The Guardian reported earlier this month that by September 2009 up to 40,000 graduates will be unemployed in the UK. These graduates, now in their mid and early twenties, were the children of the 1990s. These recent graduates grew up in a time characterised by relative economic boom.
Their parents, however, living and working through the 1980s watched as a broken Britain emerged from the bleak clutches of Thatcherite control. The parents of today’s twenty-somethings witnessed Britain’s withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – losing £3.4 billion almost over-night – leaving Britain feeling isolated as Europe’s poor relation. It is little wonder, then, that these parents, who bred the babies of the 1990s, greeted globalisation and the grinning beast of the financial economy with open arms.
Today’s graduates, it would seem then, lived charmed lives in comparison to their parents. They grew up in a world of candy-striped leggings, push-pops and global hyper-colour t-shirts. They witnessed the world-domination of American pop and the boom in the over-priced gimmickry of YBA art. Theirs was a world of saccharine smiles, burgeoning bank accounts – a world of plenty unscathed by war or hardship.
One would presume a world of such abundance would breed contentment. However, the media has done little but testify to the dissatisfaction felt by this generation. My play Eight, soon to open at Trafalgar Studios, explores this phenomenon. It looks at the effects, when taken to their extremes, of growing up in a world in which the central value system is based on an ethic of commercial, aesthetic and sexual excess
The play is based around a questionnaire that asked thirty twenty year-olds the central question – ‘What do you believe in?’ The almost unanimous answer was ‘not very much’. It seems the effect of affluence is neither contentment nor discontent, but instead wholesale apathy.
What I proposes in the play that the children of 1990s are unprepared for the fight they will encounter over the next few years; a fight for jobs, a fight for money, a fight to find contentment when the drug of consumerism is in short supply. These twenty-somethings will find this hard, not simply because they are spoilt, but because a life-time of ease has caused them to lose the faculty of faith. When you are always able to get what you want, there is no need for aspiration, no need to believe in that which you cannot see, buy or consume.
However, apathy is not the whole story – for faith is a human impulse and it has been hiding somewhere. It seems unfathomable to many why our new British youth would be swayed by the fundamentalist lure of extreme Islam or the BNP – but really it makes perfect sense. For this is the generation that has never been asked to believe in anything – Christianity is the domain of the OAPS, politics is cankerous with slander and cynicism and the media have made heroes disposable, breeding them and destroying them in the same breath. With no outlet in mainstream Britain for the human impulse of faith, is it any wonder that those who do feel the need to believe do so in the margins of society?
If it was affluence that bred apathy into Britain’s youth then one must take a look again at the recession-led headlines that condemn our soon-to-be unemployed graduates. There is no doubt that the next few years will be extremely tough for those babies of the 1980s – who became the privileged kids of the nineties - for they have never had it so hard. But they will have to find some fight – and that may be no bad thing. For it’s only when times get really tough that you work out what really matters – and maybe, by then, we’ll be ready to believe in it.