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Older generations may mock and patronize the youth, yet it is the younger generations’ new ethics ...
2020-09-03 09:00:00

Of Memes and Old Men
The Ethics of the Youth

Illustration by Michał Loba
Of Memes and Old Men
Of Memes and Old Men

“Go and protest,” they hear from grown-ups. “You must rebuild the world!” The youth, however, choose to respond with a new ethics of gentleness.

Read in 20 minutes

As it hurled across the world, the coronavirus pandemic put many phenomena into sharper focus. One of them is the marginalization of the youth – ignoring their problems, chances, and sometimes even their very existence. Over the course of the past few months, the media gave most of their attention to those most vulnerable to the new disease, that is, the elderly who, in the ever-ageing West, make for a broad demographic. Meanwhile, the young have entirely disappeared from the picture. For many weeks, they also vanished from the spaces they dominated in 2019 with their relentless protests on the streets of Hong Kong, squares of Sudan, the arteries of European and Australian cities. The fear of contagion had blocked those hotheaded, often underage freedom fighters, as well as the Earth and sustainable development. Governments, police and armies have failed to contain young people’s determination. In Sudan, the regime collapsed, and the Chinese dragon is wobbling in Hong Kong. The pandemic came as a bolt from the blue.

In the age of fear of the new disease, everyone seemed to repeat the same mantra: that the young handle the infection much better and usually experience it mildly or without any symptoms at all. Therefore, no need to worry about them. Only some individual alarming cases contradict this perspective and show that the virus can be as dangerous to young people as it is to the elderly. And in everyday life, inertia and symbolic emptiness seem to be almost as fatal – having lost their tether in schools and peer groups, with no chance of possible socialization at festivals, concerts, lectures and playing fields, the young hang suspended in the void. And we have left them there.

In our corner of the world, the young are a minority: demographically decimated, politically under-represented, economically weakened, and robbed of any social security (such as pension plans, long-term contracts, or affordable housing) previous generations had at their disposal. Elites patronize them and act with indifference, all the while using them almost as if they were a commodity that must prove its usefulness. Time and again returns the old tendency of portraying kids as start-up millionaires, genius entrepreneurs sought out by top corporations, and prodigious scientists. Such brilliant examples stand in stark contrast to grotesque narratives about a generation interested in nothing but selfies and drinking lattes, generously sponsored by the Bank of Mum and Dad. Those tales balance the thin line between presenting the young as extraordinary individuals that need no help, and as victims lured in by the promise of individualism, but wholly dependent on the rules of globalization. In short: the children of ultra-capitalism are held on a tight leash by brands and marketing dreams, while naïvely believing the ultimate goal is to express themselves.

The only thing missing from these narratives is taking the young seriously. We still fail to see them as important heroes of the modern world; equipped with new competencies, embodying valuable intellectual substance, and bringing along a real chance for changing what we, older and slower, have failed to change and no longer have the power to affect.

The stolen tomorrow

In the current state of tension between the young and old, more is happening than just 20th-century intergenerational conflict. The old still represent the establishment that monopolizes resources and power. But now it is also trying to take over the youth as a cultural asset in its own right. Nobody wants to get old, and everyone is racing for the right to be associated with newness, freshness and change. Isn’t it ironic that in America, where the cult of youth was so vehemently cultivated, two old white men are now running for presidential office: 77-year-old Joe and 73-year-old Donald? And on top of that, the most influential radical on the national political scene is the 78-year-old Bernie.

In Europe, the line-up of the European Parliament gives us an excellent embodiment of the fight for the future. The oldest MEP is Silvio Berlusconi, the 82-year-old former prime minister of Italy, a living symbol of corruption, hedonism and trashy behaviour. The youngest is 21-year-old Danish citizen Kira Marie Peter-Hansen from the Green Party. Her main concerns are the development of agriculture, protecting the environment and advancing the rights of the LGBT+ community. Meanwhile, all the unsinkable Silvio cares about are his extravagant retirement plans and perfect tan.

When it comes to public life, the young are either dismissed or forgotten. Not so long ago, the politicians who listened to the young climate activist Greta Thunberg wished her to get back to school soon – ignoring the fact that knowledge of the climate crisis was what dragged her out of school in the first place. It made her realize that there is no future. Her tomorrow was sold by well-fed old people who believe in the ideology of unlimited growth and focus solely on maintaining the status quo. “You stole our future,” she accused them on the world’s largest forums.

Scientists confirm her stance: COVID-19 was transferred to humans from another species, most likely from bats. It did what other viruses do when human civilization robs them of their ecosystems. In our strive to maximize profits, we destroy the environment and force viruses to migrate. Greta’s predictions came true immediately, and the future, drawn so neatly in global business plans and counted in quintillions of dollars, was put on hold until further notice.

The virus of change

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have examined hundreds of analyses on the future of air travel, tourism and the oil industry, as well as the Eurozone. And I struggled to find one – just one! – thorough examination of the impact our situation will have on the people who have the most future ahead of them. That is, the people we label millennials and Generation Z. The only exception was VICE Media, which focuses on the problems of young people anyway. Back in March 2020, it ran a poll among over 9000 respondents from 30 countries. The results suggested that young people view the pandemic seriously: 87% said that they actively protect themselves against the virus. Millennials, who tend to be reaching the key moment of their professional development at this point, said that they were anxious about the future of the job market. The younger Gen Z respondents were mostly worried about the pandemic affecting their relationships and mental health. Most of the young people felt their value system is being completely remodelled: 55% said they were more afraid, and 60% said they feel more empathetic. One in three respondents said they are going back to previously neglected friendships or have found a new hobby online. Most people questioned agreed that the world after the coronavirus will be different in two aspects: the function of the economy and our patterns of social engagement. How? Nobody knows yet. When asked whether the world after the pandemic will be better or worse, young peoples’ answers were split in half.

Empty streets and the ban on large gatherings did not deter the protestors; UNICEF noted that young activists became more active online. The Youth Climate Strike inspired by Greta Thunberg soon gained new hashtags: #DigitalStrike and #ClimateStrikeOnline. No problem, young people are digital natives, comfortable in navigating online spaces. But the situation makes it even more difficult for them to compete for decision-makers’ attention. Our pandemic leaders are, with very few exceptions, giving us a spectacle of anti-scientific arrogance, act in stark opposition to the WHO recommendations and sometimes promote outright nonsense. Even though we keep wondering how much the coronavirus is going to change us, so far it hasn’t affected the previous order. Politicians and countries still relent to international concerns, whose spread-out ownership structures allow an equally far-reaching dispersion of responsibilities. The only businesses the virus is visibly helping to grow are the ones operating mainly online. Even before the virus, they had a disproportionally significant impact on our lives, controlling our data and monetizing every last trace of our virtual existence. This electronic agora, on which we try to lead our public lives nowadays, has become commercialized and colonized. The knowledge of the 1% controlling the lives of the 99% of the humanity has become commonplace, and the virus allows us to really experience it, increasing our dependence on fast internet connections and our digital fluency. It has made those things the most basic of all goods, turning them into an alphabet of modern life.

Kids moulded by such conditions could be described with a number adjectives, but not the likes of ‘free’, ‘hopeful’ or ‘careless’.

The new romanticism

All that unfairness should lead to rebellion, shouldn’t it? It begs for the young to storm the streets, hack the media concerns, paralyse the Amazon headquarters. But for what? Does such fantasy have any point in the 21st century, when all prognoses say the future won’t be decided by the young but rather by artificial intelligence? Is there any vision of tomorrow predicting Greta and her friends can survive without allying with technology? And why do previous generations keep spinning their old-time tell-tales about the young scaling the barricades while unwilling to sacrifice a single button, not one mortgage payment, not a single new pair of jeans?

The young seem to be falling victim to inter-generational romanticism and blame-pushing. But when it comes to their economic status, they are the least protected demographic of all. Since the 2008 recession, it has become evident that many of them will have to lead a life on the quicksands of the precariat. The promise of prosperity collapsed, and here they were, abandoned along with their dreams.

Young people are usually well-educated and long-term-unemployed. Once they enter the job market, they find it prearranged by complex systems that serve profits rather than people. They get no protection, no mentorship to speak of. More often than not, they haven’t even seen any role models around them among their teachers, employers or other public figures. Let’s take a moment and think what kind of people take it upon themselves to guide an average 20-year-old today. Which politician or artist addresses the young seriously, without patronizing them? In all of Poland, who even takes young people seriously, other than Jurek Owsiak – the national charity powerhouse relentlessly instilling core values in one generation after another? When adults find themselves in one room with the young, they usually try to be cool and hip, meaning they try to suck up to the kids. It’s hard to come up with a worse possible strategy with people who need someone to listen to them, someone to respect and follow. If the older generations and their order turn out to be an embarrassment, why bother with it at all? That’s why authentic values are the only thing that matter today.

Lucky are the kids who come across an engaged teacher or a strict coach. Not to mention a dedicated parent, unafraid to draw lines, push their child forward, and show him or her that life can be hard, too. Modern youth has been orphaned time and time again. It would be plain hypocrisy to expect the young to spark the revolution. What exactly are they expected to overturn? All the things made accessible and possible due to economic growth? Or maybe the unbearable lightness of being adults are spoon-feeding them? Perhaps the deficit of social roles they could perform if only someone pointed them in the right direction? The 20th-century rules of rebellion were much more straightforward, as it simply went against tangible evil. Racism, the Vietnam War, a lack of sexual freedom, totalitarian regimes –  all those things gave young people a visible enemy. In the globalized and deeply unbalanced world of today, opponents are everywhere, and they keep on mutating, just like the coronavirus. Now we all get a chance to watch the failures of state and political structures trying to take on a threat so dispersed and nebulous.

Rediscovering the community

New generations are always the carriers of hope, and therefore also the carriers of disappointment. And now we also wish the young would come and free the world from cynicism, greed, industrial poisoning and ever-evolving forms of discrimination. But what kind of fight is it, and against whom could it be directed?

The universal boycott of such companies as Google or Facebook might sound spectacular, but in reality, it’s impossible. It would be like protesting against tap water. Without those omnipresent online infrastructures, we no longer know how to live. Massive strikes against politicians? That’s a tried and trusted method, explored by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, as well as by the Youth Climate Strike across the world. Still, it seems an inadequate response to a situation in which the impact of big businesses has long surpassed real political power, gaining intercontinental reach. Perhaps a social revolution would work better, then? A new, more community-driven form of government? Sounds great, but wouldn’t it require assembling some sort of global parliament, therefore agreeing to repeat all the imperfections of the United Nations, only to get stuck in an equally weak position?

The ideas of expressing our anger can be multiplied and knocked down in perpetuity, and the cleverer youth has already gone through that cycle, which is why they won’t take any of the beaten paths. To the astonishment of the older generations, the 21st-century youth refuse to go for hedonism, hypersexual behaviour, ostentatious indifference, or politics. They choose something much more subtle and conclusive – the new ethics, a change of lifestyle.

The children of the internet are comfortable swimming in an ocean of knowledge, aggregated and developed by the previous generations and then made easily accessible online. The only reasonable conclusion coming from an analysis of human history is that we desperately need a change in our system of values. We must keep on modifying it constantly so that it responds to our genuine needs and allows us to coexist in the world. And the system of values depends on the critical mass of specific individual choices.

We no longer live in the age of peoples’ tribunes or mass media. We live online, and it is thanks to this virtual dispersion that we can group together, establishing our own mainstreams as well as influential and inspiring niches. There are no more centralized agencies of thought and control, no apparent dominant in place. That’s the crucial difference in the generational experience of today’s youth – they consider themselves independent individuals rather than part of a broader community. They don’t necessarily strive to escape the codependence of the plural as much as they miss it and seek group identification with an effort the previous generations never had to make. Those who came before them broke free of the rigid forms of the world around them; today’s youth needs to define a world of their own, and they want to know they’re not alone in it.

Proportions between the individual driving force and the power of cooperation have been shaken up. On the one hand, the belief in the myth of individualism (while observing the brutal unification of human behaviour as it gets crunched by the cogs of globalization) seems naïve. Still, on the other, it cannot be denied that nowadays, an individual can do more – faster and easier at that – than ever before. Relationships hatched online seem to be fragile and easily broken. And yet, the Youth Climate Strike found it shockingly easy to move from the internet into the real world, while remaining precisely coordinated al over the world. Real communities can begin online.

Establishing the stark contrast between digital and real-life experiences is a boomer thing to do; young people travel between those two realms while maintaining a feeling of complete continuity. If we want to follow the birth of a new system of values, then we must watch both of them at once. Knowledge can be easily extracted from online resources and shared immediately. And now it helps shape attitudes and behaviours followed in everyday life.

One pair of jeans is enough

What does it look like in practice? If you think all those teenagers do is write whiny posts about not eating meat and loving animals, you better go and see what they eat. It has become a new norm of the Polish middle-class that it is young people who introduce a vegetarian lifestyle to the rest of the family. They are the ones making bean lard and quinoa burgers. When you see memes mocking the Black Friday obsession, you should go and ask shopkeepers whether they noticed a drop in sales. Because if a teenager promises her friend on WhatsApp that she won’t buy new trousers for a year, she means it. And two months later, the same promise is made by a celebrity from two generations up and reaps 60k likes. If the change of priorities and ethical choices – such as sustainability or zero-waste philosophy – was just meaningless teenage talk, big clothing brands and online stores wouldn’t be feverishly labelling and explaining the environmentally-conscious origin of their cotton T-shirts and shoes made of recycled plastic. Of course, the market is run by cynics who will do whatever it takes to make money. It’s more than ready to recalibrate its production lines, change the ingredients of its products and use different packaging. But if it ends up becoming more sustainable and less destructive in the process, it’s still a successful revolution, isn’t it? Until recently, the market dictated our tastes and consciences; now, it’s no longer the only boss in town. The citizens of capitalism of the second- and third-generation don’t pray to brands. They read labels carefully and ask hard questions – not just online. Let me give you a real-life example.

Łódź, Poland, 2019. A large national conference was taking place. Corridors were swarming with liberal politicians, journalists, businesspeople. The conference hall was bursting at the seams. More than 200 people were listening to panel guests discuss zero-waste policies. On stage, there were representatives of a large furniture company and a well-known author. The conversation was ringing with valid points and calls to change. Suddenly, somewhere in the audience, a boy with bright pink hair raised his hand. He smiled and spoke politely, but with ruthless clarity: “What did the conference organizers do to follow zero-waste philosophy? Why are we sitting in a concrete building with blinds drawn and lamps blazing while the sun is out? Why is there just one vegan stand in the buffet area, serving meals in single-use plastic containers? How many of you arrived by cars rather than opting for a less carbon-heavy means of transport?”

The assembled could only agree and applaud the boy. As a spokesman for the young people forced to live in a mucked-up world, he called the decision-makers out, showing them how little their words really mean.

The youth know they are ahead of the race and that they have a choice. Every day, they can make better, healthier, fairer decisions. They can spend their money in a more or less ethical way. It’s not hard for them to cook a healthier meal when the internet is brimming with recipes. They can buy their jumper from a local producer and support retired seamstresses, or they can not buy anything at all. Clicking ahead is always an option. They aren’t helpless. Such a perception of freedom is more than just a style of consumption, so we better not call it an illusion. The market is both a reflection and an instrument of shaping the world of our values. As of recently, it’s starting to look a lot like a double-edged sword, formed by the young users with their conscience, knowledge and decisions. Don’t forget that adults can be allies, especially since they can still remember a world of scarcity and the socialist version of the sharing economy: borrowing chairs from neighbours, swapping a football for a bike or a washing machine for a fridge. We have knowledge that young people will find appealing and useful.

Perhaps, right now, the market is a training arena in which young people are learning to negotiate using pressure and force. If they can do it there, they will soon move to other fields. They look at the world around them and realize it’s not set in stone. Especially since grown-ups, so keen to use axiomatic statements, aren’t always right and often don’t offer reliable knowledge. When asked by VICE where they get their information on coronavirus, over half of the young respondents said they feel confused. However, 90% said they stick to science and WHO reports. Meanwhile, the leaders of the US and Brazil keep on regurgitating fake news.

No boomers allowed

Last year, the phrase “OK, boomer” became popular online. It had an air of ironic disdain to it and was initially directed just at the generation of the post-war demographic surge and their contemptuous view on young people being incurably childish and delusional. The phrase mutated immediately, gaining a short but intense lifespan that even managed to trickle down to politics. When 25-year-old New Zealand MP Chlöe Swarbrick gave her speech about cutting down carbon emissions, an older politician tried to interrupt her. “OK, boomer,” snapped the woman, making a dismissive gesture with her hand, and got on with her point. The video of those few seconds went viral all over the globe, proving that young people will not be silenced and they don’t care for some rusty boomer wisdom. They keep on going because they know better.

Language and memes are their new valuable weapons, along with the speed with which they manage to share their own codes of communication. Older generations of analogue immigrants stand no chance against the effortless fluency of the digital natives.

The truth is, there will be no war. Rebellion cannot stand up to this new power of making a reasonable argument. Entire warehouses of informational ammunition are just one click away. Winning a dispute with those brilliant young minds is tough. They cross-check their knowledge, connect the dots and find new contexts, always two steps ahead of you. Constantly plugged in and wrapped in cables, they keep on updating their knowledge, always engaged, tirelessly messaging each other.

Maybe it is time to make some space for them. The new generations are more than just the announcers of change; they are the change. They love genuinely and fearlessly regardless of their gender, they separate plastic wrappers from potato peels, and they honestly prefer volunteering at a dog shelter than drinking and dancing till the morning comes. Change always comes from where we least expect it, and the world leaves the slowest behind. Instead of pushing the youth onto some imaginary barricades, maybe we should see and appreciate that they have already scaled them and are now busy rearranging our old world. For the better, it seems.


Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.