In debate on a variety of issues from LGBT rights through to UK membership of the European Union the final decisive argument is often that “the overwhelming majority of young people support it.” There are a couple of assumptions in this which bear further examination. Firstly, that youth possesses a level of wisdom and insight denied to those who have merely lived longer than them. Secondly that what they support now represents the future of society as they age and replace the cohort before them. That is, young people are wise now and rigid and unchanging going forward which seems an unlikely combination. It also, incidentally, presumes that their own children will be docile and obedient to them in ways which they themselves are not to their own parents and grandparents.
Many, if not all, the commentators who advance this “listen to the young” argument share a third premise, that of the inevitability of progress. They believe that not only does civilization add to its store of knowledge and productive capacity but that it grows ‘better’ ethically and becomes more free as an unavoidable consequence of this growth. Since today’s young people mostly subscribe to ‘progressive’ values then these commentators support them, not because they are young but simply because they agree with them. That this recourse to the “listen to the young” slogan is purely opportunistic can be seen clearly in the fact that they do not apply it to the youth of, say, Nigeria or China because they do not subscribe to the politically acceptable set of values. I do not have space to expand on the point here but to be clear I think that the notion of progress is nonsense on stilts.
Returning to my main theme. Older people possess one thing necessarily unavailable to the young, that is, long experience. Traditionally this has been seen as giving them an edge in acquiring wisdom and thus being able to form sound judgements on complex issues. If that no longer applies then it can only be because young people have access to a source of wisdom, denied to older people, which enables them to form better considered judgements than their elders. The one word used in this context is ‘connectivity.’ Through the use of technology people can communicate swiftly and directly to each other and can research information and ideas rapidly. Although this is not age-specific technology clearly those who have grown up with it (because their elders invented it for them and/or purchased it for them when they were children) are more adept at its use. Through it they can sweep aside age old prejudices and discover that we are all alike, a mystery hidden to those who subscribe to the ancient belief systems (which each proclaim that we are all alike) and old fashioned ways of doing things.
The strength of this argument lies in the potential of the internet. We can use it to explore new ways of thinking and to learn new things. We do have virtually instant access to a store of knowledge that used to be far more difficult to acquire, though not impossible if we were patient enough. Potential is not actual though. Do young people for the most part really use the net in this way? The ‘echo-chamber’ effect of social media is much talked about. The tendency of each person to use technology to reinforce what they already feel and believe. For example after the UK referendum on Europe one young woman reported shock because she had thousands of friends on Facebook and only three of them were in favour of the Leave campaign which actually won. This may be an extreme example of selecting in the like-minded and selecting out the challenging but it is not uncommon to a lesser degree. If we inhabit a small village we have to get to know people we don’t like and don’t agree with. If we inhabit the whole world we can ignore the different and choose to associate only with the similar.
I would argue that contemporary young people get their ideas about right and wrong, good and bad from the same sources they always have, that is their teachers and their role models. Social media can then play a policing role in that anyone who expresses doubts about the received consensus can expect to receive abuse rather than argument and runs the risk of being unfriended, blocked or otherwise sanctioned unless they keep their doubts to themselves. Because most parents are working much of the time a large part of child and young adult development is now in the hands of State functionaries. Teaching has long been known as a liberal profession and that certainly applies in more than one meaning of the word liberal. Today’s young people overwhelming subscribe to the same set of ideas that their quondam teachers and current lecturers subscribe to and that is no coincidence. It is certainly the case that some people form their philosophies of life through a considered process of ratiocination after careful research and reflection but it would be absurd to suppose that this applies to the vast majority of teenagers and twenty-somethings who are also busily discovering hormones, sex, drugs and partying as well as the challenges of new studies or new jobs. For the most part they are followers not leaders in the world of ideas.
We have no reason though to assume that these ideas are a fixed and unchanging set of data. Experience will become the property of today’s young people as the decades roll by and this will affect the way they view the world and the judgements which they make about it. Most of the British youth of 1975 voted in favour of what is now the European Union, in 2016 many of these same people cast their votes to leave it. People change, life changes them. It always has and it always will. The belief that because young adults now favour the worldview of their teachers and the liberal Left then they will always do so rests on the assumption that they will discover that these ideas are consonant with the real life experiences which they shall have going forward. Obviously the liberal Left think that that will be so but they may well be wrong, they often are. Only time will tell. And time is the one thing most young people have a lot off in front of them.
The picture shows a young protester swinging from a memorial for the war dead in London