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Rosa Kouri, rabble dot ca: Beyond the cultural fabric of baby boomers: Youth and political engagement

Beyond the cultural fabric of baby boomers: Youth and political engagement 
by ROSA KOURI. Sep-tember 23, 2011

As I write this article, world population has reached 7,146,021,283. No doubt when you read these words that number will be eclipsed by an amount equally mind-boggling. For me, this 10 digit number inspires nothing short of awe.

It also inspires a deep fear of the unknown. And mischievously twinned with that fear, I feel a tremor of excitement. This is the world I will (hopefully) grow old to breathe in, walk through, and experience as one among so many. Just think of the sheer weight of our collective humanity and its transformative potential.

Yes, this much publicized crushing weight will pose daunting challenges of resource sustainability, political governance, women’s empowerment, and social cohesion, among many others. We know this, and the doomsayers make sure of it.

But I want to ask something that has been barely articulated: Dare we relish this phenomenon? Dare we contemplate the positive revolution embodied in the force of these new generations? Like a roaring wave, perhaps this is the catalyst to sweep away tired ways of doing things. Oppressive state apparatuses, social hierarchies, corporate hegemony, it could all implode with the force of this new generation demanding what it needs, and by sheer force of numbers getting it!

It’s hard to feel that in Canada. Here, it feels as though the young have nothing new to bring to the table. The very name of my own generation, the “echo,” has no meaning of its own. We ride the coattails of one of the most transformative eras in human history, and it’s tough to imagine a sequel. As the progressive subset within this cohort, I argue we have yet to figure out: a) what we really want to see, and b) how the hell we will make it happen. At the risk of sounding inappropriately honest, I think we are lost.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, we were for the most part raised without serious alternatives to global capitalism. With the combined spectre of increased population growth worldwide and an aging population in Canada, we are reminded that we will shoulder the horrible burden of our elders on a wasted government budget, while simultaneously fighting off the hordes gathering at our borders (this is a flawed storyline with clear weaknesses).

This approach generated ample social programs when baby boomers needed them (low-cost secondary education, help in buying and renovating homes, retirement support), while progressively retracting them for subsequent generations. I would like to coin a new term for this phenomenon: “slash and burn” social democracy that leaves little fertile soil in its wake.

And yet our generation is spoiled; the unbridled wealth of information at our fingertips, our convenient access to credit, the sophistication of our media, the relaxation of social norms, and few expectations to provide for others. It all amounts to an unbelievable technological and cultural progress we largely take for granted. The dichotomy is extreme. No wonder the malaise is so deep. On one hand, we are entertained into submission, and on the other, given no higher expectation than to be wily but indebted consumers. If there is political disengagement among young people, I argue it is an understandable reaction.

Experts at consuming information, we see through political campaigns and slogans and yet continually ask for more refined deception. In an unspoken search for authenticity, we look to leaders and issues that can actually make a difference, but are frequently disappointed. Disengagement is not simply apathy, but is a choice. It is frustrating trying to find our place within partisan loyalties that do not reflect the complexities of our opinions, friendships, and networks. We are faced with few options that make us passionate and little believable opportunity for change in our current system.

The truth is that young people are less likely to vote — perhaps that is evidence enough of our profound wisdom. One piece of this is that voter suppression has been deliberately used to make conventional politics distasteful or difficult. While I appreciate that electoral officers go door to door in retirement communities and often allow seniors to vote on the spot, would I be dreaming to expect the same attention given to students?

Thankfully, we often engage ourselves in other ways. As “engaged skeptics,” we are interested in political issues while wary of politicians. A 2005 Statistics Canada report suggests that “young adults in their twenties were much more likely than seniors to seek to inform themselves about a political issue, to sign a petition, to boycott (or purchase) products for ethical reasons, or to participate in demonstrations or marches.” However, the report continues, “they were significantly less likely than older adults to attend and speak up in public meetings and to express their views to the media or politicians.”

What I take from this study is the comfort that my peers do have minds we occasionally use to think about hopefully important things, but we do not feel ownership of conventional forms of channelling that engagement.

When youth are engaged, particularly on an issue-driven basis, it is interesting how little room is made for us at the table in terms of concrete concessions — beyond a banal acknowledgement of the “youth” perspective. The continued erosion of financial support for post secondary education is an excellent case in point. It is a question of power, and it feels as though our needs are simply outweighed both in progressive movements and across the board. We do not have the numbers on our side.

Having worked on a variety of environmental, social, and political causes in my young life, I learned early on that the best way to get an issue advanced was to link it to the cultural fabric of baby boomers. Ironically, this was most stark when working alongside other young people to raise awareness around climate change, an issue marked by its unique inter-generational implications (fossil fuel dependence brings many benefits now at the expense of those to come).

Our most successful event linked the UN Climate Change Conference of Montreal 2005 to the John Lennon and Yoko Ono bed-in staged in that same city 36 years earlier. We dressed in nighties and flowing clothes, reframed common lyrics to “give youth a chance,” and duly held up peace signs to the cameras. It was savvy marketing, the visuals were great, and the day happened to be the anniversary of Lennon’s death. We were overwhelmed by the international response, including such heavyweights as the New York Times and BBC. Finally, we thought, they get what we are saying! In retrospect, I realize they thought “isn’t that cute!”

The only way we could make meaningful our efforts at world changing was to directly mirror pivotal points in the previous generation. This is a reality for any young advocates trying to make their cause relevant to the broader public. Fine, I get it. But we are relevant for our own reasons too. Hopefully that broader — older — public does not clue in too late. Capturing inter-generational momentum is a necessity, not a luxury.

Young advocates will carry the torch through a profound demographic phenomenon. Soon, the ratio of working to non-working Canadians will shrink. A politician at 50 will need the support of those primarily in their 80s to win an election. Health care will grapple with entirely new quantities of demands. These are all challenges that could be addressed by creative social and economic policy.

Fear mongering on the bankruptcy of the state has given us one option, a cut-throat laissez-faire approach to the greying of our ranks at the expense of a good life for the rest of us. Pitting one side against the other justifies dismantling social programs. But I doubt that’s our only option. We have to start seriously thinking about how these demographics will change and how progressive movements can marshal that to the advantage of all ages. It will require thinking in entirely new ways about the role of individuals, their communities, and the state. Compassion will be as important as production. Fortunately, I know we are not starting from scratch in building workable alternatives (Thanks, Mom and Dad).

Of course we will do a great job. But we have some work ahead. To start, I suggest this (easy!) three-step plan:

1. Post-scandal politics: Our young generation has lived our lives in the open. Often I joke that almost everything I have ever done is somewhere on the internet (but hopefully not all of it). Judging by the school of hard knocks, I would argue that those most ideal to be leaders will not, and should not, have perfect track records. Integrity should be judged on universal and relevant values, not on evidence of the inevitable messiness of a human life. For this I have the most optimism.

2. Authenticity in political engagement: For many of us, we have seen all of the worst and none of the best in politics. When many young people passionately support certain candidates, I wager it is because stellar candidates have authenticity on their side. Authenticity is articulating in plain language what you care about and how you want to change things, and if you can build a credible plan for doing that. To all but the doggedly naive, traditional politics is a spectre to be feared and has little transformative potential. The perception is that you won’t change it — it will change you, and for the worse. Politics needs to be more human. Easy, right?

3. Understanding our contribution: Given our responsibilities here in Canada, and our role in an increasingly cozy world, can we imagine what would make things better? Of course we know the complexity of so many insurmountable problems, and can hardly ignore the daily bombardment of bad news. But that is not the whole story. Can we create a pragmatic but inspiring vision of our contribution to this messy place? This is a question I and my peers should start working on.

Raised in Saskatoon with two left feet and a stubborn craving for some right answers, Rosa Kouri currently hangs her hat in Ottawa.

Read our other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.

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