Oh things were different back then, in the olden days. In the playground you could play with matches and throw marbles at each other, and if somebody called you a ninny you'd suck it up, take a deep breath and break one of their arms. Back in the day, if George Formby or Lionel Blair told a joke you didn't like on the wireless, you didn't complain about it on Twitter! There was no Twitter! You'd simply remind yourself you had no right to be offended and carry on with your day as if nothing had happened. Back in the day there was no such thing as a safe space. Spaces were either neutral or "a bit dodgy looking" and if they were "a bit dodgy looking" you'd just put your head down and cycle through them really quickly. Without wearing a helmet. Don't forget: all of this was before racism was bad. That's very important to remember.
That is the yesterday that many columnists and informed members of the commentariat – the same sorts who froth at the mouth whenever they are asked to appear as a talking head on Good Morning Britain – seem to remember. They're very upset, it seems, that young people today aren't like young people back then. Although they're quite unsure what exactly it is they're upset about.
As it currently stands there are two strands of thought. Firstly there's camp "Generation Snowflake", who think young people are oversensitive and infantile. In light of increasing debate around safe spaces and free speech, writers from all corners of the over-40 Twittersphere have started getting vitriolic about what wimps young people are. The latest bouts come from Claire Fox, who has written on the subject before for the Mail and the Sun, and has even published a book on the matter. She most recently claimed in the Spectator that the baby-boomer generation themselves are to blame for fostering such poisonous ideals as "self-worth" and promoting mental health awareness.
In her words: "We have, in short, shaped our own overanxious, easily offended, censoriously thin-skinned Frankenstein monster. We created Generation Snowflake."
This furious tone isn't unusual. In fact, most of what is written about "generation snowflake" or "special snowflake syndrome" comes off a lot more like playground pisstaking than actual cultural comment, from Bret Easton Ellis slamming "generation wuss", saying he finds it hard to process how cyberbullying can be a gateway to suicide, to Louise Mensch's outburst against a 17-year-old on Twitter, in which she literally said "if Twitter's too much for you, try Club Penguin." Burn.
Although that's only half the story, because, like a "troubled student" locked in a room with his mum, headteacher and therapist, nobody can quite settle on what exactly is wrong with us. The second strain of thought suggests the exact opposite. This week the BBC published this handy guide to our other major label: generation young fogey. That's right: if you're not a blubbing infant, you're in fact too clean-living, too sensible, too polite. A range of studies have found young people are more likely to be teetotal, drug use has fallen, and teenagers have stopped getting themselves pregnant. Burdened by sky-high university fees and the prospect of having to save for 50 years before we can afford a house, we are apparently being forced into behaving like 42-year-old accountants by our 17th birthdays.
Similarly these pieces are weirdly petty and vindictive. George Hull in the Spectator described the youth as "wimpy pseudo-hedonists", Fraser Nelson characterised them as the "Ab-Fab generation" unable to match the debauchery of their parents, and a Spiked article on the subject simply characterised the trend as depressing. Generation Sensible don't know how to have fun. They are so boring even their parents are taking the piss out of them.
Unable to decide whether we are more liberal or more conservative than them, they've been forced into homogenising an age group characterised by a complete lack of homogeneity.
So young people today are really old and boring and sensible. Except, they are also babies, totally unprepared for the adult world. Make sense?
Well, no, it doesn't. What seems to have happened, is that in the process of narrativising the shit out of young people, these writers – these writers who still think it's 1992, who still wear baggy suits, who still smoke Lambert and Butlers, who still wear signet rings – have created a massive contradictory vacuum. Unable to decide whether we are more liberal or more conservative than them, they've been forced into homogenising an age-group characterised by a complete lack of homogeneity.
If these contradictions point to anything, it's the fallacy of these attempts at labelling. Not only that, but they point to an older generation desperately trying to shift the blame for The State of Things onto somebody other than themselves. The fact is, generation Spectator column, generation "I remember when Channel 4 was really punk", generation "pay me £50 and I'll appear as a vox pop in a documentary about Cool Britannia", generation "they used to give Freddos out for free on the tube", generation "I remember when you could book holidays on Ceefax", are struggling to define a youth who are trying to be anything but their elders.
The most important thing, above all, is not to mistake any of this for actual social study. There is obviously nothing wrong with wanting to analyse changes in habits and attitudes across generations, but that's not what these "generation snowflake" or "generation boring" pieces really are. There is no element of these commentaries that attempts to understand why young people have changed, and instead effort has gone into a weirdly embittered point and laugh exercise. Frustratingly, these writers have created the perfect mechanism. Insult the young for being over-sensitive and any rebuttal will only further evidence their claims. So instead, we should probably just ignore them until they get bored and start poking somebody else. That's the mature, grown-up, sensitive thing to do.
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