The Corona Generation
In recent years, we have become obsessed with generational labels as a way to make sense of the tensions within society. Conflicts over economic, social, political and cultural resources are routinely expressed as conflicts between generations – in particular, the Baby Boomers, born in the two decades after the Second World War, and the Millennials, born in the two decades before – you’ve guessed it.
In challenging this dominant narrative of generational conflict, my research has investigated the emergence of these generational labels. On one hand, they are trite and overused – by attempting to explain present-day problems via cultural stereotypes, the labels present ‘generation’ as a determining identity, which flattens out the differences between people of the same age and incites conflict between old and young. On the other hand, generational labels express something real: the distinctive experience shared by a group of young people as they come of age, during a period of accelerated social change when time suddenly appears out of joint.
As I have discussed in my books, the label ‘Baby Boomer’ and its cultural connotations speaks to the experience of those who came of age in the 1960s, when what the historian Arthur Marwick describes as a ‘cultural revolution’ upturned the norms and values of Western societies. The label ‘Generation X’ relates to the aimless uncertainty brought about by the collapse of the politics of left and right; as Fukuyama put it, the ‘end of history’. ‘Millennials’ captures the global disorientation provoked by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the response to that event.
The next label we can expect to emerge is the ‘Corona generation’, or some variant of this. Because this crisis is likely to prove decisive in bringing about a shift in generational consciousness – for better, or for worse.
Until now, those young people born after 2000 have been subjected to a barrage of labelling, by media, marketers and others who all want to be the first to come up with ‘the name’. These labels have pounced on everything from the banal (i-Gen, Net Gen – because the kids use technology, don’t you know) to the bizarre (‘Plurals’, ‘Founders’). To date, none of these have stuck – the enduring label has been the unimaginative ‘Generation Z’, on the grounds that it comes after Generation X and Generation Y (the name given to Millennials before someone came up with a better one).
Generation Z is a label that has been constructed by commentators and imposed upon young people, in a bid to understand them. In reality, any generation’s sense of itself comes through its own attempt to make sense of its times – to comprehend its own role in historical events. So far, the role assigned the ‘Generation Z’ has been entirely passive, born out of a patronising assumption that it is down to smarty-pants commentators to script the part young people should play.
These commentators are now going to be competing to declare how the global Covid-19 crisis is going to affect the kids living through it, and we can expect a whole load of nonsense on that front. Partly because we do not yet know – the dimensions of this crisis are so intense and far-reaching that it will take time for its implications to work through. But mainly because, in responding to the crisis, society’s institutions have demonstrated a startling disregard for their responsibility to educate and socialise the young.
Of all the draconian and, yes, ‘unprecedented’ measures that have been enacted to contain the spread of Covid-19, the closure of schools crosses a crucial symbolic line. There may be good reason for measures that promote ‘social distancing’ in the face of a new and highly infectious disease. Yet from early on, it has been acknowledged that children and young people without underlying health conditions are, statistically, far less likely to be made seriously ill by Covid-19 than elderly people with underlying health conditions.
The initial response to the pandemic, especially in the UK, recognised that schools are places where infections spread rapidly, but weighed this up against the relative lack of danger to the children themselves, and the far-reaching consequences that school closures would have – for parents needing childcare in order to go to work, for children with disabilities who cannot be easily cared for at home, for children whose home lives are so difficult or impoverished that ‘sending them home’ would have serious welfare implications.
These practical considerations are important, but they failed to engage with the crucial reason for keeping schools going through a time of crisis: to signal our social and moral responsibility for children and young people, and the importance of education in leading them through. In this respect, the hurried and valiant efforts that schools are making to keep the study of the curriculum going via individual, online study might provide children with a necessary focus and distraction from the chaos that surrounds them, but it also underlines what a soulless, detached activity ‘learning’ has often become.
Writing in the 1950s, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued:
‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’
By closing schools, we have signalled our preparedness to expel young people from our world. Schools have been stripped of their ability, and responsibility, to play a role in helping to look after young people, and guiding them through this disturbing and frightening time.
Now we have gone further – locking young people down, and removing from them the opportunity to play a role in ‘renewing a common world’. Rather than encouraging them to harness their health, youth, and energy to play a practical role in helping their communities, and talking to them seriously about what this crisis means for society as a whole, we have opted for the immoral tactics of scaring and shaming them into hiding in their bedrooms.
The dire warnings that young people should not consider themselves ‘invincible’ in the face of Covid-19 are now being ramped up. In consequence, teenagers and parents of younger children might be more inclined to obey the lockdown restrictions – but at what cost? A generation already marked out by its tendency towards anxiety is primed to respond by becoming more self-absorbed, more detached, and more fearful. The brave, selfless instincts to get out there and help, which we saw early on in community responses, have quickly become neutered by the message that the best thing young people can do is to stay away from each other, and from everybody else.
For all that the rhetoric of ‘think of the children’ has dominated political discussion when it has suited the adults in charge, the current moment is tending to depict young people as troublesome germs on legs, who should be distracted and isolated rather than educated and engaged. This is why, in the months ahead, the Corona Generation will be forced to develop a sense of itself – because, both literally and symbolically, we have cast them out of public space.