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Is a ‘youthquake’ really sweeping the world?
In the context of rapid social change, individualisation, economic precarity and globalisation, the
transition to adulthood for youth around the world is becoming increasingly tenuous (Jeffrey &
Dyson 2008, p.5) Young people are told to focus on the ‘self’, to develop skills such as resilience
and hard work to achieve social mobility despite empirical research demonstrating that markers of
the ‘successful adult’ are increasingly difficult to obtain (Jeffrey 2012, p. 498). As a result, youth
are turning to in social and political change to improve these conditions and to find alternatives.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘youthquake as a significant cultural, political or social change
arising from the actions or influence of young people’ and this essay will argue that a youthquake
is in fact taking place around the world (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 2019). However, I
will contend that instead of existing within the context of formal, institutional politics, this
‘youthquake’ is constituted of informal, ‘postmodern’ forms of social, political and cultural
change. Firstly, I argue that youth are turning to civil movements and ‘direct action’ to achieve
social and political change due to a general distrust of traditional political structures. Secondly, I
assert that individualised, micro-level, everyday actions are becoming common forms of social
and political change which mimics the current neoliberal context. Thirdly, I explore the reflexive
‘entrepreneurial’ approach that some disadvantaged youth are engaging in to achieve social
mobility and developmental change in their communities. Lastly, I suggest that youth social
movements are increasingly unique and specific to the their demographic, as cultural forms are
becoming popular forms of social and political action. Overall, I seek to demonstrate that despite
dominant discourses positioning youth as politically inactive and apathetic, youth around the
world are engaging in significant cultural, political and social change that this is merely deviating
from normative conceptions of what change should look like (Jeffrey 2011, p. 149).
Youth are increasingly rejecting formal, institutionalised politics for alternative civil movements and
‘direct action’ which seeks to create change in a post-modern, fluid manner (Jeffrey & Dyson
2008, p .6). Research has shown that American 18-25 year olds have historically been less likely
than their elders to vote, join political parties and even read mainstream newspapers, however
this trend is most prominent today (Levine 2007). As a result, dominated discourses have painted
youth as increasingly disengaged, apathetic and inactive in politics (Skelton 2010, p. 145). This
view, however, only measures the participation of youth in traditional, formal institutionalised
politics, such as voting and joining political parties, and thus fails to capture the whole picture of
youth political engagement (Skelton 2010, p. 145-147). In actuality, young people are actively
seeking political change but practicing their beliefs in unconventional ways through civil
disobedience and public demonstrations, especially in the context of the digital revolution,
technological advancements and social media sites which create spaces to share differing
opinions and allow for the ability to network and organise political mobilisation (Flanagan 2009, p.
298). A prime example of this ‘modern’ and ‘direct’ form of political engagement is the 2014
Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. As Mannheim asserts, a generation does not only describe
people of the same age group but those with a common, ideological destiny and worldview,
otherwise known as ‘generational consciousness’ (Ku 2019, p. 112). In the case of Hong Kong,
the younger generation were united by their shared vision of representational democracy and
anxiety over the political future of their city and sought to enact change through civil disobedience
and protest (Ku 2019, p. 111). The nature and structure of their political action was characteristic
of post-modern youth-led movements - decentralised leadership, use of social media sites to
mobilise action and the espousing of broader social values rather than merely civic goals (Ku
2019, p. 123-124). Ultimately, Hong Kong youth sought to distinguish their political actions from
those of the Occupy movement dominated by older individuals who were viewed as elitist and
paternalistic (Ku 2019, p. 119). Hence, although dominant discourse may suggest otherwise,
youth are engaging in social and political change in alternative, direct forms, such as civil
disobedience based upon a shared generational consciousness, that are unique from the
gerontocratic, traditional modes of political action.
Additionally, in the current context of risk, economic precarity and individualisation, prominent
social and political change is increasingly enacted on the everyday, micro, individual level (Skelton
2010, p. 148). Prevailing conditions of a decline in state welfare systems, economic rationalism
and a focus on the ‘individual’ makes it increasingly difficult for youth to achieve the transition
from youth to adulthood marked by certain ‘markers’ such as full-time employment (Jeffrey
2010a, p. 496). This not only creates disenfranchisement with dominant state institutions and the
government amongst youth, but also results in social change that mimics these conditions
(Skelton 2010, p. 149). As Harris has asserted, contemporary studies on youth politics and
citizenship has centred upon the ways in which individualisation has displaced collective
identification and action (2009, p. 309). In this context, youth are engaging in personal and
lifestyle issues at an everyday, micro level to enact change instead of participating in party-based,
institutionalised, macro politics (Harris 2009, p. 304). Tracy Skelton named these individual
practices ‘little p politics’ and they include everyday actions such as consumer boycotts, adopting
certain lifestyles such as veganism (Skelton 2010, p. 145-149). Similar to the aforementioned
youth practice of collective action, ‘little p politics’ also stem from a general distrust in the
government and state institutions, which are seen as ineffective and not acting in the interests of
youth (Lam-Knott 2019, p. 1). An example of micro-level social and political change is the action
of youth in Hong Kong who are protesting against the dominant ‘brandscape’ or the inundation of
retail centres in urban development. This ‘mall city’ landscape is not only an eyesore but a
product of unequal power dynamics between civil society, the HK government and estate
developers who have a significant monopoly over property development and the retail sector
(Lam-Knott 2019, p. 2). Here, youth view the commercialisation of Hong Kong’s retail landscape
and the diminishing of local, community businesses as a means of state control. In response to
this, young people are seeking to enact social change by ‘re-claiming the city’ and using everyday
consumption as a social and political tool. This includes boycotting mainstream brands,
supporting independent businesses and publishing booklets celebrating Hong Kong’s local ‘siu
dim’ (local shops and food establishments) (Lam-Knott 2019, p. 14). Although they may not be
wholly effective, these ‘micro’ individual actions demonstrate that youth are constantly engaging
in social and political change on an everyday level - that every decision can be a ‘political’ one.
Furthermore, some youth are rejecting normative and institutionalised forms of social mobility and
taking an ‘entrepreneurial’ approach as a political statement and to create developmental social
change in their communities (Jeffrey & Dyson 2013, p. 1). In developing states where the speed of
change is significantly faster than their developed counterparts, youth transitions are even more
tenuous resulting in ‘waiting’ or ‘timepass’ (Jeffrey 2010b). This situation positions youth as simply
out of options and thus places an impetus on them to reflexively create new ways to ‘survive’ and
respond to this environment despite limited resources (Jeffrey & Dyson 2013, p. 1). For example,
youth are increasingly turning to ‘entrepreneurialism’ and opening small businesses to achieve
social mobility and to contribute to their families and communities (Jeffrey & Dyson 2013, p. 1-2).
By engaging in this informal capitalist economy, young people are resisting both the prescribed,
rocky transition to adulthood marked by higher education and full-time employment and the
hierarchical nature of the gerontocratic society they live in which limits their agency. Instead they
are ‘hustling’ to create opportunities for themselves which is both a risk management strategy and
a political critique of gerontocratic structures and the state’s incompetencies (Thieme 2013, p.
389). Waste management is an example of this survival mechanism, where Kenyan youth are
engaging in the informal sector for their own livelihoods, to provide a service to their communities
and to capitalise off the state’s failings in this sector (Thieme 2013, p. 391). Similarly, in 2000,
Zimbabwean youth sold pre-paid mobile SIM cards which became a form of ‘virtual currency’ in
the context of the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar (Jeffrey & Dyson 2013, p. 1.) Although, these
individualised and ‘entrepreneurial’ prices can also have negative implications because they
transfer the burden of social mobility from the state to the individual resulting in the noninvestment in services, they also allow youth a degree of agency in an increasingly dire context
which disadvantages and limits their agency (Jeffrey & Dyson 2013, p. 2). Hence, engaging in the
informal capitalist economy is not only a mechanism of survival for youth but also a political and
social act as it ‘assumes a defiance of surveillance and traditional authority’ by allowing youth to
act as autonomous and profitable agents in a context where elders are overly authoritative and
restrictive (Thieme 2013, p. 393). It also allows youth a degree of social mobility and agency
despite poor economic conditions and limiting social structures (Jeffrey & Dyson2013, p. 1).
Lastly, young people are increasingly engaging in ‘youth’ specific and even ‘subcultural’ means to
create social and political change, which supports the idea of a unique and distinctive
‘youthquake’. Informal and cultural politics are increasingly central in youth social and political
movements as certain subcultures and cultural practices are integral to youth shared identity
(Jeffrey 2011, p. 148). Furthermore, the sharing of cultural means of social change is also aided by
web-based and digital communication, as highlighted by the youth-led #Grime4corbyn online
movement which shared political songs and other media voicing support for UK politician Jeremy
Corbin (Starflinger & Evans 2019). Here, cultural practices and patterns of consumption
historically specific to youth, such as rap and hip-hop music, is increasingly used as a mobilising,
unifying and educative tool in youth-led social and political movements (Fredericks 2014, p. 130).
Rap and hip-hop played a large role in the youth-led political opposition during the 2012
Senegalese presidential elections. Due to constant public scandals and controversy, economic
stagnation and limits on democratic practices, Senegalese youth created an opposition
movement to prevent the incumbent Present Abdoulaye Wade from regaining office (Fredericks
2014, p. 131). They did so by not only engaging in mass mobilisation, voter registration and public
discourses but through the use of music. The latter was especially used by the youth-led political
group YEM (Y’en a Marre) as a Lingua Franca for political resistance, to create a unique political
identity and to encourage citizenship amongst youth (Fredericks 2014, p. 135-136). Furthermore
and perhaps more significant is the space music creates for youth to have their voices heard, to
transgress the rigid and limited boundaries of acceptable political speech in another gerontocratic
context which tended to limit their political voice and agency (Fredericks 2014, p. 136). Similarly,
in the UK rap music is used as a form of ‘identity politics’ which seeks to educate the wider
population on the experiences of BrAsians or British Asian Muslim. Fun^Da^Mental is a
particularly prominent group which promotes values of anti-racism, Islamic pride, race
consciousness in a ‘militant yet inclusive’ manner (Swedenborg 2010, p. 1-2). Hence, youth social
movements are taking increasingly unique and characteristic forms which utilises shared cultural
practices to mobilise other like-minded youth to achieve real social and political change.
Ultimately, this essay seeks to demonstrate that a youthquake is occurring around the world,
especially in response to the prevailing context of risk, rapid change and economic insecurity.
Although the actions of youth may not be characteristic of traditional and recognised forms of
political and social action, they are still enacting significant change by reflexively adapting their
practices to suit their context and cultural practices, to achieve what Mannheim pens a shared
‘generational consciousness’. Thus, youth are rejecting gerontocratic and formal institutionalised
forms of politics in favour of civil movements and direct action aided by digital forms of
communication. They are increasingly engaging in social and political change on the everyday,
micro, individual level through ‘lifestyle’ practices and developing alternative forms of social
mobility such as ‘entrepreneurialism’ in response to their lack of other avenues. Furthermore,
young people are developing social and political practices that seek to achieve significant change
by utilising distinctly ‘youthful’ cultural practices and media such as music. Ultimately, it would be
naive and reductive to deny the existence of youth social, cultural and political action - as long as
structural conditions diminish for young people the youthquake will continue on.
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