Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Square is the new black

Are our 20-somethings rejecting “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” for “marriage, yoga and a quiet life”? The New York Observer was accused of inventing a lifestyle phenomenon when it published an article on New Victorians last year . The Telegraph subsequently picked up on the story. Here I argue that today’s youth aren’t what they used to be.

Take David. He’s a teacher and a district councillor who lives in the country in a house he and his wife own. This isn’t particularly surprising - married, home-owning teachers are pretty common. What is interesting is that he is a 26-year-old Oxbridge graduate. His wife is 22 and left university a year ago.

He isn’t alone. When I met Clara, 20, she was living with her older sister and doing a year-long work placement as part of her sandwich course. Like many female students, she enjoyed going to parties and reading gossip mags. But there’s a twist. She was envious of my engagement ring, explaining that she wanted to get married and have kids but all the guys her age were immature and just interested in casual sex. Furthermore, she was taking advantage of working regular hours to take up ballet and yoga classes.

Clara intrigued me. When I was at university, no regular student would own up to being exhausted by anything but an all-night clubbing session or an essay crisis brought on by slacking during the week. Certainly, they wouldn’t admit to being tired due to ballet practice until 10pm. I’ve mentioned her to several people my age since and they’ve been unsurprised – apparently early 20-something university graduates are taking up wholesome hobbies, getting married and settling down in droves, causing confusion among their marginally older siblings. Parents, too, can become worried that their child is making a rash decision rather than having fun and "playing the field".

Why is this important? Well, where a country’s elite goes, its culture follows. Only the UK’s urban intelligentsia were significantly affected by the ‘swinging 60s’. Most people didn’t have the time or the money to listen to bad music or try to ‘discover themselves’ in a field. The country was touched by the cultural changes but, for the majority, life went on. Yet, although only a few young people participated directly, the ‘1960s’ form part of the UK’s shared history and its effect on people’s lifestyles, education and values are still vigorously debated. So it matters if young people who would have “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” 40 years ago are now making Ikea rather than LSD trips.

The New York Observer article mentions “Generations”, a book published by William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1991. One of their ideas is that all young people rebel against the establishment, but whether they 'conventionally rebel' (shock, sex and sin) depends on which generation they belong to and not whether they are young. In short, the “Baby Boomers” (born 1946 - 1960) will always believe they are ‘the yoof’. Think Brian Eno advising the Liberal Democrats on youth. Ok, he's a record producer, but he's 60! Strauss and Howe also predicted the New Victorians, who they called the ‘Millennials’, and who would start being born in 1982.

According to Wikipedia:

“Millennials are held to higher standards than adults apply to themselves;
they're a lot less violent, vulgar, and sexually charged than the teen culture
older people are producing for them, and, over the next decade, they’ll entirely
recast what it means to be young.”

LibertyCat and I were born in 1979/1980 and can feel we’re standing between two generations. Below us are a noticeable number of students and recent graduates who believe it’s cool to be square. Above us are a significant minority of disaffected, disengaged and political apathetic types who I call "InSecure Over-Achievers" (ISOAs). I am quite sure that they are "Generation X", the group Strauss and Howe predicted a year before they were identified in Douglas Coupland's book "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture"

Children and marriage aren’t on the ISOA radar. If questioned, they often plan to do these things, but at some unspecified future time. In the meantime, they drift between professional jobs that dissatisfy them and different careers, punctuated by advanced degrees and periods of travel or unemployment. Some ISOAs are the masters and mistresses of portfolio careers – trying to break into competitive fields while using their intelligence and qualifications to freelance. Yet others look like sorted high-flyers, but are in jobs they do purely for the money while being utterly bored and miserable. ISOAs are often serially monogamous, with some relationships lasting several years, but in many cases is goes little further than moving in with someone. All of them feel something is missing, and there is a better world out there, but they’re not entirely sure what it is or how to find it. A typical ISOA question is: "Is this it?" After years of education, effort expended turning into high grades and a clear path towards exams, they finally graduate. The world looks open to them but then, either immediately or a few years in, they feel lost, angry or frustrated and ask: "Is this it?"

The first ISOA I noticed was Seb. Seb is 27 and is applying to do a masters degree. After graduating from Oxbridge five years ago, he had no idea what he wanted to do. After a period of voluntary work, he went abroad for six months in the hope that changing his surroundings would help him decide. He came back, still had no idea, and drifted into an extremely technical job related to his degree. Since then, he has never stayed in a job or a house for more than a year. He's now done four jobs in the same sector and is typecast, which frustrates him since he wants to work in policy, but doesn't feel he can get out. I know of at least two other people in a similar position.

Since Seb, I've identified numerous ISOAs, including several friends. Recently, I was having a Japanese dinner with one of them in a filmset-esque location. She remarked it was all very Sex in the City. I thought about it. Then I realised that, although it looks that way, the dream has gone sour for many of UK's beautiful, directionless, urban elite - the tail end of "Generation X". As Bridget Jones noticed - a failure to commit to causes or people looks like freedom and independence, but it can also be a byword for emptiness, a lack of passion or purpose, and a fear of being left alone to be eaten by alsatians.

Faced with such a self-absorbed and empty immediate future - is it any wonder that some of the 'yoof' are rebelling against the "Baby Boomers", who started it all, by burning their Manolo Blahniks and embracing hearth and home.

[NB: Names have been changed]


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