The fantasy of the ‘youthquake’

The 2017 youth rebellion is a figment of observers’ imaginations.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK

Why, exactly, has Oxford Dictionaries made ‘youthquake’ its word of the year? It is rarely used in public conversation. Most people won’t have heard of it and therefore won’t know what it means. As a columnist at Vice put it, ‘You’re not alone if you never heard it before’.

Puzzled by the elevation of this rarely used word, I searched on the most extensive news database – Nexis – to try to understand Oxford Dictionaries’ thinking. According to Nexis, until Oxford Dictionaries made its word-of-the-year announcement, ‘youthquake’ had appeared in just 40 news headlines in 2017. The term was most frequently used in New Zealand newspapers, in reference to the growing youth vote for the Labour Party in September’s General Election there. The word has also been used by British commentators to describe the youthful support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in our election in June.

What is striking about these (rare) mentions of ‘youthquake’ is that this isn’t young people using a word to describe their own behaviour; rather, ‘youthquake’ is a designation used by older observers to highlight the role of youth in the electoral process. Unlike new words that emerge from real public interaction or colloquial exchanges, youthquake is an invention of commentators brainstorming in an editorial office.

On closer inspection, it becomes clear that youthquake is not a neutral term that merely describes the process of youthful mobilisation; no, in most cases it is used positively, to assign high political value to youthful activity. Observers who use this word are really signalling that they have made a big emotional investment in the capacity of young voters to ‘put right’ the mess created by their elders. It was this more propagandist usage of the word that inspired Oxford Dictionaries to make it the word of the year. In the words of Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries: ‘Most importantly for me, at a time when our language is reflecting our deepening unrest and exhausted nerves, it is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note.’ In other words, this ‘rare political word’ contains a message that corresponds with Grathwohl’s own view of the world.

Listening to Gratwohl, it becomes clear that the elevation of the word youthquake is not a genuine linguistic innovation, a case of giving a word its proper recognition; rather, it is driven by the imperative of messaging, of propaganda. ‘Sometimes you pick a word as the word of the year because you recognise that it has arrived, but other times you pick one that is knocking at the door and you want to help usher in’, he tellingly said. ‘I think this past year calls for a word we can all rally behind.’

Helping to ‘usher’ in a new word? This is a delicate way for Oxford Dictionaries to say that youthquake is its preferred political slogan for our times. What this really reveals is how much significance is now attached to the control of language in today’s culture wars, in the cultural conflict over values and the future.

The phenomenon of the youthquake has little in common with older, classical forms of intergenerational tension and conflict. Indeed, something important has changed in the way generational tensions are understood and discussed. Until recently, criticism of elders expressed the frustrations of the young, who were determined to acquire for themselves some of that authority and status associated with being a grown-up. By contrast, criticism of elders is now promoted by members of the older generation itself, who are increasingly uncomfortable with exercising adult authority.

Throughout the General Election campaign in Britain this year, there were constant calls on young people to register to vote and, by implication, to punish the Tories. Such appeals to youth became part of a narrative that contrasted the selfish and short-sighted attitude of older generations with the more generous spirit of the socially aware, enlightened youth. The young were addressed as if they were a victimised group whose futures have been all but destroyed by the self-interested deeds of Baby Boomer elders.

Observers cultivated an urge for revenge against the old. This idea that the old should be punished has become a recurring theme in public life on both sides of the Atlantic. It was clearly expressed in the title of Paul Begala’s essay in Esquire earlier this year: ‘The Worst Generation.’ ‘I hate the Baby Boomer’, he wrote. ‘They’re the most self-centred, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandising generation in American history.’ Similar sentiments are often expressed by older commentators, who often wallow in guilt and self-loathing over the misdeeds of their generation.

Just as the term youthquake is an adult construction, so, too, is the supposed rebellion of the young against the political status quo. The main driver of the so-called youthquake phenomenon is the unravelling of adult authority and an accompanying sense of confusion about how to make sense of the world. This is possibly the most important development in the relations between the generations today: the cultural devaluation of adulthood.

Adulthood is rarely talked about positively anymore. Instead, it is depicted as a stultifying period of conformism, with few positive virtues. The contrast between our culture’s affirmation of being young and its awkwardness towards grown-ups is striking. The loss of belief in adulthood gives rise to the attribution of special qualities of wisdom and sensitivity to young people.

Following Oxford’s example, I propose ‘adultwobble’ as the word of the year. Adultwobble refers to the tendency of many adults to outsource their authority to the young. The belief, or at least hope, that the young have answers that elude the old is widespread now. And it has encouraged some to view normal youthful disenchantment as some kind of epochal ‘quake’. ‘A “youthquake” erupted in my own kitchen as my daughter voted Labour!’, exclaimed journalist Rachel Johnson. ‘Incredible’ – that was Johnson’s verdict on the trend for the children of the Tory establishment to defy mummy and daddy and vote Corbyn. Bewilderment tempered with a hint of pride towards the behaviour of posh and middle-class kids who dared to line up with Corbyn is one of the symptoms of the adultwobble.

Unlike the youthful rebellions of the past, the supposed youthquake is all about kicking at an open door. For all its confusions, at least the 1960s youth rebellion was in part motivated by an aspiration to change the world for the better. Yesterday’s Baby Boomer rebels expressed a powerful sense of high expectations. They clearly felt ill at ease with the comforts offered by relatively prosperous Western societies, but this alienation really expressed a conviction that there was something more to life than economic security. Some of these Boomers clearly wanted it all. And they believed, for a time, that they might achieve this by their own actions, rather than by constantly complaining about the old or just electing a Corbyn or a Sanders to do everything for them.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Populism And The Culture Wars In Europe: The Conflict Of Values Between Hungary and the EU, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics UK


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