Marina Abramovic – The Family III, 2008
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
While this paragraph above might sound like music to your ears, and while this might confirm and reinforce some of your own prejudged thoughts on our current youth, it actually is a quote from Plato credited to Socrates and is therefore dating back more than 2,400 years ago. It should be a reminder and a wake-up call to all of us, for we continuously over and underestimate the traits and connotations within the categories we build in our heads to define the world. We should be very cautious, especially when it regards labeling the people who come after and have power over us.
I myself am often perceived as a conservative old grumpy man who looks down upon this anti-social technology-driven generation; a generation that doesn’t know how to play carelessly and freely in the streets anymore; a generation that is surrounded by screens and has all the material possessions in the world, yet lack the proper personal guidance.
It is times like this I ought to reflect as well, and again realise I am very much mistaken. For I do believe and have lots of hope in this generation to come after us. While I am more pessimistic on the state of the globe, I agree very much with the writings from the French philosopher Michel Serres who praises this new Internet-generation and its mobility and access to knowledge, its open and mutual trust, and its critical mindset for anything authoritative. It’s the first generation to truly understand as well as embrace the big challenges it will face; and that is definitely something unique and worth talking about.
In his book ‘Petite Poucette’, or ‘Thumbelina’ (2012), Serres writes on this new individual:
“Young people can take in lots of divergent information simultaneously. They understand, adapt and associate differently than their ancestry. Their heads are different. […] They maneuver through a topological space of proximities, while we used to live in a metrical space that was built up from distances. Their spaces are different.”
And it is exactly this access and connectivity to information within mutual spaces, which he names the third big knowledge revolution coming after the invention of the writing system and the printing press, that will be the liberation of all next generations and humans to come. “Their mind and their spaces are different”: they perceive and construct the world differently. For the first time in the history of our planet, humans are able to see better what is really going on in the world (to a certain extent), and on top of that have been given more chances to make – small but sometimes significant – changes to it.
Yet there is a big downside to this environment people have to grow up in today. Despite all information, complex relationships, critical thinking and proximities of everybody everywhere; there is also a big threat we are facing. And that is the one of our individual competitiveness.
More people are going to college than ever before yet fewer jobs are available; more people are moving to the cities in search for a better life yet fewer salaries are able to cope with the rising rent and housing prices; more people are getting several degrees yet companies look for experience while internships are scarce, let alone paid; more people are being told (if not drilled) each and every day they should aim to be the next Steve Jobs and succeed in what it is they do, no matter what cost. Climbing the job ladder instead of leading a life of fulfillment seems to be the new sacrement. Because the meaning of ‘fulfillment’ is now reflected in the social and economic success one can have, rather than an intrinsic state of mind or being.
A strong observer and critic of this fierceful individual competition is the Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. In his book ‘What About Me?’ (‘Identiteit’) (2012) he challenges the neoliberal culture & economy, and what it has done to our individual personality, attitude and values. He makes the case that the globalised free-market economy might have given a certain better lifestyle, it has not however made us happier. On the contrary, he argues it has done exactly the opposite. In The Guardian (29 September 2014) he wrote last year:
“We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited […] Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless. We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference.“
Now, while I think this is a bold (and therefore very interesting and intriguing) statement, I think he’s more onto something when he talks about how the economic landscape has shaped our sense of identity. Today, everybody needs to be a winner. Anyone who fails to succeed must have something terribly wrong with him, even labeled as ‘sick’. The competitiveness of the market has infiltrated and replaced that of our personality. In the chapter ‘Enron Society’, he writes:
“Throughout history, economies have always been embedded in religious, ethical and social structures. This no longer applies in the case of neoliberalism. On the contrary, religion, ethics and society are subservient to ‘the market’. In that sense, neoliberalism is no longer an economic theory, but a much broader ideology.”
He argues we therefore have come to a point where educational and academic value have merged with an economic value; in the sense that intellectualism or knowledge that has no financial value anymore has become worthless and obsolete. Everything needs to be put in a monetary cost and everybody needs to follow that pattern. Smart people are therefore seen as a failure if they’re not rich at the same time. People who are comfortable in their current job role and have no need for an immediate promotion are seen as lunatics. He argues neoliberalism has created exactly the opposite it was meant to do. We have freedoms, but only those that are dictated by the market and have a price or commercial value attached to it.
Nobuyoshi Araki – Satchin and his brother Mabo, 1963
And that’s why we might have cultivated a jilted generation. Not only because the baby boomers have taken in about all the financial assets and housing property in the western world (and beyond), but because the economic climate of the past decades combined with the recent financial crisis have conceived a hostile environment for the younger generation to grow up in. While more and more people are becoming more ‘politically correct’ than ever before, when it concerns the individual chances to succeed in the job market and in which neighborhood you want your children to go to school to, it is slowly turning into a passive aggressive contesting climate.
Being a psychologist (psychoanalyticus), Mr. Verhaeghe goes further and shows the profound impact this has on our ‘Self’. How we start to see everything as a rat race, ourselves and the outside world. Slowly everybody starts to feel like a failure among his own group of friends or community. The Internet proximity and connectivity Serres is talking about, even adds up to this perception and problem: “It looks as if the entire world is having fun and is being productive, while I was happy with having no plans tonight”. We constantly have to selectively fool ourselves and everybody else we’re giving 200% and how wonderful and exciting our lives are, while bit by bit we actually start to feel more empty and lonely inside. And while everybody seems so close, meaningful relationships are scarce.
Taking in the hopeful and positive look from Michel Serres on young people’s assertiveness, consciousness and connectivity, and the more adverse perspective that Paul Verhaeghe gives us on the current climate we’re educating this new generation in, a more balanced and nuanced outcome might start to appear, as mostly is the case.
It seems we are growing towards a competitive culture, driven by market prosperity. This has brought us a generation of people needing to financially and socially succeed in order to feel appreciated and respected. The pressure is clearly on. While at the same time we have a generation that is better than ever able to understand and hopefully cope with its situation and challenges. They’re connected to the world and everybody in it, and they live in a more open and honest environment.
Maybe we shouldn’t be afraid as much on what might come, nor should we glorify this next generation too heavily either. For they might end up just like any other generation: full of hopes, anger, trust, deceit, happiness and betrayal. Imperfect all-natural human beings.