Whatever stage of life it hit you at, the pandemic has accentuated the process of ageing. Whether you’re seventeen or seventy-one, there is a sense that irretrievable time has been snatched. Blank pages have been inserted at an essentially random point in billions of biographies.
You’d think that sympathy towards the youngest, for whom time passes more slowly and novelty recurs daily, would be well established (at thirty four, I think of the careless freedom of my own seventeenth year and it remains fundamental to all that I am). But there is also a virulent strain of thought that responds to any crisis by relentlessly othering the young – just at the moment when demographics has squeezed what little voice they might have had to the margins of public life.
Despair at youthful decadence might reach back to antiquity, but there is a strange variation on this tendency today. We are blessed with unprecedented life-spans and the great gift of more people living longer, but we have yet to seriously think about how we might adapt to the cultural implications of this trend.
Because the elderly today are also the first generation to experience mass popular culture, and the youth subcultures that arrived with it, this entirely unique moment in human history is doubly confusing.
The first cohort to embrace youth as a meaningful identity, rather than a fleeting phase, are now moving into their seventies and eighties. This means that they act as both patrician elders and radical non-conformists: careering around social media with largely fictional claims to storming the Normandy beaches and embracing free love in Haight-Ashbury.
This glut of popular memory will only grow in the coming decades. Increasingly, ‘punk’ is a term deployed by crabbit auld gits around bar room tables. They still ponder their own generation’s battle cry: is it better to burn out than to fade away? They’ll never know now.
The kids are often held to an impossibly high and contradictory set of standards – both too disobedient and too compliant, too square and too rebellious, too skittish and too rigid, snowflakes and social justice warriors.
This has profound consequences for politics. As David Runciman argues in How Democracy Ends, twentieth-century radicalism, particularly on the far right, emerged in societies that are far younger than our own, amongst generations that had lived through the trauma of total wars and demobilisations.
Therefore, even in a country like Greece – which has seen a recent decline in living standards comparable to that of the Great Depression (we could add parts of post-2008 America too) – violent overthrow of democratic governments has never been a serious proposition.
Some enthusiasts of fascist militancy may gather to cosplay rebellion from time to time, but they are essentially decrepit, unable to command mass appeal or topple democratic institutions. In no small measure this is because older societies are less prone to political violence – there is a relative shortage in the global north of young male canon fodder –
the base ingredient of insurrection.
This in turn explains the significance of the culture wars. By some measures rates of violent crime have plummeted in recent decades. However, it often feels like the ambient hostility and aggression of political discourse, enabled by social media, is unprecedented. So much of life is now mediated that abuse too has often become immaterial. Unlike previous zealotries, the cost of entry is minimal and you don’t even have to look your opponents in the eye.
Some of this is ahistorical. For example, despite its new pervasiveness and intensity, polarisation in the contemporary United States can hardly be said to be any greater than when protestors raised the Vietcong flag in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention. In Britain, we could say the same of the bitterness of the Miners’ Strike.
But the culture war is more insidious because it is bound up with the way media now operate. Increasingly, legacy media, mindful of their ageing audiences, demonstrate a willingness to channel reactionary currents. Thus the mainstream press can publish op-eds decrying the rise of ‘cultural Marxism’ – a key concept within the manifesto published by the far right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.
Nick Srnicek recently noted that were 2,983 mentions of the word ‘woke’ in the Daily Telegraph. The Herald ran a front-page story today on an apparent rash of ‘wokeism’ within the Scottish educational establishment.
The fog of the culture war often makes it difficult to distinguish whether such claims have any coherent point to make in good faith, or whether they are simply written to perpetuate the engagement and discussion that the genre often brings.
Like ‘political correctness,’ ‘woke’ is often simply a dog-whistle to console those who feel discomfort about the assimilation of minority identities into mainstream society. Remarkably, this has led some of the least oppressed groups of people on the planet to fantasise that they are excluded by society because language and etiquette has changed and no one asked their permission.
What separates out this discomfort from a dislike of other changed social habits – such as say, wearing hats indoors – is its capacity to be weaponised within the attention economy.
This may reach a tipping point. Online culture wars about trans rights, for example, can cross over into real life, red in tooth and claw, because of the emotional pull of certain issues. Certain topics have an innate capacity to polarise and are particularly well incubated in the closed systems that are now often used to consume and distribute content.
The knock-on effect – as recently shown by both the BBC and Ofcom – is to equivocate: remaining true to form in its impossible attempts to achieve impartiality against a mendacious reactionary press, and ending up suggesting that issues related to fundamental human rights are up for debate.
This capacity of emotive content to thrive and expand within networks feeds off social isolation and loneliness – issues that can intensify with ageing and retirement. There is no form of loneliness more crippling than the variety defined by paranoia. Based on often legitimate reasons, a generation brought up to trust public institutions have been re-educated to trust no one; whilst many lack the skills to navigate a hazardous digital realm. In the race for attention, we risk creating a desolation devoid of the community of readers, viewers and listeners that could offer some form of continuity and comfort in the face of the confusion and chaos of modernity.
We therefore have a situation where lonely, vulnerable, people, who are often also gifted with wealth, time and knowledge, are increasingly drip-fed narratives that instil a kind of collective trauma about the future. There is nothing inevitable about their journey into the cesspools of online extremism – but they are undoubtedly sped along the way by a late-capitalism that sees in the lonely only another market, that deifies youthful beauty to the exclusion of all else, that turns our regrets and nostalgia into revenue streams.
In response to these vast changes, Runciman impishly suggests that children ought to be allowed to vote in order to rebalance the scales.
Another no less radical approach is to understand that the connective tissue of our complex societies – civic institutions like the press and places to grow genuine associational cultures – need to be restored, expanded and revived. Perhaps the greatest thief of our time on this earth is not the pandemic, but the keyboard itself: we need a whole new set of cultural norms that frees us to step away from it and become more human again.