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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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In some ways, the proliferation of social media networks (Facebook, Twitter), YouTube, and blogs makes things more "complicated," simply because it opens so many windows on the world. Europe's cybergeneration is less trusting of traditional media. "We want the truth. I don't want to believe, I want to know," says John, a 26-year-old in Athens. "I like facts. I like proof. I'm a computer scientist. I am always online. When it comes to Greek politics and the debt crisis, I draw my own conclusions."

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"We used to accept the authority of mainstream media, but we no longer do," adds Concepción Cortés Zulueta, who heads a young researchers association at a Madrid university. "Now I say look at this link, and this link, at this website, or this video. There is a lot more information, and a lot more to challenge."

One thing youth resent is when elders caricature their generation. Early in the May 15 movement, with police surrounding the square, media dubbed the youth as "Ni-Nis" (neither this nor that), which in this context meant neither workers nor students. It was a derogatory slap. The protesters, highly educated but often unemployed, shot back that, yes, they were Ni-Nis – they supported neither center-left Socialists, nor the center-right Popular Party, something akin in the US to a pox on both Democratic and Republican houses.

Later, after slurs that indignados were "lazy drinkers," the youths themselves banned alcohol on the square. Puerta del Sol was for years the site of an evening ritual called botellón, in which bottles of beer were passed around liberally as the sun went down. This ended. A banner atop a building stated: "Esto no es un botellón."

"We hear politicians describing a breakdown in youth responsibility, a moral collapse; we hear about feral children running wild, feckless youth. It is complete nonsense," says Ed Howker, coauthor of "Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth." "The description of the generation, not by their parents, but by politicians, and to some extent the mass media, is irresponsible and uninformed. We have TV shows called the 'Bank of Mom and Dad.' It's offensive," says Mr. Howker, who just turned 30. "All these different glib generalizations of youth bear no relation to the vulnerable situation they feel themselves in."

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.)

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."


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