Youth: Caricatured as the blame and the solution | Valerie Visanich

There has been an increase in the tone of voice of discontent amongst youth on current social and environmental issues in Malta

File photo
File photo

‘Stop buying avocado toast if you want to buy a home!’ exclaimed Tim Gurner, a millionaire Australian property tycoon while dissing millennials for their spending habits. Today’s youth has often been caricatured as a slothful bunch who lack the stamina of previous generations, and often blamed for moral vacuum and dissed as snowflakes. Yet this is nothing new.

The moral panic surrounding youth as a degenerative generation is itself an intrinsic part of youth as a life course in transition. More than a century ago, Stanley Hall (1904) considered youth as a period of ‘storm and stress’ not only because individuals experience biological developments but also due to socially constructed changes that typify this stage. Youths in transition are prone to risk, to dare and to master control on their lives.

Irrespective of adverse talk on moral vacuum and a degenerative lifestyle, Steven Pinker (2018) in Enlightenment Now, described the human condition in the third millennium as ‘never had it so good’. The reasons for this are grounded on the fact that we are now living longer, healthier and have more prosperous lives than ever before. Barack Obama perhaps delivered this sentiment best when he said with his typical panache, on several occasions, that now is the best time in human history to be born; the world has never been healthier or wealthier or better educated or less violent.

Without a doubt, Pinker’s argument bears some kind of truth. If we focus particularly on youth today, they have more choices in their personal biography compared to their predecessors. Instead of following a traditional chronological order, youth, particularly in the western and Anglo-American context, are deciding and planning their own life-course transitions.

Sociologically, when making sense of youth today, it is evident that they are increasingly self-determining agents as they devise their own life. They are very much aware of the wide diversity of choices in roles in how to live their life compared to previous generations. They think about their future primarily in terms of personal development, self-branding and as self-entrepreneurs. Yet, they also live within a context of an individualised society which often puts tremendous pressures on them. Individuals are more than ever responsible for their own futures but also for their personal failures, during times when safety nets are gradually dwindling. The growing appetite for excellence, tethering one’s own worth to professional achievement, is often treated as the outcome of the free-market individual, a kind of living on a neoliberal treadmill, where competition, speed and individual effort is what matters.

However, while young people are more than ever seduced to operate as individuals, it is naïve to consider them as lacking any form of social conscience or thirst for change. Youth engagement is not declining but rather changing. They are more than ever interested in volunteering, protesting and embedding politics in their daily lives, yet in different ways then previous generations. The COVID-19 pandemic was one causal factor for increase change on youth activism because most work was usually done on the ground. Yet during the pandemic, technology and online networks have been crucial for young people to stay connected and continue their advocacy work.

Undoubtably the common good of volunteering warrants outlining, however there is also a lot to learn in the process. Volunteering is an informal training ground for young people to improve their skills and employment prospects. It shapes a mode of thinking that goes beyond what is in it for me but more how this could bring change to others. Also, it is a fertile ground for young people to improve their social capital but fostering a sense of community and active citizenship. In a post-COVID world where we grew accustomed to finding solace at home, connected through technology, the need to foster a sense of physical presence is increasingly felt.

It is not only conventional wisdom that youth are interested and engaged in what is going on around them. Since 2012 the average number of volunteers between the ages of 12-24 years is of 4,000 which makes up an average of 13% of the whole cohort of volunteers in Malta.

Moreover, there has been an increase in the tone of voice of discontent amongst youth on current social and environmental issues in Malta. The recent Malta Today survey (2023) noted that the 16 to 35-year-old cohort were the most cohort concerned about environmental destruction. They were equally concerned about traffic and roads as well as inconveniences due to construction, law courts and criminality, and the increase in the cost of living. Malta’s pedal-on-accelerator economic growth, the highest rate in Europe, its pro-business mentality and its obsession with credit ratings are habitually interpreted in terms of the political tribal system of this small island state. Just two weeks ago, Moviment Graffitti announced a protest to “demand urgent environmental and planning reforms”.

This springs to mind, Lewis Carroll’s fairytale Alice in Wonderland as an impeccable definition to Malta’s situation:

‘I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so,’ said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to Alice. ‘I can hardly breathe.’

‘I can’t help it’, said Alice very meekly: ‘I’m growing.’

‘You’ve no right to grow here’ said the Dormouse

‘Don’t talk nonsense’ said Alice more boldly: ‘you know you’re growing too.’

‘Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,’ said the Dormouse: ‘not in that ridiculous fashion’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland).

This sense of claustrophobia was echoed in a recent discussion I had with a university student, who happened to be a member of  Moviment Graffitti. He told me how ever since he joined in 2018 members are on the increase, with more than doubling in membership in the last five years. And more interestingly more than half of them are under the age of 35. He emphasised that being part of Graffitti is not just forming part of an NGO but it is a political movement, often quite heavy on the mind. Members need to be constantly informed on what is happening around them to be able to actively respond and react effectively as a collective. He emphasised it is a kind of subscribing to a lifestyle and not just joining a social network group. There is commitment and vision, yet quoting him “this is what brings change, slow small victories that impact big decisions”. Seeing his satisfied gleaming eyes as he recounts their hard work for justice, makes me admire his grit. This is just one example of how youth today are not passive citizens disinterested and disengaged.

Yet, it is naïve to burden youth with heavy decisions of finding solutions. Discourse on youth is consistently oscillating between them as the blame and them as the solution for a better future. While their grit, verve for life, enthusiasm and energy especially of young volunteers involved in various movements is admirable, it is not only their responsibility to work for a better sustainable future and solve global issues propelled primarily by a neoliberal climate; a future which is not entirely of their own making, since the future – one may argue - is conditioned by the present, for which the older generations are clearly more responsible for. Every citizen, regardless of age, is relevant for small and bigger decisions which impacts them as individual and as society.

Yes, Steven Pinker, may have been right by saying we never had it so good today. We are indeed better connected, technologically proficient, with an array of career options to choose from and opportunities for travel and work which previous generations did not have. These skills and opportunities can benefit us to critically engage in what is happening around us. The increase ability to mobilise resources today as well as knowledge and skills makes us ideal agents of change.

This calls for a more reflexive and critical orientation towards everyday life and here acquiring a sociological imagination comes handy - meaning acquiring a lens to look at the taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life and understand how we are conditioned, structured in society yet also independent agents. This kind of orientation is essential to equip us, irrespective of our age, to become aware of the opportunities and challenges for making changes for the betterment of all.