We’ve begun to behave as if young people are special; more virtuous and wiser than adults. It’s wrong and it’s creepy and we’ve got to stop it — not for our sake so much as for theirs. It looks as if, come Friday, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg will win the Nobel peace prize, and if she does the whole Nobel show will double up as a sort of topping-out ceremony for the cult of youth. It’ll be the final proof that even the most sophisticated adults in the world have signed up to the bonkers idea that children can somehow intuit the answers to humanity’s existential problems, though Lord knows what the grown-ups expect the kids to do — build a better world on Minecraft?
The foundation for this great elevation of the young was laid in the years after the 2008 financial crisis. Millennials looked at their parents — the lucky recipients of free education, affordable houses and decent pensions — and they felt quite understandably gypped. Where were their pension pots? Where were their lovely homes? The kids circled miserably around in the gig economy and felt themselves to be martyrs.
It’s a small step from martyr to saint — and the referendum in 2016 was the perfect leg up. Suddenly there were our youngsters, bravely taking on the miserable, backwards-looking, old. And amid the Brexit fallout, up rose Greta like that hologram of Princess Leia: ‘How dare you? You’ve stolen my childhood.’
This was the moment at which sensible adult voices should have provided perspective. Settle down, kids, they should have said, and thank the Lord this isn’t the 14th century. The Black Death — now that really was a childhood stealer. Put down your placards and go back to school so you might learn to be of some actual use to the planet. Instead, the grown-ups flocked to Greta’s gang. ‘Yeah, bunk off school,’ they told their offspring. ‘You’ll probably have drowned before you get to A-levels anyway.’
It’s occurred to me to blame the strange adult appetite for teenage fiction for their adulation of the young. If grown-ups spend their spare time in a magical world full of prepubescent wizards, it probably makes sense to them to imagine some resourceful 12-year-old might solve the climate crisis. For any adult fan of Philip Pullman, it’ll seem only natural to see the world in a Manichaean light: the forces of evil — Trump, BP — lined up against the mystical innocence of children.
Or perhaps it’s just a temporary alliance. Because of Brexit and because of our anxieties about plastic, left-leaning middle-class parents find themselves suddenly at one with their young. It suits us to talk disdainfully of ‘old gammons’; to park the Discovery Sport SUV at Swindon station and join the teens for a spot of Extinction Rebellion in Trafalgar Square. It makes us feel better about jetting off to the Maldives for a touch of winter sun. And it makes us feel young.
No wonder our children are anxious. It’s not just that the icecaps are melting, but they also must see quite clearly that the adults aren’t making sense. Last week the UK’s own Greta, 19-year-old Ella Mann, wrote a letter to the Royal Shakespeare Company asking it to end its sponsorship deal with BP and organised it so that her letter was signed by schoolchildren across the country. A friendly reply from the director would have kept Ella happy, but after just a few days the RSC simply caved in. The kids are right, it said, and just jettisoned a long philanthropic association with BP without further debate.
There were so many other, better and more adult responses. BP is heavily investing in renewable energy. It owns wind farms. Why not remind Ella of that? Why remind her that you can’t just turn the gas off without freezing millions of pensioners to death? Why not ask her and her friends to consider what exactly is wrong with companies with a bad rep doing community service, or if it’s even possible to find any corporate partner with a clean record? Greta thinks that capitalism is bad. Perhaps Ella does too. In kowtowing to the kids, the RSC has set itself a very tricky precedent. Is it going to refuse sponsorship from anyone who’s ever made a profit?
Ella wrote: ‘We wish that the RSC would act on the ideas that they present in Matilda [a play for children about children] and not give in to the powerful oppressor.’
Well done, RSC. Truly you are the Mat-ilda of theatre companies. You’ve socked it to Miss Trunchbull, and now the BP–subsidised £5 ticket scheme for 16- to 25-year-olds is no more. If there’s a better example of how and why bending over to please kids is not in their interests, I’d like to hear it.
This is not the fault of the children. Of course they bang drums, sit on roofs and declare the world to be doomed. It’s what they’re supposed to do. What’s strange is that so many grown-ups seem content to imagine that this is, in itself, an answer. Got a problem? Simply make like a teen and shout about it. Job done. When Greta turned to the Davos crowd and said ‘I want you to panic’, they should have asked her: why? Surely the graver the crisis the more important it is not to panic. If this is a battle to save the planet, the last thing you want is for the decision-makers to be in a state. Picture Churchill in his bunker in the spring of 1944. Picture an adviser popping his head round the door, then reporting back: good news guys, Winston’s hysterical with fear.
Rising numbers of kids are being treated for eco-anxiety. I’ll bet it’s not really global warming that’s unsettling them so much as the complete absence of faith in their elders. With the fashion for presenting the young as gurus has come the idea that the elderly are intolerant and uninteresting — nothing but a drain on resources. We middle-class mid-lifers have put this about as revenge for Brexit. The old are just Leave-voting bed-blockers who’ve ruined the planet. But imagine hearing that, as a child, and believing it, and coming to think that your grandparents didn’t have their children and their grandchildren’s interests at heart when they voted in 2016. It’s an inversion of the truth.
Anyone who’s lost their parents — even grandparents — understands the weird agoraphobia of growing older. When your parents fade out it leaves you with no covering; no buffer between you and the grave. That’s all very well in middle age, but imagine feeling that same disorientating aloneness when you’re 20 and believing that your elders aren’t your betters in any way. It’s an article of faith in the cult of youth, that because older voters have less life in front of them, they should have been less entitled to a say in what happens to our country. Look where that thinking gets you. Longevity is heritable. Should oldsters with lucky DNA get more votes? Should the terminally ill have their ballot papers removed?
We’re all on the airport travelator of life, heading for the chute. Teaching kids that the old are worthless is an obvious own goal, for us and in the end for them too.