It’s pathetic to label young people apathetic

Any young person worth their salt should seek to change the system


Generation Apathy was the title of a talk about youngsters at the MacGill Summer School last week. Bearing in mind that few people outside the spheres of politics and journalism actually pay attention to these summer schools (which doesn’t negate the value of their existence of course – talking is important), it’s a punchable title. That said, the subsequent reports from the talk were a little more enlightening than the circular hypothetical questions the rest of the topics asked.

Councillor Kate Feeney said politicians were dealing with a new electorate, and it didn’t make sense to sell them “old politics”. That’s a smart statement. Good luck to her in Fianna Fáil.

Gary Gannon, an Independent councillor in Dublin’s north inner city, said he was “absolutely convinced that we, as a generation, are not ethically, socially or civically apathetic . . . but we have a political culture in this country that is morally bankrupt and we are uncomfortable in propping up a system that is unsuited to the purpose intended”. Bravo.

James Dean’s shrug

But why the label? Young people are not apathetic any more than older people are. There is no such thing as Generation Apathy, any more than there is such a thing as Generation Perfect, although in modern times the label of apathy has been tagged on teenagers and yoof since James Dean shrugged. Each generation is always at a loss. Each generation always feels screwed over.

Each generation blames those above them for not understanding, and each generation blames those below them for being less engaged, more privileged, less deserving and more entitled. But there is a monumental generation gap in Ireland. There was no talk titled Generation it’s Our Fault.

The labelling of young people as apathetic is really about creating the conditions where an older generation who participated in bringing down the country can blame the youngsters for not saving the oldies from themselves.

I’ll tell you what apathy is. Apathy is languishing generation after generation under a theocracy and refusing to challenge it. Apathy is voting for Fianna Fáil time and time again because greed is good. Apathy is voting for Fine Gael and thinking it’s an alternative.

Apathy is propping up a social structure where there remains the implicit pressure to christen your kid so they can get into the right school, the implicit pressure to consume, the implicit pressure to discredit the value of protest, the implicit decision not to take personal responsibility for stupid individual choices on how money was spent, the implicit brutalisation of women, the implicit embrace of conservatism as a default mode, the implicit rejection of diversity or difference.

As far as I can tell, politicians as a class have no interest in engaging with young people. Why would they? It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Young people “don’t vote”, we’re told, so why push for youth issues? And when there’s no engagement with young people, why would they be bothered to vote for a bunch of people who ignore them?

Many young people have already spoken with their feet, flipping Ireland the bird and getting out of here. That’s not apathy, that’s action born from frustration, lack of opportunity, or simple exploration of the world.

The media, as part of that old establishment, is just as guilty of marginalising and dismissing young voices. Someone under 40 is rarely a panellist on a current affairs show, a guest on Marian Finucane, an opinion columnist in a newspaper or a presenter of a news programme. Irish media, like its politics, is made up of and therefore talks to the middle-aged and over, and the middle-class and over.

The status quo is alien to Ireland’s youth. Much of Ireland’s social structures are foreign countries to young people, who are better educated, more progressive, more worldly, more tolerant and more savvy than the bumbling establishment who thought it was smart to spend a decade buying houses from each other and calling that “rich”.

Trappings of the past

You can keep the trappings of the past, the Porsche Cayennes and the Sacred Hearts. Young people don’t want them. They see through them. While those who were busted by the boom or are willing it to return deny themselves perspective, young people look at the carry-on of then and now and wonder what on Earth is going on. They might wonder if their parents could survive on a JobBridge scheme or like to see their local representative queue for an apartment viewing 30 people deep.

Their grandparents might wonder how their grandkids would deal with walking to school barefoot or struggling to put food on the table. We all struggle. But very few people don’t actually care. Young people are not apathetic – they’re dismissive of the recycled establishment bull just as much as people of all ages are. They are building their own lives, their own systems, their own communities, their own alternatives.

Any young person worth their salt should not seek to be part of the system, but to pull it down and change it. So don’t you dare call this generation apathetic. Just give them a break, and see what they can do with a bit of encouragement.

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