Youth: Vanguard for the Next New Left?

With the decline of the traditional working class and its growing defection to right-wing populism, progressives have searched for an alternative social agent. Could it be youth?

Certainly, youth have long been portrayed as inherently rebellious and idealistic. And a series of uprisings seems to confirm this image.

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964 was globally influential, ushering in a decade of youth protests and rebellions. At a time when universities were rapidly expanding worldwide, these protests variously targeted the Viet Nam war, imperialism, authoritarianism, constrictive university regulations and curricula and elitism. Nineteen sixty-eight was the highpoint, with rebellions throughout the world. Most notable were the student-initiated general strike in Paris, the massive student demonstrations in Mexico City, leading to a student massacre, and the Prague Spring in which the returning Red Army slaughtered thousands of Czech youths and others.

The 2008-2009 global financial crisis precipitated another set of uprisings, widely characterized as youth rebellions. They began in Greece in late 2008, and from there spread throughout southern Europe. The target was the toll exacted by austerity policies that rarely worked and, in particular, the high unemployment rates of young people. The Occupy Movement that began in New York in September 2011 may be considered part of this protest wave. Occupy’s focus was mainly the vast inequalities generated under neoliberalism and the impunity of the financial moguls who instigated the crisis. The Movement spread globally, though its achievements in terms of political and economic change are slim.

The uprisings of 2011-2012 collectively known as the Arab Spring also centrally featured young rebels. The protests and violent resistance led to the overthrow of governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and threatened social order in Morocco, Bahrein and Kuwait. Turkey, though not Arab, underwent its own “Tahrir Square” protests in Istanbul in June 2013. Yet many of the original victories and hopes were eventually dashed.

Recently, with moves to privatize or corporatize education, transfer the financial burden of post-secondary education to students, require tuition loan repayment despite the absence of remunerative jobs and dilute the quality of the university experience, students have again protested. Again, this protest has been a global phenomenon, occurring in Latin America as well as North America. Sometimes, the protesters won the battle – as in Quebec in 2012 when massive tuition increase were rolled back. But the victories, were often pyrrhic as governments allowed public universities to decline rather than provide adequate funding.

So young people have engaged in political action on progressive issues over many years. Moreover, young people (millennials, those between 18 and 30) have collectively borne the heaviest burden from the failures of neoliberalism: much higher rates of unemployment than older age groups and the frequent necessity of settling for lousy jobs. Despite these facts, however, youth is a weak reed on which to build a new left.

Consider the following reasons to be skeptical of youth as a progressive actor.

• Young people have no particular inclination to align with, or actively support, the left. In the United States, the Harvard Institute of Politics has conducted3 annual surveys on the politics of young people under 30. Until Bernie Sanders galvanized this constituency in 2016, the surveys revealed a largely politically disengaged age cohort. Only a small minority said they would be willing to attend a political rally or volunteer for a political campaign, regardless of whether they had the time. Most young people did not identify themselves with either party. Of those who did, Democrats did not significantly outweigh Republicans. True, Sanders changed this equation by mobilizing millions of millennials behind his progressive platform. Still, less than half of those polled in 2016 were willing to declare that basic health care was a right rather than a commodity. In Lebanon, even more dramatically, the vast majority of politically engaged university students are followers of one of the traditional sectarian leaders.

• Youth is so diverse that it is unclear the category has sociological significance. In virtually all countries, one finds vast disparities in income, wealth and social capital – and hence life-chances – among young people. We can expect that other identities, such as those deriving from class, ethnicity, race and religion, will override that of being young. Furthermore, if many millennials are marginalized and unemployed, that condition also applies to many adults. What is peculiar to young people apart from being young?

• Many of the “youth rebellions” mentioned above included many adults in their ranks and fought for causes that concerned all age-groups. A survey of those “occupying” Wall Street at one point found that more than half the occupiers were more than 30 years old. The Arab Spring featured many young people, but playing a central role were trade unions, peasant movements, women’s groups, political parties and Islamist associations. Even the student-initiated protests against educational inequities in Chile in 2010-2011 attracted thousands of adults with their own grievances. The youth focus is often exaggerated.

• Neoliberalism has had an enormous impact in depoliticizing millennials. The mass media casts young people as “cool” (passive) consumers of the latest fashions, music and electronics. Increasingly flexible labour markets pit each young person against his/her peers at home and abroad in competition for the few available “good” jobs Possessive individualism and intense competition combine to undermine a sense of solidarity arising from a common marginal position in liberal capitalism.

Indeed, we should question whether framing issues in terms of youth rebellions and youth unemployment is the right way to advance a progressive project. Yes, millennials have particular problems, and they need to be addressed as Bernie Sanders sought to do in his run for the 2016 Democratic nomination. But, as Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock point out in their brilliant 2015 book Youth Rising?, this way of framing issues serves the interests of global elites, not the 99 percent.

The focus on youth issues diverts attention from the inequalities and injustices of neoliberalism and expedites the adoption of a neoliberal policy agenda. Commentators contrast youth unemployment and lousy jobs with the alleged privileges and protections of the older, unionized generation. Why should the latter have plush pensions, other benefits and job protections while young people do not? This rhetorical ploy justifies a pro-employer push to impose austerity, deregulation and flexible labour markets – ostensibly to even the playing field, create jobs and lower taxes. In the end, all employed people lose.

In addition, business spokesmen voice the view that high youth unemployment stems from irrelevant education and training, together with poor attitudes. This rhetoric shifts attention from the failure of the capitalist economy to generate sufficient high-quality employment. Instead, it blames young people themselves and their training for their plight. If training and attitudes are the problem, so goes the argument, the educational system should be more closely aligned with the needs of business. But the skeptical, demanding attitudes of young people are not inappropriate. And higher and higher levels of practical education will just raise the bar for entering low-skilled jobs. Automation and computers are steadily displacing, not augmenting, good-quality employment.

Although young people, owing to their numbers and energy, will remain an important asset of the left, youth as a social agent is a non-starter. The generations are not opponents but collaborators in forging a more just and sustainable economy and society. The next new left will include millennials, but side by side with others who belong to trade unions, who are unemployed or underemployed, who are indigenous people, who fight climate change and environmental decline, who adhere to feminist groups, anti-racism organizations and immigrant-rights associations. The core of the vision is unlikely to change: that everyone, now and in the future, should have the opportunity to experience freedom.

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