Mortality, Hedonism, and Lots in Between: Youth Experiences of Summer

umbrellas bath

This blog post (number 17) marks the end of data collection in the urban-rural youth transitions project. Over the past year and a half, we have followed the diverse trajectories of school leavers across three cohorts (from three London schools; from a school in rural Oxfordshire; and from various backgrounds starting university in London). The blog has been a space to relate emergent data to current affairs. From the Euros to Brexit, A-Level Results to Freshers week, terror attacks to Trump’s inauguration, or New Years Resolutions to the Easter Break, monthly blog posts have drawn correlations between the vicissitudes of young people’s lives and the shifting discourses they must negotiate. The volatility of 2016 and 2017, coupled with participants’ dynamic reactions, reveal a key finding about the momentary, contingent nature of how futures are felt, experienced, and articulated.

This post ponders the mixed emotions of the summer period at the end of the project. While young people commonly celebrate their sunny break from education, this year the mood in Britain has been tarnished by violent atrocities and by the politics of division and inequality. We first address how the unpleasant theme of death (premature, sudden, eventual, lingering) and its representation in the memento mori of the daily news might feed back into young people’s valuations of time and the life course. We then question, as elsewhere in the project, the extent to which youth dwell on or disregard such threats and perils. A more lighthearted attitude emerges as the research concludes amidst the back-to-summer imagery of festivals, travel, and carefree fun. We finish with a thought about complicating categories, exploring the meshing of death and hedonism, urban and rural, as well as the mundane and less extreme, to focus on the subtle, complex and often composite experiences of young people making their way in an uncertain world after schooling.

Brexit, Terror, Inequality: An Uncertain Urban Future

Adding to the political gloom surrounding Brexit, the summer has been tainted in a very sinister way by a series of catastrophes, from the terror attacks in London and Manchester to the Grenfell Tower fire to the dramatic surge in acid attacks (see also here). In cities in particular, sudden attack has become a plausible aspect of everyday times and places. Death, it seems, can come at any moment, and as Baudrillard might suggest, this is the true spirit of terrorism. School trips to London have been cancelled; air travel has been postponed; and there has been record security at EidGlastonbury, and Wimbledon. Event-goers and city-dwellers, as well as their families, are forced to speculate the unthinkable with an assured sense of uncertainty.

On the one hand, death is a pervasive aspect of daily life, from the changing seasons, to news of accidents, murder, and war or the continued passing of celebrities. Yet dying as a social and bodily process is also culturally abstracted (e.g. through language or conceptions of afterlife) and spatially hidden (e.g. nursing homes, hospitals, cemeteries) (Mead, 1928; Graeber, 2012). This taboo is not shared the world over (e.g. see Bhutan). Death’s deliberate distancing, coupled with assumptions about life in the future, can therefore be disrupted by such threats of violence, as also discussed in December. One rural school leaver, introduced in October, reflected: ‘I could like die next week, and I would have spent my whole life in education, my whole life doing something I hate.’ Skeptical about the ideology of delayed gratification promoted in education (see our previous discussion), she shared the story of a friend who had not enjoyed school and had in fact died on the day of an exam. ‘That’s why short-term decision-making is quite important for me’, she explained discussing her choice to not apply for university.

These comments cut to some of our biggest, ongoing deliberations as humans about what to focus our time, energy, or money on and how to balance the present with the future. Questions of inter-temporal choice or personal time zone often take on a moral tone of what is the right thing to do in order to achieve a meaningful or successful life. Different temporal attitudes to the likes of investment, temptation, and reward vary across religion (Weber, 1905), geography (Levine, 1997), family and social class (Ehrenreich, 1989; Lareau, 2011Currid-Halkett, 2017). Temporal perspective is also contingent upon age. The acronym ‘YOLO’ (you only live once) insinuates a feedback loop whereby death is acknowledged as final and this is reflected back into present choices and behaviour. The term YOLO is now fairly passé, no longer so visible on social media, in conversations, or on clothing or tattoos (after it’s peak in 2012); yet equivalent sentiments are often central to youth culture, or else mid-life crises or retirement plans. When the limits of one’s time are recognized, time increases (like a commodity) in value, which may in turn help to structure priorities.

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The theme of death can therefore bring us back to its alleged opposite in the heights of life, often expressed in youth culture through the lens of presentist hedonism. Through longer holidays and more frenetic social lives, in our data nineteen year-olds’ attitudes to the summer tend to be more relaxed, euphoric, and varied than those of working adults. However, this approach to the future is not necessarily a result or reaction to the morbid uncertainty of terror or poverty. A key theme emerging in the research has been the nonchalance exuded by young people, whether it be towards politics, terror, or their own career. Importantly, this is not an unthinking indifference but rather an accutely self-aware form of reflexivity about disenchanting oneself from the future in its manifold positive and negative potentialities. One participant, for example, described a numbness towards his student debt as ‘like an ideology of not thinking’.

Such insulation from thinking (ironic, perhaps, at university) may coincide with the dominance of binge-drinking and general frivolity in British youth culture (see our discussion of the meanings of student behaviour). International students commonly express shock at the extent of inebriation and anti-intellectualism evident across the student body. A Norwegian student’s article speaks of a ‘lack of ever being able to stop drinking’, echoed in the comments below, such as: ‘I’m Canadian and having a good night out is a once-in-awhile, celebratory kind of thing, whereas the English seem to default to it’. In this regard, youthful summers for many are largely a cult of “fun” – or at least a well-cultivated discourse of “fun”. Music festivals and overseas travel (from ‘lads holidays’ to solo backpacking) are ubiquitous markers of youth culture at the end of schooling. This is distinct, for example, from youth culture at the same juncture in the US – where both drinking and travel emerge in quite different ways as markers of youth transition. Documentation of ‘boozed up Brits abroad’ is above all (whether tragic or hilarious) extremely familiar. This “default” to discourses of hedonism is important to acknowledge from a cultural perspective, even when many of us in youth studies underplay the topic to engage more sympathetically with the challenges youth face.

Of course, death and hedonism exist as extreme poles of experience on an otherwise much more mundane spectrum of what youth transitions are really like for young people moving into the summer months. Young people’s time is largely spent in between: from (generally low-paid or unpaid) work (if they can find it), to casual meet ups, video games, studying, or spending time with family. A number of school leavers expressed how much they seek ‘comfort’ when leaving school, often articulated in the common image of ‘Saturday night round the Telly (with family)’. More subtle, less extreme versions of life fail to gain as much representation (see September blog for media portrayals of Freshers week).

This is not to say that the subtle and predictable shifts of summer are not jarring for some young people. While on the one hand summer emerges as ‘endless time’ to be filled with leisure, it can also represent a time of changing social worlds, new economic obligations, and geographic shifts. On “the Student Room” online forum, one university student, home after his first year, spoke of loneliness and depression with little to do in his small hometown, and the painful reminder of his lack of friends from school. In such a way, varieties of experience across the summer will be largely shaped by relationships with parents, peers from school, geographical settings, and in response to (and perhaps with growing awareness of one’s) economic, social, and cultural capital.

In between rural and urban: the bus to Oxford

Summer can also be a time to recognise, or reconcile, the uncertainty that comes with shaping new notions of social identity in the transition to early adulthood. In important ways, this reckoning of self is geographically located, but not always in a straightforward sense. Some of the seemingly more basic elements of our interviews – such as asking where people are from – have revealed feelings of awkwardness and ambiguity. The urban-rural comparison in the research design was shown to be overly simplistic and full of contradictions: people in rural areas often identified with their nearest urban marker; the rural student most eager for the city moved to the leafy suburb of Richmond; many ‘Londoners’ had never considered the whole city, beyond their borough, as part of their identity; meanwhile, most Freshers recruited in London were from a series of smaller regional towns.  Much like mortality and hedonism as partially indicative of this summer, the extremes of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ imaginings of the future must be understood among a variety of complexities in between.