Generation game

February 23, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

The thing I’ve always enjoyed about Laurie Penny’s writing is the endearingly belligerent, seemingly inextinguishable faith she has in people. So many of her posts and her columns start with the belief that people have limitless potential, and that it only goes unrealised when it’s trampled-on either by an uncharitable state or an unrelenting capitalism. I also like that her socialism isn’t situated at the level of the state doing things for or to the people, but of people doing things for each other. Really, if she wasn’t such a fine writer, she’d make a great motivational speaker.

Yet I feel her latest post is a little grand in its claims about the generation to which both she and I belong. Laurie paints us as a generation packed with potential heroes: “orthodox, driven, a little boring, and with a deep desire to save the precarious world that we are about to inherit.” Whilst we may be godless, we’re far from amoral or degenerate, and you can see from our campaigning against climate change or membership of Conservative Future that we possess an “urgent impulse to stabilise society”.

Whilst I do know people with the attitudes, lifestyles & ways of thinking she describes, I think it’s beyond the talents of any writer to hold these aloft as the dominant characteristics of a generation. In times when there is more difference, diversity and tolerance than ever before, I don’t think it’s possible to identify any uniform, unifying qualities, save the most basic & irrefutable facts.

She’ll surely recognise, too, that these potentially heroic young people, these earnest changemakers of the present and the future, do seem to be mostly middle class. Are the qualities present in a Cambridge-educated climate activist shared by a girl who works at a check-out in Boots? Is her description as apt for an apprentice plasterer as it is for a political careerist like Shane Greer? The problem with pieces like this is that the people who have the privilege of writing them are able to generalise their own limited experiences to those of the demographic as a whole, and I think we’re too complicated for that to succeed.

In fact, I suspect something similar happened with the boomer generation and all its reverential hagiographies. For each social or cultural flashpoint during the 60’s or 70’s, remembered fondly by those who were there & spoken of as Great Moments in Modern History, there were surely more people of that generation who didn’t take part than those who did.

Whilst the civil rights and anti-war movements were marching & raging in the US, I’m sure there were still more young mechanics in Boise, Idaho; more young farmers in rural Kentucky; more young waitresses and barmaids in small town Minnesota. There were more people who either couldn’t relate to these popular and counter-cultural movements, or who had to sacrifice their involvement in order to earn a steady wage. The Woodstocks and Selmas and San Franciscos of the past may have been significant, but not so much that they should obscure what I imagine is a much more rich & varied social history than is often sold to us.

I know plenty of people who possess the qualities Laurie describes, and I’m sure they apply for some in our generation. But by trying to find a uniform, unifying theme, by appearing as though she wishes to speak for all of us and be a character witness on our behalf, she creates an image that fewer of us will feel able to relate to. The great thing about today’s young adults is the breadth of our difference, and the fact that this difference is so ordinary that it’s rarely worth commenting on. After reading Laurie’s piece, I’m starting to think we should start asserting it a lot more.

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  1. Glad to see you are getting into the ‘LibCon writers calling each other out’ thing :) You are both extremely persuasive, as in I read Laurie’s piece and agreed with it, and have just read yours and now agree with you.

    You are definitely right about the history – more young people in the 60s got involved in the Goldwater campaign then in all the hippy, radical politics of the counter culture.

    I’m not convinced about the class divide, though. It’s true that Laurie’s examples of “heroes” are kind of sketchy (Shane Greer?!) but there are working-class “millenials” involved in London Citizens, or those who have just set up the Anti-Tribalism movement, as well as those who are just working and volunteering for local charities, all of whom fit the description far better (and that’s just from my own very limited experience). Although, interestingly, very few of them would describe themselves as “godless”.

    I think one big intra-generational divide is between the “milennials” who have found an institution or cause which they enjoy being part of, and the much larger number who don’t. One enduring frustration, for example, is that people who share the same values don’t have one single political party which they are all involved with, but instead some are Labour, some Lib Dem, some Green, some socialist, some involved in non-party politics, and most in nothing at all.

    • Ah, but my post was a constructive critique, not a diss! ;-)

      I actually applaud her for picking someone like Shane Greer. Even if I could think of better people to pick than some omnipresent Iain Dale impersonator, there’s no point ignoring the fact that there’ll be people in this generation who’re conservative just like previous generations.

      Take your point about the class thing. The argument I was trying to make was in some ways an old-school Marxist one about those who control/have access to the means of production being in a better position to write the history of their generation. But you’re right to point out that my own post accidentally excludes the instances of working-class involvement in certain social/political groups or movements – leaving it as the sole preserve of the middle classes.

      What I bet both of us would agree on is that The Guardian should’ve given her two weeks, a bit of money and asked her to really go to town on this subject. That way she could’ve met a whole lot more people – probably more interesting than Greer & Ormond – and would possibly have come up with different conclusions. It would’ve made a great read.

  2. “What I bet both of us would agree on is that The Guardian should’ve given her two weeks, a bit of money and asked her to really go to town on this subject.”

    Yes, definitely.

  3. Very interesting post. Your point about generalisation is a reasonable one, and for what it’s worth, my contribution to the piece wasn’t intended to suggest that our generation is packed full of idealistic ‘potential heroes’, rather it was intended as a simple rejection of the notion that our generation is in some way less moral than previous generations.

    For what it’s worth though Donpaskini, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a hero!

    One point that is worth exploring, is the issue of class. Your post seems to suggest, and apologies if I’ve misunderstood it, that I’m a representative of a ‘middle-class’ point of view with limited ability to understand a working class point of view. We could probably argue all day about that point, but I think there’s something more fundamental that’s all too often overlooked. As someone on the Left, how would you define the difference between working class and middle class, and do you believe it’s possible for someone to start in one class and end up in another? And if an individual can and does change class, are they no longer able to speak with authority about their former class?

    I feel a blog post formulating…

    • Turns out I had more time than I thought.

      I should say that I don’t think that being middle class, either by birth or by social mobility, means you can’t understand working class points of view. It may impose limits on your understanding (see Pulp, ‘Common People’), but certainly won’t make it impossible. The ability to understand others is built on empathy, and I suspect that empathy is classless.

      In regards to your question, I’ll first note that social class is a capricious and contentious term, even within those areas of social science which study it. But for me, of course it’s possible to move from being working to middle class without losing your ‘authenticity’. I come from a working class background and had a fairly similar childhood, but my adolescence and adulthood have been, by any measure, middle class.

      However, I also believe that whilst you can move from working to middle class in terms of education, occupation or wealth, you could still be culturally working class. I’ve written before (https://bleedingheartshow.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/escaping-from-class/) about how, when I got to university, I wanted to burn away all traces of my background, for I (foolishly) thought they showed a lack of refinement, education and charm.

      Anyway, I’m skating away from the point now, but I’ll just say that class is a huge issue, and it’s not one which just the left should talk about.

  4. A very interesting response, Shane, and one which deserves more thought than I can spare just now. I’ll respond properly tonight.

  5. Thank you so much for this post :) The piece has prompted some excellent responses, which is really pleasing.

    This deserves a longer reply than I have time to offer right now, but just wanted to say – thank you.

    • You’re most welcome, and I’m glad you’ve had some more constructive responses. Obviously, I’d be delighted to read your reply whenever you get the time.


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