The demonstration strayed from its path and came to a pause at the base of a nine-storey office block, half-a-mile from the Houses of Parliament. Many in the crowd of 50,000 students did not know the building’s significance. A few made their way past the thin line of police officers and entered the foyer, throwing things about and making a mess of its marbled interior.
Those without the bravado to cross the threshold – most of us – cheered them on, reaching a triumphant pitch when a group appeared on the roof and unfurled a red banner. By this point someone next to me had noticed a sign that listed the building’s occupants: oh, so that’s what it is – the ruling party’s headquarters!
‘The occupation of the Conservative Party’s offices in 2010 fractured the consensus at the heart of British politics: that young people were apathetic,’ says Matt Myers, author of Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation.
The day’s events, which took politicians, the media, the police and even its own protagonists by surprise, precipitated one of the most significant student movements ever known in Britain – a country without a strong culture of student revolts.
It was mobilized in opposition to the Liberal-Conservative government’s plan to triple university tuition fees, cut budgets and eliminate Education Maintenance Allowance – a lifeline for working-class high-school students. It lasted for a few intense months, deploying street protests, occupations and direct action. ‘More than anything it was a line in the sand, after which young people could never be framed as indifferent to their fate,’ says Myers.
Even at the time it was clear that the British example was just one expression of a global awakening. From 2009 to 2013, student protests engulfed campuses in Chile, Quebec, California, the Philippines and over 50 other countries.
The specific circumstances differed but they were united by a reaction against neoliberal agendas: government cuts, privatization, and the transfer of education costs from the state to students. The 2013 protests in the Philippines, for example, were sparked when a 16-year-old took her own life by drinking silver cleaner, ‘after she had been forced to withdraw from university due to her inability to pay the 10,000 pesos ($230) that she owed in tuition fees’.1
Young people also played a key role in the generalized revolts against economic and political regimes in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The April 6 Movement, made up of Egyptian students, was one of the most active groups in the 2011 revolution. Young faces were at the forefront of Occupy in Britain and the US, and dominated Geração à Rasca (Trashed Generation) in Portugal and Juventud sin Futuro (Youth without a Future) in Spain. These new formations rejected hierarchy, leaders and explicit ideology.
They inspired wide-eyed praise from those who saw in their digitally charged structures a new way of doing politics; the journalist Paul Mason, writing in 2012, noted the participants had a ‘visceral distaste’ for ‘anyone who sounds like a career politician, anybody who attempts rhetoric’ or ‘espouses an ideology’.1
But the young radicals did not take over the world. They did not even achieve their immediate aims: the tuition fee rises went ahead in Britain; Occupy fizzled out as a political force; and southern Europe was shackled by austerity regimes that continue to produce youth unemployment rates in Spain, Italy and Greece that range between 30 and 40 per cent.
But since then, a fragile generational unity has emerged. It stems from a collective recognition of having come of age at the worst of times. And this cohort of youngsters now has a name, albeit a contested one: millennials.
Children of the crash
Like all generational categories, millennials is a hazy term, nominally describing those born between 1980 and 2000. It was not coined by young people but by the marketing industry, specifically two US business consultants William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1991. Capitalism needed a name for this emerging demographic that it was going to sell things to as consumers and exploit as workers. And rather than provide a meaningful analysis, those who used the term ‘millennials’ early on – mainly the media and advertisers – spoke only of their supposed tastes and values.
This is why millennials often laugh off the label: it almost always prefaces the most ridiculous claims. ‘Millennials are killing vacations by refusing to take time off work!’; ‘Millennials are killing the housing market by not buying houses!’; ‘Millennials are killing old jobs by insisting on being freelance!’ the newspapers blare.
Too often, this generational discourse gets it the wrong way round. Rather than acknowledge how this era of capitalist crisis in the West has made young people poorer than their parents, or how short-term work contracts benefit employers, it blames the insecurity of contemporary life on choices made by millennials.
Yet the reality of young people’s lives is largely determined by economics, not free will. ‘The biggest factor facing millennials today is the total fall of wages in relation to the amount we produce at work,’ says Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. ‘We’ve also seen a rise of contingent work and “bad jobs”. We’ve associated this with the millennial character as if the two were existentially tied.’ The stereotype of this generation being lazy and work-shy does not chime with Harris’ analysis either, which finds that millennials are, in fact, ‘damn good workers with unprecedented levels of education’2
In the West, the decline in trade union membership, coupled with the nature of the post-crash economy, has led to stagnant and decreasing pay-packets, particularly for the young; by the time they are 31, Britons born in the 1980s have only half the wealth that those born in the 1970s had at the same age. In Australia, discourse has reached parodic proportions, with a Melbourne-based partner with accountancy giant KPMG declaring that if young people want to buy a house – millennials there have the second-lowest home ownership rate in the world – they should stop spending money on smashed avocado sandwiches in hipster cafes.
That Australian ‘house prices have grown by more than 10 per cent in the past 12 months, while real salaries were only projected to increase by 1.6 per cent’ did not figure in his analysis.
Over-educated, over-worked and undervalued – these are the characteristics that stick to young people, who have neither the time nor energy to demand a better future because they are always on-call: ‘Millennials are experiencing the abolition of the life/work division in a way that tends towards total work,’ Harris says. ‘We’re working all the time: whether it’s being buzzed on your phone, always on the computer, always looking at advertisements.’ Growing up in societies that make individualism the highest virtue and solidarity a quaint artefact, millennials are best understood as the jittery, tired children of neoliberalism.
Waiting for adulthood
‘Life for someone in their twenties is desperate in the [Democratic Republic of] Congo,’ Bwenge (not his real name), a young graduate, tells me. ‘If they had the chance to go to school and university, they either don’t have a job, or they are doing very bad jobs. My friends from university today are selling airtime phone cards on the roadside, goods at the market, and others are working as security guards where they are paid $100 a month for working 50-hour weeks.’
Across parts of Africa and the Middle East, people speak less of millennials and more of ‘waithood’. In this new purgatory stage, men find themselves excluded from the social recognition that comes with the trappings of adulthood: finding decent work, buying or building a home and providing for a family. In rural, post-war Rwanda and Burundi, women describe how they also suffer while men lack the means to build a house – a prerequisite for marriage – as ‘they cannot be socially accepted as women until they have a formal marriage and children’.3 Looking at the life chances of young people in urban Madagascar, academic Jennifer Cole concludes that for some in the Global South, ‘“youth” is a stage they cannot escape’.4
Again, neoliberal economics has played, and continues to play, its part. Decades of structural adjustment policies, pursued as a condition of development loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have decimated domestic industries in the Global South and led to de-industrialization. Africa has a lower share of the world’s manufacturing output than it did almost 50 years ago. This is one important reason why there are fewer jobs than there should be in a continent where 33,000 young people join the search for employment every 24 hours.
In this light, the ‘freelancing’ spirit of millennials around the world can be seen for what it really is: a survival mechanism. ‘A term that we’ve started using in Congo is “se debrouiller”,’ Bwenge explains. ‘It means do whatever you can to sell yourself, to survive at all costs.’ Young Mozambicans use a similar expression, desenrascar a vida, which means ‘to eke out a living’. In Senegal they talk of ‘youthmen’, those who drift through their twenties and thirties in not-quite-adulthood, doing bits of work here and there. Behind the upbeat ‘Rising Africa’ narrative, that fetes economic growth on the continent, the lives of the majority of young people are still marred by frustration.
The 380-million millennials in China live beneath a similar cloud of despondency. Feeling the pressure of single-child households, rising housing costs in cities, and an economic slow-down, they have turned to ironic defeatism in the form of ‘Sang’. This social-media subculture uses jokes to express a quasi-nihilistic despair about the future – ‘I wanted to fight for socialism today but the weather is so cold that I can only lie on my bed and play with my mobile phone’ – and is named after a Chinese character associated with the word ‘funeral’.
Caught in a precarious world, it is easy to be tempted by reactionary politics. In the US, millennials buoy the alt-right, which gives a pseudo-intellectual buffer to Donald Trump’s presidency. Harris also worries about ‘misogyny [acquiring] a countercultural sheen’ as young men struggling to find well-paid work start to blame ‘feminists, working women and just women in general’ for entering the job market.2 As Karl Mannheim, the original generational-politics theorist, observed, ‘nothing is more false’ than the assumed correlation between young people and progressive politics.1
But many young people are embracing positive tactics. They are charting a way forward that is not dependent so much on any new-fangled technology or horizontal form of organizing – as some might have supposed, based on the wave of youth revolt in the early 2010s – but by updating what were once considered ‘old-fashioned’ strategies and ideas: trade unions, 20th-century ideologies and party politics.
Youngsters of the world, unite
Take the strike action over Deliveroo – a venture-capital backed app that provides bicycle and moped courier services in 84 cities across the world. Typical for a ‘gig economy’ firm, Deliveroo does not consider its ‘riders’ to be employees but ‘independent contractors’ – a sleight of hand that allows them to get away without providing a minimum wage. To justify this, Deliveroo often point out that many of their riders are students who desire flexibility in their lives. One way of ensuring you can trample on the rights of workers is to frame their job as little more than a youthful hobby. And what young person doesn’t enjoy cycling?
But riders in France, Germany, Italy, Britain and elsewhere are taking the company on, through strikes and legal challenges. Often organized through secret groups on the instant messaging service WhatsApp, in Britain these small-scale actions have fostered solidarity between young workers doing part-time work and older, more militant migrant couriers, many of whom have families to support.
‘Although there have been some legal defeats, we’ve been pretty successful wherever we’ve managed to organize,’ says Callum Cant, a 23-year-old former Deliveroo rider and union rep at the Independent Workers of Great Britain, a small union that specializes in precarious labour. ‘It was interesting that a lot of the younger cyclists had never been in a trade union or gone on strike before. Their political experiences came from social movements, like the student or anti-austerity movements.’
The gig economy is new and so too is resistance to it. But this flurry of labour activity – which includes challenges against the use of zero-hour contracts by large employers that target young people, such as McDonald’s and retail-chain Sports Direct – is a hopeful sign for a demographic who have grown up in an anti-union culture. Callum hopes that small struggles, like those carried out by Deliveroo riders, could be a ‘stepping stone for an entire generation to re-learn how to fight as a class’.
Back to the future
Over in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bwenge has also refused to succumb to pessimistic fatalism. Five years ago, he joined the newly formed social movement LUCHA (Struggle for change), which was spawned to challenge the corruption of DRC’s political elites, the moribund domestic economy and the UN’s inability to secure peace in the war-torn nation. Although they do not keep a ‘list of members’, he tells me there are up to 1,000 LUCHA activists, with an average age of 21.
Along with ‘petitions, letters, protests and marches’, LUCHA has reinvigorated the tactic of ville-mortes (‘dead cities’), which was used by previous generations to resist the 32-year reign of dictator Mobutu Sese Soko. ‘It’s a kind of civil disobedience where people stay at home instead of going to work, schools and markets,’ he explains. ‘When it’s successful, it results in lost tax incomes. It’s a non-violent way of opposing a government that is very repressive.’ Social media and mass SMS texting has proved invaluable too since it is ‘easy to use and almost free, at least in the big cities’.
LUCHA members are also bound together by a collective appreciation of Africa’s anti-colonial past. Carlos Lopes, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, observes that the continent’s youth seems to have more respect for the Pan-African movement – the generation of leaders, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, who led independence struggles against European colonizers – than their own corrupt politicians.
Lopes describes a distinguished panel he attended on African Intergenerational Youth in Ethiopia in 2013 where the young crowd jeered every second-generation head of state present, but maintained a reverential silence for the then 89-year-old Kenneth Kaunda – the first President of an independent Zambia – when he got up to speak.5
Bwenge says the same is true of DRC. ‘One of our problems is the lack of positive role models for young people,’ he explains. ‘So the figure of Patrice Lumumba [the first leader of an independent DRC, assassinated with Western support] is very important. We share his thoughts and discuss his speeches. And those of Thomas Sankara, [the revolutionary leader] of Burkina Faso and Martin Luther King. We don’t always agree with everything they say, but apply them to our contexts and to our own vision of the world.’
Let’s return to the dramatic scene at the Conservative Party offices in 2010. If you had told the crowd that in seven years’ time many of them would be voting for, joining, and even campaigning for the Labour Party, you would have been dismissed as a clumsy prophet. Labour, after all, was the party of the Iraq War, ASBOs – an aggressive classist measure that criminalized ‘anti-social’ young people – and had introduced university tuition fees in the first place.
And yet this is exactly what has happened. In the 2017 general election, Labour, under the embattled leftwing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, deprived the Conservative Party of a parliamentary majority. Its policies included the abolition of tuition fees and zero-hour contract work – a break with the economic system that makes young people’s lives miserable.
The result has been called a ‘youthquake’: 62 per cent of 18-24-year-olds who went to the polls cast their vote for Labour, with that figure increasing to 70 per cent for low-income young people. A striking example of this youth politicization was the #Grime4Corbyn campaign, which promoted the party with a free concert and endorsements from the stars of grime music – an urban, working-class genre that tends to be disengaged from, and actively critical of, formal politics.
Young people have also voted en masse for Podemos in Spain, a party that emerged from the networked plaza occupations of 2011; some have percolated through its ranks to become elected local and national representatives. Finding the US Democratic Party intransigent, many of the post-Occupy Wall Street cohort have flocked to the Democratic Socialists of America. The party, which now counts 30,000 members, recently won a slew of positions in local and state elections across the country, including a city council position in Illinois by a 28-year-old former delegate for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid.
This post-crash decade of youth revolt often gets compared to the 1960s: the last time that a disaffected generation made their voices heard across the world, from the protests in Mexico City to the evenements of May 1968, Paris. One difference with that era is that intergenerational inequality – (see ‘intergenerational justice’ box) – is much more pronounced today. Another is that young radicals no longer celebrate their youth as an irreverent virtue; ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30!’, a popular slogan of the soixante-huitards, does not resonate.
The charge made by young people today is that they are sick of being young. The demand – let us grow up! – is a symptom of society’s failure to provide what it promised; belying the post-Cold War truism that there is only one viable system left, which offers a clear path through life to all those who work hard enough. A recent YouGov survey found that millennials in the United States, the free market’s holy land, now have a more favourable view of socialism than capitalism.
What will this generation accomplish? Millennials are hardworking, forced to be creative and seize the moment in order to survive – qualities that make them the ideal vanguard in waiting. It is often those who have been promised a better life, and then been frustrated, who have the confidence to make revolutionary demands. And it is precisely because the shiny new world bequeathed to millennials leaves so much to be desired that many are drawn to the old-fashioned idea that another one is possible.
Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock, Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy, Routledge, New York, 2015. ↩