Today's twentysomethings would only fight a war if they felt like it, and if it fitted in with their career plans.
In the battles of the past, twentysomethings were often first to go over the top. While their elders might have ducked their heads down, those in their twenties were ready to risk life and limb for what they believed.
The leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which stood up against the might of the Nazi military machine, was 23-year-old Mordecai Anielewicz. Leon Trotsky was head of the Petrograd Soviet in the Russian Revolution of 1905, at the age of 26. Twentysomethings queued up to fight ‘for King and Country’ in the First and Second World Wars – which emptied many British universities – never to return.
My generation of twentysomethings are more drifters than fighters. A new Times (London) survey into the beliefs of 18- to 30-year-olds found that only one in five would take up arms for their country if called to do so. The same proportion would refuse to fight – but by far the largest number, 57 per cent, would fight ‘only if I agreed with the reasons for the conflict’.
It’s not that we’re pro-war or anti-war. It’s not even that we will only fight for what we think is right. It’s just that the idea of risking your life for anything seems a bit odd – not to mention inconvenient. ‘I wouldn’t fight now, not at this stage in my career’, 27-year-old Danny tells me. ‘I can’t imagine a situation when we would be at war’, said another 28-year-old, in spite of the fact that British forces are currently engaged on several fronts across the world. Craig, 25, said he would go to war ‘only if it was a matter of protecting Great Britain’.
We need ‘good reasons’ – published in a handy dossier, perhaps – and it needs to fit in with our career plans. Rather than throwing caution to the wind when the moment demands, twentysomethings would worry about whether this was what they ‘really wanted’. But they wouldn’t take a firm stand against war either, as some did against the Second World War or the Vietnam War.
This isn’t about personal failings or collective apathy. Young adults are just expressing the spirit of the times – times when politics has become grey and dull, and there are no great battles of principles. ‘We have nothing to fight for – we haven’t got oppression’, 27-year-old Katie tells me. ‘There’s nothing to rebel against; it’s all been done’, agrees Danny. For them, rebellion is something that you do when you’re a teenager. When you leave home and join the world, you get ‘realistic’ – you think about paying the bills and getting on.
It’s a familiar story. As late teens turn into mid-twenties, it’s common to see the idealism seep out of people. Grand plans get downscaled, excitement turns into indifference. We’re not like the punk generation; today’s twentysomethings aren’t angry or aggressive. The Times survey found that people were tolerant of different ethnicities and sexualities – and that they supported the right to abortion, the right to euthanasia, as well as animal rights (48 per cent said that animal testing shouldn’t be justified in any circumstances).
It’s easy to tick the box on causes that sound like ‘good things’, but it’s another matter to work out whether the positions contradict each other, or to risk anything to fight for them. I ask Craig what he believes in. ‘Democracy, equality, fairness’, he says, ‘key principles like that’. Would he risk getting arrested for the sake of these principles? ‘Um, well….’
It’s not that we are selfish, go-getting individualists, in the model of the 1980s stockbroker. We just can’t imagine a cause beyond ourselves. Everything has to be weighed against personal feelings – ‘how would war feel for me?’
Twentysomethings are too young for their age. They shy away from responsibility: they’re reluctant to get married, have kids, or commit to a job. Thirty-three per cent of those surveyed in The Times were still living with their parents, and only 20 per cent were married. Some 17 per cent lived on their own. They hanker after their schooldays, going to ‘back to school’ disco nights and looking up their not-very-old mates on the Friends Reunited website. Or they stay stuck in a student lifestyle, doing the same things when they’re 28 as they did when they were 18. And if it all gets too much, they wander around Asia just as they did in their gap year.
But twentysomethings are also too old for their age. They have a conservative streak – a world-weariness and suspicion of others. Some 47 per cent would bring back caning for unruly whippersnappers. Most think that immigration is a bad thing. These are the opinions of grumpy old people, worn down by years of curtain twitching.
People who are 23 or 24 often worry about ‘growing old’. Because they’re hanging back, rather than throwing themselves into life, they feel the years pass through their hands. ‘You’re drifting along – two years later you’re still doing the same thing. You haven’t got around to moving on’, one 28-year-old woman tells me. As you approach 30 you start to get the physical signs of ageing, but with little to show for it. The body clock has gone on ticking while the life clock has crawled by.
‘Generation whatever’ is the product of its times. Trotsky might have been leading the Petrograd Soviet at the age of 26, but that’s because there was a Petrograd Soviet to lead. Exciting political battles made men of boys, and inspired young adults to throw themselves into the frontline. The arguments between Blair and Brown, or the debates about the 45-minute claim in the Iraq dossier, just don’t do the job.
But twentysomethings could do more to spark some life back into the grey noughties. If there aren’t political causes worth dying for, perhaps we’ll have to create some of our own.
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