We are haunted by the spectre of future historians. Ever since politics started to become increasingly prone to crisis, the appeals have become endless. "What will future historians write about these uncertain times? How will they judge the way we voted?" we ask. "If I remember history correctly, we are now in a 'factors leading to' paragraph before a unit where maps get super flaggy and arrowy," goes one viral Tweet, published the day after the EU referendum. If we really are re-living a postmodern version of the 1930s, we are doing so – neatly – in the most self-referential way possible.
This tendency to frame our calamity from the perspective of future historians doesn't so much reveal the profound importance of recent developments – Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, etc – as it does our impotence in relation to them. We are helpless and mute, students in a history lesson, alienated from and yet trapped within the collapsing society being detailed on the blackboard. The forces of reaction are in control, and it's not going the way we want it.
But who is this capacious "we"? One answer we've been telling ourselves recently: young people. You. Me. The millennials – to use a demographic-cum-marketing term that we once laughed off – who came of age as Lehman Brothers collapsed; who cruised through the decade with receding job prospects, stagnant wages and mushrooming debt. Precarious, jaded, polarised. Too scared to reproduce. Sympathetic to radical politics.
The idea that our generation constitutes an actual class, rather than an arbitrary group of people who happened to born in the 20th century's twilight, has been gaining strength over the past few years, but felt concrete the morning after the EU referendum, when a generational cleavage swelled across the country. That the young had a set of interests and beliefs that marked them out from the rest of the population appeared to be borne out by the data: 73 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted to remain; constituencies with large amounts of young people generally did too, with an overall turnout figure that seems to have been around two-thirds. Had the referendum been held in 2021, the Financial Times tell us, enough old people would have died to tip the balance in favour of Remain.
If not all young Remain voters were enthusiastically endorsing the specific institutions of the EU with their Remain votes, they were at least getting behind its implicit cosmopolitanism – and rejecting the world envisioned by those leading the Leave campaign. The one currently being sketched into a Tory Party manifesto.
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So where does that leave us in terms of this unwanted, life-sapping General Election? The Conservative Party are determined to ensure it's thought of as a second referendum on Europe. Brexit has been re-cast into a purely technical exercise, and the Tories have done years of discursive work to portray themselves as the responsible technocrats: the only pair of hands who can be trusted to follow it through. This masks the ideological and existential consequences that Brexit will have on the structure of society. It will, in effect, be a Tory coup: an opportunity to "deregulate the labour market" and become even more "tax competitive". It will deplete the future of the young, already lacerated by the legacy of this failed economic model.
Under Corbyn, Labour is gesturing towards something different, and it seems to be attracting young people. A recent YouGov survey found Labour to be comfortably ahead of the Conservatives with under-40s: women are 42 percent in favour of Labour and men are 32 percent, prompting headlines that recall those after the referendum – if "only young people voted" in this election, Labour would win. Again, given the massive leads the Conservatives are said to have in the polls of the general electorate, this points to a huge generational divide.
The survey's results came not long after Corbyn gave his first speech that specifically targeted young people last Saturday. Speaking in Whitechapel in east London, the embattled leader – an effective but never mesmerising orator – gave one of the finest speeches of his leadership, identifying a sort of ineffable malaise:
"But something hangs in the air. It typically goes unspoken. If you're young – like many here today – it's a familiar feeling: if you feel trapped in a job that barely covers your rent; if you feel anxious about keeping on top of credit cards and loans; if your heart sinks each time you see the prices of homes displayed in estate agent windows, then you're being held back… And it hurts. It makes people angry and, worst of all, resigned to the idea that nothing can be done about it. We end up blaming ourselves or each other. This is life in Conservative Britain."
There were no distinctive policy proposals, neatly dovetailed with an account of how to pay for them. There wasn't even a general account of how a Labour government would improve the situation. It was simply a description of the ways things feel, which maps perfectly onto the experience of young people. All the more shame that there seems to be no chance that a Corbyn government will come near Downing Street. Trust this generation to finally invest its hope in a politician leading a party that's crippled by internecine fighting, unable to deal with the structural problem of its atomised voting base – and in terminal decline.
After the foretold Labour defeat on the 9th of June, the future for our generation will look even bleaker. The temptation to withdraw from politics and wait for the older generations to die out, inheriting a world we can finally refashion in our values, will be strong. But it is precisely this kind of myopic day-dreaming that shows up the limits of generational thinking – can we really trust this "we"?
Young people aren't immune from ideology. This generation won't slide through the future intact, kept together by its supposedly inherent progressive beliefs. Thinking generationally can obscure the material facts of class, race and gender. Any account of "our" generation needs to recognise that 65 percent of young people in the C2DE category (skilled working class, working class, non-working) voted to leave the European Union. It needs to reckon with the fact that much of Marine Le Pen's support in France is buoyed by the young – the largest demographic for the FN comes from 40 percent of those aged between 18 and 24.
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Think also of the last group of young people in the West who were said to constitute a politically meaningful generation: the soixante-huitards in the 1960s, who gave up on demanding the impossible to find themselves easily accommodating the ruthless individualism of the decades that followed.
People like to say that young people become right-wing as they grow older, citing Churchill's tired dictum that they go from having a heart to a brain. If the phenomenon Churchill was describing is true, it's not because people become smarter. It's for two reasons: some will start voting Tory to defend their class interests. If they're lucky enough to become property owners, it's the rational thing to do. Others – and this is the more worrying aspect – drift into a conservative worldview because they have no more energy to think critically about society. The dull ache of life under capitalism turns them into nihilists, seeing no ground for value beyond the ways things are. Having once believed in a different world, they become empty vessels, waiting to be filled by the cruel forces that flow through society.
If our generation is going to survive this General Election, and the years of reaction that follow a Hard Brexit, it's going to need to prepare itself for the crushing depths of defeat. It will need to recognise that the electoral calendar can't determine the parameters of what we consider possible. But, most of all, it will need to embrace the limits of thinking in terms of a common, millennial "we". Youth is politically useful to the extent that it mobilises people for a common cause. "This generation" needs to be one tactic among many. History doesn't just happen to us. We can shape history.