Occupy Europe: How a generation went from indifferent to indignant
Occupy Europe? From Madrid to Athens, young people facing a bleak future are casting doubt on European identity.
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Not that youth are free from self-criticism. In Luton, a blue-collar city northwest of London, Michael Toms, 24, works the late shift at the train station. The last express to London is around midnight, and Mr. Toms walks the platform notifying stragglers of the timing. Luton is heavily ethnic, South Asian and Muslim, and proudly so, but it is also a home of the far right youth gang, the English Defense League. (Anders Behring Breivik, the man accused of mass murder in Norway in July, visited and approved of the EDL.)Skip to next paragraph
Toms says that EDL members often kick up a fuss at the Luton station after football matches. But as he talks about his generation, and England, it isn't the brawling EDL kids but the general attitude of his peers that concerns Toms. "Too many of my friends don't work, have never worked, and don't know the value of work," he says. "They are into football and video games. They think about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They don't want to make decisions until they have to."
Toms, who says he is probably "too organized for my age," adds, "I think the internal drive to make something of yourself is disappearing in Britain.... We can't be great again. That's how people feel."
Alberto, a 24-year-old from Spain, doesn't like hearing excuses from his peers, either. Tall and burly, he wears a monogrammed oxford shirt and is about to start an internship with Price Waterhouse in Madrid. He stands in line outside the business school he graduated from, points inside to the office staff, and says that to get ahead one must avoid bureaucracy. "The people are lazy. That's the most basic problem.... The private sector is going to save Spain. It depends on us, no one else."
Alberto Canfran, 25, a biologist in Madrid who has a grant to work in the US, agrees with the indignados can-do spirit but faults his cohorts more broadly. "Other generations were living in good times, and we expected to take a ride on that," he says. "We saw bad times coming and did nothing. Our future is in our hands. You have to fight for it, just as our parents fought for their future" in emerging from the Franco regime that ended in 1983.
Yet parents don't completely escape criticism. "The older generations have not passed us a dream or hope," says Adrien, 24, a graduate student of energy and climate from Versailles, France. "I'm tired of baby boomers who don't understand anything anymore and who are frightened. Our political classes don't understand ecology; they don't think about the future."
But to paraphrase The Who, many of the kids are "all right" – they work, engage in clubs and sports. They have families, meet with friends, watch a lot of film, live on the Internet, get along. An international Roman Catholic youth meeting in Madrid this summer drew more than a million participants. And not all young people reject the notion of a unified Continent. Polls show that Eastern European youth identify strongly with the idea of "Europe."
But there is also a lot of experimenting with ideas from the East, alternative medicine, art therapy. One young basketball trainer in Madrid is part of a "slow movement" – to eat, speak, move, and live more deliberately. Many youth say an impending global catastrophe, whether economic or ecological, is not far off. There is a lot of "collapse talk."
In the long term, the most salient issue may be a mass distrust of leaders and the "system." And the malaise doesn't just surface among fresh-faced 18-year-olds; people in their 30s vent about it, too.
"We are apolitical because we think nothing can be done. We don't trust politicians. I don't blame or feel angry," says Laura Sanchez-Vizcaíno Flys, a young award-winning cinematographer in Madrid who has become interested in acupuncture. "We just don't trust. We see how ... power corrupts, and our leaders all end up the same way, chasing money. My generation was raised to work hard, but there's a crisis of values and of what life means."