The year the cult of youth took off

Ageism has become an acceptable – even celebrated – prejudice.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan


Have you found yourself grimacing at Zimmer frames on the bus? Do you revel in checking the latest census data to see the average age of the nation? Do you retweet sarky comments about ‘youthquakes’ shaking out the old fuddy-duddies? If so, you might be suffering from gerontophobia – the fear and loathing of old people – which is the most acceptable, widespread prejudice in society today.

Ageism is the one ‘ism’ that is given a free pass. Hating on granny is all the rage. Recently, former US president Barack Obama made headlines by talking about ‘old people… not getting out of the way’.

The 58-year-old is not the only older politician to turn against his age group. Since the Brexit vote, 76-year-old Vince Cable has been railing against older Leave voters. On a panel with me at the How the Light Gets In festival last year, he drew laughs from a Hampstead crowd for mocking Brexit as a ‘Zimmer-frame revolution’. The author Ian McEwan also denounced his fellow septuagenarians when he delightedly predicted that by 2019, ‘1.5million oldsters, mostly Brexiters, freshly in their graves’ could swing public opinion towards remaining in the EU.

The phrase ‘OK Boomer’ went viral last year after a young person posted a clip of herself reacting to a ‘baby boomer’ complaining about ‘snowflakes’ and overgrown teenagers. This derisory response of ‘OK Boomer’, used to shut down the so-called Baby Boomer generation, was also used by Netflix in one of its social-media posts. It was even used earnestly in the New Zealand parliament by Green politician Chlöe Swarbrick in response to an older colleague.

The instant popularity of the phrase signalled how normalised generational divides have become. There have always been tensions between younger and older generations, but never before has there been so much celebration of youngsters deriding their parents. Rather than rebelling against the old and changing the world, the OK Boomer phenomenon shows how little young people want to interact with older generations, instead preferring petulant put-downs.

Perhaps the most pronounced and sinister ageism came from the wave of interest in Extinction Rebellion (XR), Greta Thunberg and the climate-emergency panic. From Thunberg being named Time person of the year after blaming older generations for stealing ‘my dreams and my childhood’ to XR Youth proclaiming that ‘adults need to be accountable to the young people’, climate activism isn’t very oldie friendly. Instead of asking questions about what political changes might be made to help the planet, and, more importantly, the people living on it, environmentalism has veered towards a cultish celebration of youth. Fawning adults have handed over all moral authority to schoolchildren.

This celebration of young people by politicians and activists does the young no favours, either. Politicians see the younger generation as a stage army for their preferred causes. Consider the Labour Party’s attempt to enfranchise 16-year-olds in the recent election. This had nothing to do with the party’s valuing of teenage political engagement. No, Labour supports votes for teenagers purely because the current polling suggests that youngsters are more inclined to support Jeremy Corbyn and Remain. Those who celebrate the cult of youth are whipping up ageism in the hope that it will serve their own political projects.

Remarkably, unlike previous historical periods of generational conflict, the older generations aren’t fighting back. In fact, like Cable, Obama and other high-profile older politicians, many of them are willing to sacrifice their own generation to appease Generation Z. The Greta Thunberg phenomenon, in particular, illustrates how weak adult authority has become. One photo shows her being applauded by Michael Gove, Ed Milliband, Caroline Lucas and Layla Moran, right after she has told them that they are irresponsible and have failed the next generation. Complaining youngsters are kicking at an open door as older generations have already given in to the idea that they need to shut up and make way for the millennials.

Intergenerational relationships are a wonderful – and necessary – part of life. From knife crime to self-harm, lots of the problems young people face today are in some part due to their isolation from the rest of society. Yet rather than encouraging younger generations to seek advice or wisdom or even to learn from the mistakes of older citizens, it has become received wisdom that the older you get, the less likely you are to be relevant. More than that, older generations are treated as a homogenous blob – all thinking the same and voting the same.

In 2020, we should strive to get serious about tackling our gerontophobia. Rather than feeding the generational divide, we should challenge the growing cult of youth. In this new decade, young people must reject being used as a stick to beat our parents with. Instead, we must nurture a sense of intergenerational solidarity against those who would seek to divide us.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Ian Bland

4th January 2020 at 11:56 am

Thunberg is idealised because she represents the perfectly conformist, brainwashed child that is desired by elderly radical… Boomers. Which is sort of ironic.

George Orwell

3rd January 2020 at 4:01 pm

Having been born in 1949 I suppose I’m a Boomer.
During my upbringing we were all tightly controlled by the older generations and rebelled somewhat during the 1960s.
Boomer children were allowed much more latitude yet now the youngsters are seeking to control us as tightly as did our forebears.
We have been the victims of oppression at both ends of our lives whilst those who now seek to oppress us have lived lives free of such oppression.
Greta is simply a baby version of my old granny.

Harper Mia

2nd January 2020 at 6:31 am

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bf bf

1st January 2020 at 9:51 pm

The problem with youffs is that they are to stupid (because of their youthful inexperience) to realize they are being used by the bankster/corporate elites.

“This might explain why so many of the young vote for the absorption of our country and democracy into the supranational corporatist EU, where youth unemployment has been at catastrophic levels for more than a decade. It is less surprising when their votes are affected by so many who might be prone to neural immaturity.”

“Some of the lead advocates of climate change alarmism, such as Al Gore, and Maurice Strong, considered to be the father of the global warming scare, are and were heavily invested in the carbon trading mechanisms that deal with carbon offsets. Gore’s investment company, Generation Investment Management, which sells carbon offset opportunities, is the largest shareholder of The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). While Strong, before he died, served on the board of directors of CCX. Strong was a leading figure of the of the Earth Summit in 1992 and the drafting of the UN’s Agenda 21, where the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first emphatically advanced. Strong, like so many others behind this movement, made his billions in the fossil fuels industry.”

The Office for National Statistics population projections over the 14 years from the 2016 referendum to 2030 show the growth in the Leave voting ages of 45-99 will be an increase of 3.109 million whereas the Remain voting ages (20 to 44) will decrease by 4.548 million.

Last laugh to the (genuinely woke) crumbles.


1st January 2020 at 9:48 pm

Greta Thunberg has all the self-awareness of a Boris Johnson or Michael Gove.

Douglas Carter

1st January 2020 at 9:19 pm

Even with a reasonably good memory, I can’t say when this started but it was certainly a ‘thing’ by around 1984. (The actual year, not the book). An era of sentimental and unthinking child-worship. Back then it was plain to anyone paying attention it would turn out to be harmful, but the supreme manipulator of Downing Street in 1997 turned it ruthlessly to his advantage. It will get worse before it gets better.

Jonathan Yonge

1st January 2020 at 8:52 pm

What am I supposed to fear from gerontophobia ?
Young people who do not respect the wisdom that age can bring not deserve any respect themselves.

John Marks

1st January 2020 at 8:02 pm

Well, if we’re stupid enough to elect MPs who’ve just finished maturing (and many haven’t), it’s our own fault. The brain continues to grow up to 21+, maybe 25 in some folk. And yet our politicians are supposed to decide policies concerning children when they’ve never had kids, policies concerning business when they’ve never run anything, concerning education when they’ve never taught anything, concerning health when they’ve never treated anything . . .
It might be a good idea to have 31 as a minimum age for an MP and 41 as a minimum for a minister. (And 21 as a minimum age to vote). Even better would be that each portfolio had a minister with at least some first-hand experience of their brief, just as ministers of justice are lawyers.
Consider the grinning fool in charge of health . . .
People get the government they deserve.

Fred Mutton

1st January 2020 at 7:02 pm

Ageism is accepted by politicians and media because age is the voice of experience. We have seen the better times, we knew when our country belonged to its founding people, we knew the time before government warred against its own people.We knew the time before the welfare state removed the need to work. We know that corporatism, toxic wealth, constant war, surveillance, false flags and imported terrorism is not the way forward.
They are afraid that our collective experience may just influence youth.
We need to be sidelined and discredited.

Brandy Cluster

1st January 2020 at 5:03 pm

All of us will take the younger generation seriously when they’ve moved out of home by 28!!!

Jonnie Henly

1st January 2020 at 4:57 pm

Spiked’s columnists are increasingly unable to contain their resentment at the fact young people hae radically different views to them. Hence the succession of articles desperation searching for a reason to explain this phenomenon that suits Spiked’s prejudices.

nick hunt

2nd January 2020 at 9:43 am

Yep, adopting Greta’s radical views will undoubtedly save the planet, and who cares about a generations of our kids traumatised by the peddling of climate hysteria anyway? How dumb oldies must be to disagree, like those 500 scientists recently telling the UN ‘There is no climate emergency’. Silence them now!.

Jerry Owen

2nd January 2020 at 11:35 am

Nick Hunt
I have watched a number of St Greta’s videos and can honestly say that I have not heard her give one … not one, shred of science for her cause.

Ellen Whitaker

1st January 2020 at 4:10 pm

“There have always been tensions between younger and older generations, but never before has there been so much celebration of youngsters deriding their parents.”

Really, this is not true. Have you forgotten “Don’t trust anyone over thirty?” Boomers (by and large) really couldn’t abide their parents, couldn’t stand being in the same room. They often got along better with their grandparents. What’s happening now seems like current teens/young adults and parents turning against the grandparent generation. In truth, we are probably not dying off as fast as previous generation. Sorry.

James Knight

1st January 2020 at 2:13 pm

It wasn’t always like this. In the 80s it was the Tories who were painted as being uncaring to the elderly and the left who were painted as being too sentimental (“you don’t suddenly become “nice” when you become a pensioner”, as one Tory used to say to me).

Now it is reversed. We have a phoney generation war which has echoes of Year Zero: Children embody ideological purity vs corrupted adults.

Howard Taylor

1st January 2020 at 11:48 am

The young should act and create, the old should advise and help. that how it has worked for thousands of years, Society’s fear and so say embarrassment surrounding the Wests history is sadly preventing the young learning from it. A purely Western Problem, Eastern and Asian society’s have a respect for their older members.

Fred Mutton

1st January 2020 at 7:09 pm

The elderly knew a country that worked to bring communities together, to encourage pride in people and country. The modern mantra is divide, cause strife, destroy family, indoctrination instead of education, dilute and destroy. It is working and the losers will be future generations.


1st January 2020 at 9:47 am

The Cult of Youth is a function of capitalism. Young people are pliant consumers, easily manipulated by corporations. Young people are also highly conformist and imitate their equally brainwashed peers. Capitalism is able to access their parents’ money through the children.

George Orwell

1st January 2020 at 1:03 pm

A cult of youth is a tactic of authoritarianism whether of left or right.
They need to be educated but they are being indoctrinated.

brent mckeon

1st January 2020 at 2:40 pm

Are you implying that Marxism, or any other ism does not brain wash its people?

nick hunt

2nd January 2020 at 9:50 am

Not sure these guys were capitalists, leftist troll
“Give us the child for eight years and it will be a Bolshevik forever.”
Vladimir Lenin
“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.”
Adolf Hitler

Geoff Cox

1st January 2020 at 9:43 am

People always get older … and become more conservative. That is why the future is leave not remain. Here is an article by Rodney Atkinson:


In Negative

1st January 2020 at 11:02 am

In the sense that Remain conserved the status quo and the dominant direction of travel, I’d argue Remain was the conservative option.

A vote for Leave was a vote for a revolution, and from what I can gather, if Dominic has his way, that’s exactly what it will be. Get ready for the reorganisation of the civil service along agile corporate lines. In Dominic’s thinking, I’m not sure I see an awful lot for the conservatives; some of his thinking should be a little concerning to democrats too.

Geoff Cox

1st January 2020 at 11:48 am

I suppose this depends on the definition of what a “conservative” wants to conserve. The leave vote was trying to conserve the nation state which is being eroded all round the western world. But at the same time, things had gone so far, that to vote leave was actually quite radical in a way. But that is what I am – a radical conservative.

In Negative

1st January 2020 at 2:23 pm

Agreed. I’m curious about how you’d define a radical conservative though and how you’d consider the values to differ from traditional conservatism?

I wonder too about what you think the nation state is in an increasingly techno-porous world? I mean, it can’t mean the same thing as it did prior to global comms/travel. When culture is so structurally metastatic and porous, from where do you derive the sense of national solidarity or consistency?

Geoff Cox

2nd January 2020 at 12:38 pm

A radical conservative would be someone who not only wants to conserve things, but actually turn the clock back. In the old days when social change moved slowly, a conservative would have been generally content to slow things down. But now, with change happening so fast and with no certain outcome, there is a need to be active in pushing back the pc / woke bs that is changing so much of the western world so fast – and not for the better, imo.

Mark Houghton

1st January 2020 at 8:26 am

I judge people by their actions, by their views and by their arguments – age, skin colour, sex etc doesn’t come into it. I suspect I’m in the minority.

Philip Humphrey

1st January 2020 at 7:57 am

I find the use of Thunberg as a mouthpiece entirely cynical. I’m sure she believes what she’s saying, but the reason the greens are using her is because she is a difficult target. Any attempt to challenge her can be portrayed as the bullying of a 16 year old girl, and the people behind her know that. I do not believe that it is a youth driven movement at all, we can see a pattern of indoctrination by activists in schools and the media frightening and manipulating vulnerable young people.


1st January 2020 at 3:28 pm

But who are these mysterious “peole behind her”? No one has ever seen any, so maybe they’re a figure of the imaginations of those who don’t like what she’s saying.
And I write as someone five times her age.

Brandy Cluster

1st January 2020 at 5:05 pm

You just need to get out more, or open your eyes and ears.

David Alanson

1st January 2020 at 7:37 am

The climate change movement will come unstuck when we calmly examine real observable science which shows within the norm variations for change. Climate is primarily driven by solar cycles not mankind.

K Tojo

1st January 2020 at 12:12 pm

The relentless steamroller of climate extremism provides a clear example of how politics trumps scientific fact. There is plenty of research and data to show that the allegedly “settled” science is nothing of the kind. Unfortunately, this is ignored, marginalised if not suppressed, by the TV news outlets (the public’s main source of information on the subject). Added to this, the BBC takes every opportunity to promote the climate emergency view in its documentaries. It is rare to see a nature documentary these days without being reminded that this or that species / environment is in danger due to climate change

Mike Stallard

1st January 2020 at 7:20 am

I am eighty years old. This last week I went to stay with my family which included three people around twenty years old (one was 14). I was genuinely interested in them. I asked about their future and was surprised and impressed. I met a boy friend and gave him 10/10. We had a lot to talk about.
All in all it was a wonderful time. If you leave people of any age alone until you are invited to join in their lives, you get treated with the respect and love that you long to share. A smile helps too…

David Alanson

1st January 2020 at 7:35 am

good thoughts; we can choose to be ”young” and enquiring in outlook whether we are 80 or 90 years of age (health allowing of course).

nick hunt

2nd January 2020 at 4:40 pm

Those older and wiser recall how Hitler Youth, young Communists and similar movements were neither ‘open-minded’ nor unwilling to report their own politically-incorrect parents to the totalitarian authorities.

Kaley Kali

1st January 2020 at 6:50 am

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H McLean

1st January 2020 at 3:34 am

The photo perfectly illustrates how Tories are unfortunately just as useless when it comes to this climate change cult of personality. You’d expect Lucas and Moran to mindlessly jump two-footed into cheering on Saint Greta, and gormless Ed Milliband, well, what else is he going to do, but Gove’s applause shows just how far gone mainstream Tories have become. I realise it’s probably quite difficult being a politician, what with unrealistic public expectations coming hard and fast from every angle, but the one thing I expect from a centre right politician is an attempt, at the very least, is to have SOME principles. Yes, yes, I know, it’s Gove, but you get the idea.

Michael Lynch

1st January 2020 at 11:24 am

To be fair to Gove, he was having to play that game given his Party was without majority. The rest of the morons were jumping up and down and had purchase in the Commons so he was under pressure to conform. Everything has changed now and I’m looking forward to a decade of good old fashioned Conservatism stuffed with common sense and pragmatism. Maybe I’m wrong, but I sense the decline of ‘wokeism’ and a return to rational thinking for the immediate future.

Brandy Cluster

1st January 2020 at 5:07 pm

Over 100 years ago Catholics pilgrimaged to Lourdes for the laying on of hands of another teenager, St. Bernadette. Some were on crutches and many were sick. A perfect metaphor!!

nick hunt

2nd January 2020 at 4:55 pm

Bernadette believed she was chanelling God’s unique voice of certain knowledge, Greta falsely assumes ‘science’ can do the same. In reality, our knowledge on climate change enjoys no consensus and a very limited shelf-life, like all cutting-edge science. Whereas scientific knowledge can progress and change, religious or ideological leftist knowledge cannot.

Jim Lawrie

1st January 2020 at 2:41 am

Thirty something is approaching early middle age, and far from being a teenager.

20yrs ago Islington came second in a booklet called “Crap Towns”. In a withering put down of that fuckwit habitat it said “Nowhere else in the world will you see so many people in their thirties dressed as teenagers”. Now in their fifties, many of them still are.


1st January 2020 at 3:36 pm

Most Islington residents were born there.
But when you were born, you had the unique wisdom to see through your mother’s skin, saw what a crap place you get dropped into, and decided not to emerge until she moved to somewhere more acceptable. Or not.

Jim Lawrie

1st January 2020 at 5:53 pm

I posted about how people behave. You post baby talk about babies and cannot even muster a passable insult.

Michael Lynch

1st January 2020 at 1:02 am

This is what happens when you put people on a pedestal, they end up kicking your teeth down your throat. The last couple of generations have done this to their children so what does society expect? The irony here is that if you looked at carbon consumption on a pro data basis then the millennials use towers over the baby boomers use by a country mile. We grew up in houses without central heating and considered ourselves well off if our parents owned a car. We walked to primary school or took the bus. Our weekly treat was a bottle of Coke and a small chocolate bar and sometimes went without when money was tight. You had one main present for your birthday and Christmas. Finally, about 95% of us went to work at 16, some at even 14, so no University for us until some of us decided to go back in later life. We went by bus and when we saved up for a couple of years we might have enough to buy a 50cc moped or a 125cc bike. I was 27 before I owned my first car and that was second hand and I never got on an airplane until my early 30s. Maybe Greta ought to research what life was really like for my generation, but if she wants to blame her parents generation that’s fine by me because, in reality, it is them who have consumed the most and done the damage.


1st January 2020 at 3:31 pm

And as you grew up, you sure made up for those childhood privations by consuming enough to destroy the earth.
Be honest.

Brandy Cluster

1st January 2020 at 5:09 pm

Asinine comment.


1st January 2020 at 9:47 pm

Vic Lanser is right.

Michael Lynch

2nd January 2020 at 4:07 pm

I take it you are having difficulty in understanding what the term pro rata means? You also don’t know anything about me or my lifestyle. I haven’t been on an airplane for 10 years, I have always recycled and I come from a generation that had to make do and mend. For example, we have a 30 year old vacuum cleaner; I have never bought into the endless cycle of consumerism that has inflicted the last couple of generations. I am naturally conservative and have a tendency to turn light and heaters off when not in any particular room. Look to your own generation to account for the damage done and stop blaming mine.

Ven Oods

1st January 2020 at 12:16 am

“One photo shows her being applauded by Michael Gove, Ed Milliband, Caroline Lucas and Layla Moran…”

So, turkeys do vote for Christmas!
All these wonks still seem to think that Twitter matters, despite the recent election result.

Ven Oods

1st January 2020 at 12:14 am

“From Thunberg … blaming older generations for stealing ‘my dreams and my childhood’ ”

And yet, according to her dad, Greta’s climate obsession is responsible for lifting her depression, which surely has, more accurately, restored her childhood. From school strikes to sailing the seas in a carbon yacht. What more could a 16-year old want?

Ellen Whitaker

1st January 2020 at 4:13 pm

She’s controlling the behavior of her parents, and of everyone else around her. Why shouldn’t she be happy?

Brandy Cluster

1st January 2020 at 5:10 pm

Bingo. The majority isn’t smart enough to get that, Ellen. When you deify children and turn them into little emperors the next condition you have is entirely predictable: Stockholm Syndrome.


1st January 2020 at 6:27 pm

Yes Ellen, I would agree. Although I must add the caveat that, as the leading social commentator Titania McGrath observed about a different case: ‘It’s so moving when children spontaneously come out with the things we’ve taught them to say.’ There is surely an element of that in Greta Thunberg’s behaviour.

But does anybody else have the same reaction that I do to the picture at the head of this article, which is that it is somewhat creepy? In my view the adults in it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. (Obviously as they are all politicians they presumably don’t feel what I think of as normal, decent, shame.)

Surely one of history’s lessons is that childhood fame is almost invariably damaging. I can’t see things ending well for the poor girl.

Ruth Ramsden

1st January 2020 at 5:10 pm

I’m not sure replacing depression with obsession in a (by all accounts) fairly disturbed teenager is necessarily a good thing.

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