The desperation of now – why the story of young Britain needs to be told
I was brought up around books – my mum is a publisher, so my childhood was spent as a guinea pig for children’s book proofs – but it never crossed my mind to try to write one. I didn’t feel I had anything people really needed to hear, and I was busy doing. When I was twenty-three, I was elected as a councillor to represent the ward I grew up in and, having seen the different trajectories of girls I went to school with, I was all too aware of inequality, so threw myself in to education and youth work.
Working with young people in Camden, I heard so many stories of frustrated ambitions, or dreams that crashed on the reality of poor housing or the cost of training. Every time I walked into a room of young people I felt their contempt for politics, and the urgency and strength of their desire for change. They couldn’t understand why people weren’t more angry about what was happening to them. For someone like me, who had chosen to join and stand for a political party, and who believed in the capacity of politics, this was a huge wake-up call. They were right that political institutions seemed to be plodding on despite young people’s anger and alienation, simply content to reach out to older voters. In fact, young people’s stories were largely absent from the public debate, or told without compassion. The dominant narrative seemed to be one of a lazy, entitled generation – and all too often a violent, ‘feral’ one.
Eventually, I decided to try to tell a different story. I began a journey around Britain to speak to young people, and what I found completely changed the way I thought. I met so many exceptional people in their teens and early twenties thinking radically about community life, technology and politics who challenged every preconception I had. I went down some roads I had never travelled before, exploring conspiracies, revolutionary agendas, open-source communities and the politics of self-expression. I watched a lot of YouTube videos and had some of the best discussions of my life in half-forgotten youth centres and the stairwells of estates. I meant it to take me a year but it took two; at one point one of my friends asked in despair if I was planning a life-course study.
I found a generation ready and willing, in fact pleading, for more power over their lives and their communities. The young people I met were highly ambitious and radical in their aspirations, even where opportunities were sparse. This is a generation more concerned than ever before with self-actualisation, finding purpose in their work and searching for personal liberation. However, they live in a time of shrinking resources and financial constraints: so many people I met were forced to make compromises. The gap between the scale of their aspirations and the reality of their daily lives left many frustrated. The answer is not to try to temper their aspirations, but meet them. This calls for nothing less than a re-organising of our politics so power is handed down to people, businesses taking up a social purpose, and a recognition of the creative potential of every individual.
This requires us to deal with the inequalities that mean that for some young people the world really is their oyster while for others it shrinks to the street they grew up on. As one white working-class DJ in Bradford put it, for many in his community it is about the desperation of now.
It has always been important to understand what is happening within a generation, but today it is crucial. The old realities and the unravelling of so many traditional ties and institutions don’t make sense to young people. They are left with a vacuum. The chaos, violence and anger we saw in the 2011 riots and the optimism, diversity and inspiration we saw from the young volunteers at the 2012 Olympic Games both exist in youth communities today. What we are left with depends on how far we are all prepared to hear their stories and take their concerns seriously.
My book is coming out just before the 2015 general election, and my hope is that it will help young people set the agenda. In 2010 they were the subject of political debates, and important in how they affected older voters. This time they are starting to mobilise, but political parties have to speak to them or else they will continue to offer the silent and invisible protest of indifference to formal politics.
However, this is about much more than one election, it is about a collective effort to reform our political, economic and social institutions so they are fit for purpose. It is about every individual recognising their obligation to the next generation. If we don’t, it won’t just be young people’s optimism that is wasted but Britain’s future.