Coming of age in times of crisis: what consequences for today’s youth?
Politics is just history happening today, University student, Belfast, 21 years old.
In the early morning hours on February 24th 2022, the Ukrainian population awakened to news of the outbreak of war. The bombings on this morning marked the beginning of the Russian invasion, not only devastating the lives of Ukrainians, but also bringing about a fundamental change to what we thought was possible in Europe. The invasion brought war back into the European consciousness and reminded us that peace should not be taken for granted.
Anthropologist Jarrett Zigon has pointed out that in such moments of rupture, we are forced to reflect upon our previously unquestioned ways of being. These moments put the state of play into a new perspective, and expose our errors in taking reality for granted. We re-order politics and history by these moments – events and dates that define a before and after.
Yet the Ukrainian war can also be seen as a crisis occurring within other crises. The invasion of Ukraine took place just as two years of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be coming to an end (at least in a European context) and at a point where we were beginning to assess the extent of the social and economic impact of the pandemic. In parallel, the consequences of the global climate crisis are becoming increasingly evident, and the need for radical action in this field is clear (and has been for some time).
As we watch the present political events (that will become the history of tomorrow) unfold, we should reflect on how our ways of living will change following these moments of rupture, including what we may learn. As today’s events occur, young generations are being, and will continue to be, shaped by them, and in turn will transform the future political landscape.
As youth is a (trans)formative state where you shape your identity and opinions as well as take social and political responsibility upon yourself, events around you play a central role in this process. Indeed the way young people interpret the times they live in becomes part of their sense of self and central to their understanding of the world. Youth is the time of dreaming, planning and starting life projects, but in times of uncertainty, making plans and decisions – for example in terms of education and jobs – becomes harder. Being young means that societal events and personal development intersect.
The young generations of Europeans that are coming of age and becoming adults today are the children of the 1990s and the 2000s (and soon 2010s), of globalisation, of technological acceleration, of the end of history and of relative stability, prosperity and peace. But just as we thought human history had become more constant, we now discover that these young generations have inherited an uncertain and fragile world formed by the decisions of past generations. The future now seems more gloomy – with climate emergency challenges and the long-term consequences of the pandemic, such as income and job losses and rising mental health issues among young Europeans to address. Young job seekers have been hit hardest by economic crises, and the unemployment rate of young Europeans has been constantly higher than all other age groups during the past decade, as shown in the recent European Commission youth report. The Russian aggression and the inevitable subsequent energy shortages and economic instability will create further turmoil.
We are facing “an age of disruptive change”, declared Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, in a recent youth-dialogue on sustainable consumption. According to Timmermans, we will experience a green industrial revolution only comparable to the first industrial revolution, and one which will bring about similar fundamental social and political change. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has further highlighted the energy and security problems we face as a result of our dependence on oil and on oil-producing countries. This is a further catalyst to prioritise green transition.
Young people are going to shape and carry the responsibility of this transition even though they are not responsible for the problems that now make it so urgent. They are already acting. An example is the global movement Fridays For Future initially sparked by Greta Thunberg when she started to skip school to strike for the climate. Today’s youth is assuming the moral and practical responsibility for the (lack of) actions committed by the generations before them.
This reality is becoming intertwined with individual life stories. But whether with historical hindsight young people will become known as the “climate generation”, the “covid generation” or something else depends on how challenges are tackled and the nature of future moments of rupture. No-one can be sure what tomorrow will bring, nor how tomorrow’s history will assess the politics of today. For now, however, young people are carrying a large burden of responsibility on their shoulders.
Authors: Julie Solvang and David Crosier