One of the most dramatic social transformations of the past 50 years has been the way young people have fallen in love with authority.
The punk generation grew up during a time when being young meant rebelling against social norms and conventional knowledge. For many, this meant joining one of the myriad youth subcultures – the tribes you encountered at school – which saw the world as a perpetual revolution. Others were distinctly more political. One might have become a Maoist, or a fashionable communist marching on the Left Bank shouting “Those in power are in retreat, now they must fall!”
There was much posturing among young revolutionaries. Masculinity at that time came as close as ever to being associated with obscure theories and tracts. In his memoir Barack Obama mocks his young self for reading Marx and the philosopher Herbert Marcuse with the hidden purpose of picking up girls. But think of the alternative – today you’re more likely to brandish a copy of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (2017).
I started to notice a change while teaching at Harvard a little over a decade ago. My experience as a student ten years earlier had left me unprepared for students who suddenly aspired to be the voice of common sense and saw every deviation from conventional wisdom as a waste of time. If you showed them a brilliant passage in Marx, for example, they would shrug. All that had been refuted by history, they sighed; the sentiment was that we were grown-ups and should act as such.
It was the time when punks, rockabillies, goths or mods started to look anachronistic. Youth cults today involve making shopping lists for Instagram or issuing dance challenges on TikTok.
Youth rebellion may have left the world unchanged, but it inspired generations of visionary film-makers, artists and writers who saw their own mission as something akin to speaking truth to power. In such movies as Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983), a film about street violence and misunderstood teenage boys, you could sense that the director saw his work as a kind of replacement for directly joining the romantic youth gangs portrayed on the screen. One may be excused for feeling nostalgic for a lost world, especially when that world was meant to signify the future of a radically transformed society. I miss that future.
And how unfair we were to those rebels from decades ago. Remember how we used to mock them for believing they would never change? Of course they would. They would get old and join the bourgeoisie, buy condos and convertibles, and then be forced to glimpse in their children a rejuvenated version of their young selves. But strangely, the exact opposite happened. Those punks and Maoists have changed little, never having lost the taste for provocation and controversy. It is their children who mellowed. If there was a betrayal, it was generational, not biographical.
On university campuses today, the unconventional thinkers are the old cranks, nearing retirement and saved from being “cancelled” by tenures awarded to them in a previous age. As for the students, many organise to surveil and denounce the thought crimes committed by the dons. It’s not only that students today have all the right beliefs, but also that they think these beliefs need the tools of official authority to protect them from danger. In countries such as France, young voters disproportionately support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, with its promise of a return to authority and tradition – all for the sake of preventing change.
That the young would always be against authority once seemed a truism, but things have changed. In Western democracies, the political economy has become unrecognisable. For three decades after 1945, unemployment in advanced European economies remained low. Odd jobs for the young were plentiful, and the knowledge economy barely existed. If you worked for a few hours in a shop or warehouse, who cared what you did at night or what your opinions were? Today, by contrast, a worker in the knowledge economy – a consultant or a media executive – is hired and rewarded for certain habits and dispositions that are effectively indistinguishable from political opinions. Imagine a recommendation letter that started: “John has an excellent command of Marxist dialectics and what is more he embodies it in praxis and feeling…”
The new political economy reaches deep inside your soul. The darkest side of the knowledge economy is that it has gradually destroyed the separation between intellectual and material life.
A second factor is the overbearing presence of social media. It used to be the case that teenagers struggling to reconcile themselves with society would retreat to a “sphere of interiority”, a private world of books, bands and friends. The dynamics of social alienation could be painful, but they had the benefit of fostering original characters. Social media offers no respite from social pressure. It reinforces and intensifies the need to conform. Today you have no alternative but to be well-adjusted. One can adjust to the real world or do so virtually on the internet.
It would be one thing if youth rebellion had disappeared because all causes for rebellion had been solved. Are there rebels without a cause? Perhaps most social ills and injustices have actually been addressed and the youngest generation were the first to realise we have never lived in a better world. But I think there is a different explanation: youth rebellion was eventually defeated by new and subtler forms of social control. The world is flat not because it is more just, but because it contains fewer places to hide.
This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage