Globally, we appear to be on track to create a new lost generation of youth. In Canada, Greece, the United Kingdom, the United States, and so many other nations, youth are facing extraordinary odds when it comes to meeting even the most basic of needs, and the perilous economy is grinding and difficult to endure. Strikingly, a lot of those youth are becoming disheartened and frustrated, much like the lost generation of old, which essentially faded away in the face of the Great Depression.
Living in an extremely tough economy is difficult, especially when you’re young, with the promise of the future ahead of you. Or, in some cases, the threat of the future ahead of you; from the position of many youth living with high debt and struggling to make ends meet, the future can seem like more of a curse than a blessing, something to dread rather than look forward to. As the retirement rate is pushed up and conditions grow worse, what we see is more years of grueling struggle to survive, less time spent with families and loved ones because we need to work for increasingly abusive employers who treat us like disposable chew toys instead of human beings.
In the face of that, it’s not surprising that some youth are responding by giving up. Why seek higher education when it will only create more debt and there’s no guarantee of a job on the other side? Why pursue technical training or education in an understaffed field (like nursing) when you can’t get enough economic support to complete an education, which would leave you with half a degree or certification and no way to repay debts accrued in school? Why apply for jobs when everything is worthless and you’re likely to end up with an exploitative employer? Why be politically engaged when nothing anyone does seems to make a difference, and indeed when it seems like politics is actively owned and controlled by corporations and other groups with far more economic and social clout than you can ever hope to obtain?
Yet, this isn’t the case for all youth; just as some are sliding into apathy, others are getting angry, and they’re taking to the streets across the world to protest the conditions they’re living under. They’re calling out austerity, challenging the value of bailouts for the wealthy, pushing for social change and reforms that will help them survive. In some places, those protests are even turning violent and dangerous, like in Greece, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn organisation has penetrated the lines of the police and commits violence against protesters, particularly those involved in immigration rights rallies and related events. In Britain, wheelchair users are rolling through the streets to demand an end to the cuts, while in the United States, protesters surged across the country during the occupy moment.
What’s the tipping point between a lost generation and an angry generation? The civil rights generation was an angry generation; they created change through rage, through the development of careful strategy rooted in fury. They were born of a very different economic era, a post-war boom filled with a myth of happiness and plenty for all. That capacity for rage is in all of us, and some people are trying to harness it now, but they seem to have trouble pulling the lost generation out of the fog and pushing for full involvement from everyone with a stake in this.
How do we drag the lost generation from the murk, kicking and screaming though they may be, to force them to build a better world with us? Their sense of despair and frustration is understandable and merited; they are living in a world where the deck is stacked against them and it feels like everything is conspiring to frustrate their goals and keep them in a position of subservience. Experiencing depression, apathy, and a flat affect is not uncommon when you’re kicked down by a terrible economy, and these are legacies that will last for life, as illustrated by the earlier lost generation. People who grew up in the Depression were forever changed by it; their mental health status was affected by their experiences, they acquired habits and beliefs rooted in their youth in the Depression, and they passed some of these legacies down to their children, remembering well what it was like to live when they had nothing.
Thus, I’m not arguing that there is something wrong with the new lost generation, that they just need to buck up, paste on a smile, and get to it. Their response to the global economic collapse is not something voluntary that can be easily shrugged off or addressed by just trying harder; it’s up to the people on the other side to reach out a helping hand to the lost generation before they’re really lost forever. These protest efforts mobilising thousands of people across the globe have sent a signal that there is anger, and it is burning, and it is there for people who want to tap it, but it hasn’t quite reached everyone struggling in these economic conditions; it’s a dim light burning away somewhere in the fog that elusively skips into the distance when people try to grasp it.
How can we anchor it, settle it, make it accessible to everyone? How can we make sure that none of our people are left behind, whether we have to hold their hands to guide them or carry them until they are able to move forward on their own? How do we prevent the global writeoff of an entire generation of people, and the profound legacy that would leave?