all you can do is screw up your courage, gather your weapons and fight to survive, even if “the odds are never in our favour”. Today’s teenagers are braver, better connected and less naive than any generation in living memory and it is up to the rest of us to stand behind them. Spoiler alert: there could yet be a happy ending, as long as adults remember, like Katniss, that the young are “more than just a piece in their Games”.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain