When I was in secondary school, around the time of the Blair government in Britain, pupils uninterested in sport had two main means of passing time during the lunch hour: walking around the perimeter of the school site in little conversational clusters, or retreating into the library. So on days when I found myself alone, I went in search of reading material; and since the school library took daily delivery of fresh broadsheet newspapers, I often read them. Such was my formal introduction to the political discourse of the era.
I soon formed the impression that I had walked in on conversations which had begun in some other era, and which were vividly and therefore often tacitly recalled by both columnists and their assumed readerships. They remembered Margaret Thatcher’s government; indeed, they remembered a time before it, either prelapsarian or primitive, depending on the commentator’s leanings. Like me, they had lived during the Cold War; unlike me, they were old enough to remember how the Berlin Wall came down and to have understood what was going on at the time. They remembered how the European Union emerged out of the European Economic Community; battles surrounding the Maastricht Treaty were fresh enough in older minds to require no explanatory detail.
The problem was not merely one of limited information. Information can be researched, and a library is an excellent place in which to do that. The expanded availability of online resources has now made it even easier to learn about recent political history and to find multiple interpretations of it. Neither was the problem simply that few commentators ever spared a thought for what Beloit College, in the preamble to its ‘Mindset List’ for lecturers, has called ‘the intelligent if unprepared adolescent consciousness’. I am not complaining that few pains were taken to talk down to me.
My limited acquaintance with the facts of recent history caused me less confusion than my cultural distance from them. I had neither battle scars from the great political divisions of past decades nor, accordingly, the sort of tacit cultural background which would equip me to empathise readily with those who had. The past of my parents’ generation was not exactly a foreign country, but from my own point of view its customs were distinctly provincial.
Experiences like mine cannot be wholly universal: there are certainly children, among them the offspring of politicians, who have been more forcefully inculcated with the legacies of ancestral values and allegiances, or simply with a strong background awareness of how public affairs are conducted. However, my adolescent perplexities serve to illustrate a difficulty with the political representation of youth: whatever formal mechanisms might be invented to permit such representation to exist, these will not suffice to welcome people into the political culture upon which healthy democratic debate depends.
Behind the word ‘culture’ lies a complex web of meanings. What it means to belong to a culture, and who belongs to which of the world’s cultures, are neither simple nor uncontroversial questions. For present purposes, however, what is principally at stake is the role in political discourse of shared understanding, and its relation to shared experience. Any project upon which people jointly embark requires them to share an understanding of what they are doing; and the building of nations, or of any settled and lawful community which is the ongoing project of successive generations, requires a great deal of shared understanding. Without it we could not achieve the meeting of minds needed to find solutions or compromises through peaceful dialogue.
I do not mean, though I also do not dispute, merely that ‘it is impossible empirically to disconnect the cultural from the political dimension of a nation-state’.1 I certainly do not mean that politics is impossible without ethnic nationalism or some similarly confining conception of civic culture. People immersed in the discussions that characterise open debate and democratic politics end up united, even in their most fervent differences, by more than a common language and some shared geography. They develop an identity grounded in their shared experiences; and if a nation has been united by, for example, the act of remembering where one was when Kennedy was shot, then those nationals who were unconceived and unconceived of at the time will be unable to participate in the unifying act, and must find other means of integration into their homeland’s political traditions.
This is part of what makes generational identity troublesomely different from other kinds of politically salient identity. One can be born into and brought up in the nationality or ethnicity of one’s parents, but one can only ever share generational identity with one’s peers. Older people can tell younger ones what it was like to live in fear of nuclear war, or to be a student radical in the 1970s, but such narration only underlines the differences between past and present. (There are few interesting stories to tell about how things used to be just as they still are.)
Of course, there might be positive aspects to each generation’s cultural distance from its forebears. It may lead to liberation from old feuds that makes hatchets more easily buried. It invites an openness to the kind of fresh and innovative ideas essential to Millian experiments in living (even if it also leads people down already well trodden detours, as in the adage that anyone not socialist by twenty has no heart, but anyone not conservative by thirty has no brain). It might even help to protect older generations from settling into ossified complacency.
What follows when it comes to the representation of youth in politics? One possible inference would be that, if there are such cultural chasms between generations, then we have all the more reason to ensure that measures are taken to provide some form of distinct formal representation for youth in the political sphere. (Such a line of thought follows the popular notion that a legislature fails as a representative body if electors do not produce representatives who resemble them demographically in distribution of sex, race and social class.) The inference would be, roughly, that only youth can speak for youth.
That, however, leaves us not far from an awkward suspicion that only youth can speak to youth; and if that is so, then so much for any intergenerational civic community. If youth requires special measures to make itself heard, what is left of the common bonds which enjoin others to listen?
In fact, there may be no need for pessimism, or indeed for special measures to make youth heard. When discrete, concrete, ‘knife and fork questions’ arise that mainly affect the young, older politicians are frequently able to comprehend their constituents’ concerns. A recent case in point in multiple nations has been the question of unpaid (or poorly paid) internships: to what extent they erode entry-level paid employment, how they favour the children of the well-off who can afford stretches of unpaid work, and what legal measures ought to exist to ensure that people who are effectively in jobs are paid a fair wage for the work they do. This is a matter which disproportionately affects the young: it is they who need entry-level jobs, and they who bear the brunt when the first step on the career ladder becomes an unpaid stint instead of an actual job that provides its holders with the means to support themselves.
The willingness of young interns and ex-interns to tell their stories is a crucial aspect of campaigns against exploitative internships: in the United Kingdom, Interns Anonymous and then Intern Aware have illustrated the problems faced by interns with their collections of horror stories. The political tide sufficiently turned that the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recommended a total ban on unpaid internships to follow the 2015 general election. This is an achievement for grassroots campaigning, and it shows that problems faced by early-career job seekers can obtain a hearing in political circles; the need to make money to support oneself is the kind of problem that can be explained in plain terms across generational boundaries.
Perhaps formal representation of youth in political or business institutions could have addressed the problem faster, or prevented it from arising in the first place; but results are being achieved nonetheless through traditional democratic campaigning. There is an element of cultural difference involved here, in that each generation forms its ideas about entry-level workplace culture through its own experiences of hunting for first jobs, and these ideas may become outdated as the world changes; but the need for a living wage is not generationally distinctive, and belongs to intergenerationally common culture.
In the same country, however, 42% of those aged between sixteen and twenty-four claimed to be not at all interested in politics in a survey by the Office for National Statistics.2 Why should this be, if grassroots political campaigning actually can work for the young and let them make their voices heard? Cultural differences between generations have been raised as a possible answer, the suggestion being that the young are not civically inactive, but find little to engage them in mainstream politics:
Our research suggests that teenagers are motivated to make a difference in their community but the tools they use and the approach they take is different from those of previous generations. They do not rely on politicians and others to solve the world’s problems, but instead roll up their sleeves and power up their laptop and smartphone to get things done through crowd-sourced collaboration. They value bottom-up social action and social enterprise over top-down politics. As digital natives, they are accustomed to speed and responsiveness and desire a politics that engages them at the same pace.3
Unfortunately, this kind of analysis is roughly the mirror image of my youthful disorientation in the school library. It recognises cultural differences in how generations approach political and civic affairs, but is limited to a perspective from which one generation is perceived and presented as the other lot: in this case ‘digital natives’ and their purportedly effortless affinity for connected technology. The result is a warped view of this generation’s place in history which both cuts it off from grassroots movements of other eras and downplays the fact that people often have to ‘rely on politicians and others’, such as employers. This is why campaigners against unpaid internships used ‘crowd-sourced collaboration’ precisely as a means of lobbying those in a position to effect concrete change. The distribution of power in the world will not have hugely shifted by the time today’s teenagers are seeking entry-level roles (hopefully paid ones), and it is this that will create the circumstances with which they must deal.
This is the peculiarity of culture as a generational differentiator: there are genuine cultural differences between generations (as one would expect when one generation has many years’ experience of political events during which the other did not exist), but recognising and acknowledging this risks underlining any marginalisation of the young as much as it undermines it. Discussion of youth representation, youth quotas, youth suffrage and so on take place in a political atmosphere in which younger people may find themselves painted as a new, different, semi-alien phenomenon even when their aims include such novelties as entry-level employment with a living wage, of the kind their parents often enjoyed. For if younger people are not so different, so distinct and so unlike those who came before them, then what would be the point of treating them as members of any other category than simply that of citizen?