First-time voters and a new generation of campaigners tell us how they’re taking their future back
Back in February, we asked 18-22-year-old Brits – first-time voters, essentially – to tell us what they love, hate and would like to see change about their country. Over Instagram, thousands responded. Millennial? Lost? No thanks: this is the #dazedgeneration. Taken from the spring/summer 2015 issue of Dazed, this is our portrait of the state of the nation's youth.
Let’s make one thing clear: the millennial, as we understand it, does not exist. In Britain, the popular press has done its best to spin this generation as a consumer and media construct first, and a group of people second. Emma Watson is a “celebrity millennial”. Millennials buy meditation apps. Millennials are “the worst”, “screwed”, “lazy” (Google autocomplete’s words, not mine). Then again, very few people – let alone a $362 billion search engine – have any idea how to talk to or about young people in 2015. Even the word ‘millennial’ implies some sort of rift between the generations: “These kids? They’re from a millennium away. And boy, have things gotten weird over there.”
It’s impossible to describe the millions of young people in the UK without resorting to teeth-grindingly obvious clichés and stereotypes, some of which I’ve probably used already. So let’s look at the numbers. The latest figures show that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of society. According to the Youth Index 2015, published by the Prince’s Trust, more than three quarters of a million young people believe they have “nothing to live for”.
The situation is especially dire for young artists, musicians and designers who don’t have access to a generous parental slush fund as they intern or undertake unpaid work for ‘exposure’. Research from a-n, an organisation supporting contemporary art practice, found that 71 per cent of artists exhibiting work in publicly funded galleries over the last three years did not receive a fee. Even basic resources like studio space are fiercely contested. At the time of writing, SPACE, a charity initiative based in east London that provides affordable studios, had just been forced to increase rent for its 700 artists. Despite this, it recently saw three times as many hopefuls applying for a studio.“Most studio providers would have had to do the same,” says SPACE’s artist development manager, Lena Nix, of the recent rent hike. “We’re being squeezed by developers. Where do artists go from here? It’s become increasingly difficult to sustain a practice with the cost of studios, especially for (young people) who have just come out of university.”
It’s hard to believe, but less than ten years ago, British youths were actively believed to be feral beasts with a knife in one hand and a super-sized tinnie in the other. In 2006, David Cameron’s idea of softening the Tory line on crime was to entreat the public to “hug a hoodie”. Today, almost every metric by which grown-ups measure good old-fashioned teenage kicks is down: teen pregnancies, drug-taking, drinking and even school truancy. The press can’t get over this newfound temperance (sample headline: “Youth today: boring, polite and very fearful”). It’s as if they’d be happier if we were snorting lines of meth from the roof of the parental Audi and glassing each other for fun. So what’s happened since then?
Well, the great recession hit – but unlike with previous generations, its creepy, life expectancy-reducing spectre never stopped tailing those under 30. Who can afford to get drunk when a pint in London can now set you back a fiver or more? Who can bear thinking about a mortgage when you’re spending more than half your wages on rent? When we put out our casting call for the #dazedgeneration, we asked first-time voters – everyone between the ages of 18 and 22 – what they would change about the country. Those who responded had impressively specific answers: “I would make travel mad cheap… and raise the minimum wage,” wrote one reader. “Scrapping tuition fees seems unlikely, but cutting them by at least 50 per cent seems a fair compromise,” said someone else. “STOP TAXING PERIODS,” demanded another. In short, not the kind of ‘fuck shit up’ rallying cries more regularly associated with youth (although to be sure, there were plenty of those too). These answers encompass a growing sense that the current political system is broken, even at its most basic tenets: taxation, wages, travel and education. It’s a sentiment you’ll see repeated again and again by the young people profiled in the next few pages: something is broken, and it needs to be fixed.
One guy trying to do just that is Mike Sani. The former teacher set up Bite the Ballot when he was 27, and has been working tirelessly for five years to encourage young people to vote. Sani wants Bite the Ballot to become the UK’s answer to Rock the Vote, the electoral initiative which signed up 2.6 million young people in 2008 – a huge proportion of the youth vote thought to be a decisive factor in Obama’s first presidential victory. In its most recent voting drive, Bite the Ballot helped to sign up 441,500 people – which translates to one per cent of all eligible voters in the UK.
“I’ve met many students who said, ‘I voted once, I voted Lib Dem, I’m never voting again,’” says Sani. “The fact is, the next government will be spending around £900bn a year. If you decide not to participate at all, then you’re naturally going to be overlooked. There’s a huge disproportion in how the cuts have happened because young people are not seen as a threat at the ballot box.
“If there’s no one worth voting for at this election, make a statement and spoil your ballot paper,” he continues. “They get counted. On May 7, the whole globe will be looking to see who the next prime minister is – imagine if more people voted for no one than the next PM. That’s a massive statement.”
Then there are people like Rhiannon Colvin, who envisions another kind of society and economic system – one that actually works for young people, not against them. But it took a dispiriting cycle of underpaid waitressing jobs and intern applications for the 25-year-old to realise it. “I graduated in 2012 and thought, ‘I’m going to do everything they tell me to do: I’m going to get a first class degree, do my work experience, do my volunteering, and if I check all those boxes then I’ll be fine,” she says. “I applied for an unpaid internship at a youth empowerment organisation,” she adds, pausing to laugh at the irony. “While I was doing the interview, I was like, ‘Just out of curiosity, how many people have applied for the internship?’” The answer was 150.
“What we need to do is stop competing for the same jobs and actually start working together to find new ways of creating change” – Rhiannon Colvin
Colvin says this was her “lightbulb moment”. Less than a year later, she set up AltGen, a movement that encourages 18-29-year-olds to set up workers’ co-operatives – a hoary old left-wing ideal, but one of the few social enterprises that has been surprisingly resilient to the economic downturn. There is now a bike co-op in Brixton, a recycled fashion co-op in Manchester, an independent media co-op in Bristol – small, encouraging signs that AltGen’s alternative theory of economics has caught on. “You have all these young people who actually want to contribute towards social change, but that talent and energy isn’t going towards anything because only a few of those jobs exist,” says Colvin. “What we need to do is stop competing for the same jobs and actually start working together to find new ways of creating change.”
Colvin’s call for collaboration and unity is echoed up and down the country. SOAS academic Guy Standing speaks of a new class known as the ‘precariat’, defined by its economic insecurity and dwindling access to state benefits. These are people trapped in zero-hour contracts and part-time, go-nowhere jobs. (Do you feel a painful twinge of recognition yet?) Standing has taken his hypothesis on the road, where it has struck a chord with post-recession Europe. “At the end of addressing a big meeting in Stockholm,” he wrote on openDemocracy last year, “a young man stood up, thanked me for the speech, and then said, ‘I hated it. It was all about me.’”
Slowly but surely, our generation has realised that it belongs to a distinctly rootless, insecure age – a world we inherited from our parents, but one our parents definitely do not recognise themselves in. Now young people are banding together to stand at the front of almost every political issue. Because, let’s face it, what do you have to lose when it looks like you’re losing everything? Often, they’re taking on issues that politicians are scared to touch. The Campaign4Consent, which lobbies for better sex education, was started by three teenagers in London. Elsewhere a 21-year-old engineering student, Meltem Avcil, is leading the campaign to close the infamous detention centre Yarl’s Wood.
It is young people who are genuinely progressive on many of the issues that mainstream politics hews to the right on: Europe, for one. Immigration and multiculturalism, for another. It is young people who know that ‘us versus them’ tactics don’t work so well when you’re peeping clothes from Jamaican-English designer Grace Wales Bonner, listening to FKA twigs’ voice unwind over Venezuelan expat producer Arca’s beats, or buying takeaway from the kebab shop down the road that also does jerk chicken.
For a while, it felt like youth politics was dead and buried alongside the Occupy tents from St Paul’s and discarded placards from the student fees protests. But as the people on these pages show, this generation has woken up to find itself shackled to a social contract it no longer believes in. Sure, their dreams, identities, hopes and fears are never going to get namechecked in your average party political broadcast. But this generation was never going to settle for another yawn-a-thon TV debate or politics as usual. They’re only just beginning to demand more from a world that’s stacked all the odds against them. The kids are going to be alright – we’re just going to have to do it ourselves. “There’s been no generation where people of this age group have really tried to infiltrate the system,” says Sani. “The way people are communicating now, we’re the most connected generation – let’s give this a chance. I want people to understand the current system that constrains them. With understanding and a thirst to change it, change can come.”
To paraphrase Colvin, it is no longer possible to ‘check all those boxes’ and expect the same comfortable life that your parents enjoyed. In 1957, British PM Harold Macmillan decreed, “Most of our people have never had it so good.” In 2015, most young people have never had it so bad. The only question now is what we do with it.
Subscribe to Dazed magazine here or pick up your copy from newsstands now
Click here to read the policies we demand from the next government