Politics, Passions, Apathies and Ambiguities: Youth Transitions at the Edge of History

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In light of recent events, one might turn to Tony Giddens’ argument that we are currently living “off the edge of history”. At one level, the statement seems both obvious and sensationalist. Haven’t we always? Every day – since forever – has been historically unprecedented, and perhaps it is not the “chaos” around the world that is new, but the technologized means in which we simultaneously learn of it. However, according to Giddens’ anthropocenic warning of potential “Armageddon”, the extent of risk involved in our current condition really is different. Following the election of Donald Trump, geopolitical imaginations have certainly taken a spin. For some, Stephen Hawking’s terrifying prediction that we have about a thousand years until extinction might even seem optimistic and a long way off. To gauge how this atmosphere of pessimism and uncertainty may shape the cultural context in which young people are making transitions, our research has incorporated this year’s political events and associated discourses into its conceptual arsenal. More generally over the past months (see here and here), and specifically over the past few weeks, we have asked school leavers how they reconcile their personal transitions and aspirations for the future with the turbulence depicted in the mainstream media. Brexit, and now Trump, have been the most obvious themes, yet they have provoked a surprising range of emotional responses.

The most anticipated of these had been “passions”, such as fury, disdain and fear – evident in the street protests across Britain and America that followed the unexpected results. Not always in the most intense of tones, but a number of participants have echoed such sentiments: “the way he’s gonna’ ‘make America great again’ is by taking away what does make America great, which is multiculturalism. That’s literally what the country’s built on”, remarked one participant. Another said that he “only got into politics since coming to uni”, reflecting on the range of hopes and fears that inspired him to join the Labour party. Another has moved to London as a stepping stone between her “boring” rural upbringing and her ultimate dream – of moving to California. Striving for a cosmopolitan form of community, disagreements with her parents about Donald Trump had in fact spurned her eagerness to get away. Hence, when catching up last week, she admitted that her plans have been called into question, acknowledging the irony that her imagined sanctuary is now symbolized by the opposite of what she seeks.

Aspects of this year’s political situation have therefore affected the transitions of our participants in a number of ways. However, we have also noted how many reactions have been characterised by negativity, apathy and confusion. Contrary to the general narrative of youth, several participants did vote for Brexit. A lively group conversation last week resulted in tensions and disagreements, involving accusations of ignorance and some leaving the room in exhaustion. To my surprise, they wanted to get “off of” or “away from” politics as a conversation. It seemed that as a group of tightly-knit newly formed friends, it was exposing divisions which were otherwise papered over. This reaction also helped to render visible some of my own ethnocentric biases as an interviewer – just because I have been permeated by “the news” and taken by Giddens’ argument, it would be inappropriate to translate this assumption onto a template for others.

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Interestingly, one participant framed his position in terms of the passing of  Motorhead’s Lemmy (above) – another of this year’s events, albeit a less reported one. Known for his indulgent lifestyle (such as drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels a day), and his slogan “Live Fast, Die Old”, which did indeed take him to 70, Lemmy insisted that Rock n’ Roll is anathema to politics and not the place for it. Adopting the same philosophy, the participant explained, “that’s why Lemmy is my hero and why I have an Ace of Spades tattoo”. He went on: “I can see why people go on about [politics] all the time, but at the end of the day I don’t see the difference between there being a Labour government and a Conservative government. Day to day living I don’t see it as affecting that much”. In a similar vein, this video explains some of the apathy towards Hilary Clinton, and politics in general, in the build up to the US election. And in a year of US-UK sociological parallels, it is important to note that the optimism and enthusiasm behind the Jeremy Corbyn-inspired ‘Momentum’ and Bernie Sanders’ mantra “A Future to Believe in” are not shared by all, or even a majority. It is our task, in the analysis and write up of this research, to portray this subtle range of contrasts and ambiguities.

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