Generation gameFebruary 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.