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A lost generation finds its voice

It started with a death in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. But one year on, the youth revolt has gone truly global, challenging old power structures and bringing with it the promise of a change.

world Updated: Dec 18, 2011 01:32 IST
Shiv Malik, Jack Shenker & Adam Gabbatt
Shiv Malik, Jack Shenker & Adam Gabbatt

It could have easily been overlooked. It was not the first time a young, frustrated Arab had taken desperate action to draw attention to the plight of the marginalised millions. But on this occasion the news of a suicide went viral.

A year to the day since Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in a sleepy Tunisian town kicked off a year of revolt, the convulsions have spread further than could ever have been imagined: in the depths of a Russian winter activists are planning their next howl of protest at the Kremlin; in a north American city a nylon tent stands against a bitter wind; in a Syrian nightmare a soldier contemplates defection.

Quietly, a lifetime of old power structures — political, social, ideological — have been dissolved and the certainties of one generation have been replaced by the messy unpredictability of another. Handmade barricades are bolted to public squares, plastic tents pitched beside stone cathedrals, and the solid steel of a New York bank is harassed by pop-up armies of retweeters.

It began as a Mediterranean revolt spreading on both sides of the sea. In a million different and fragmented ways, scenes of protest were the narrative backbone to 2011 played out again and again in cities as far afield as Santiago, Stockholm and Seoul.

But to view the activism of 2011 through a nationalist, ethnic or even class lens is to miss its unifying trait — 2011 was the year of a global youth revolt. The struggles that gave birth to each demonstration, occupation or revolution were separate and yet connected; part of a collective roar from young people who, for the first time in modern history, faced a future in which they would be worse off than their parents.

Kyriakos Chatzistefanou, Greek journalist and director of documentary Debtocracy, says it was exactly this awareness that got people into the streets of Athens. “It was mainly middle-class, well-educated people that felt for the first time that they will be what economists now call the lost generation.

“That was a paradigm shift. ...For the first time after 2008 there is a generation that realises that there is an end to that ...(and) they reacted angrily, violently.”

The same prognosis is to be found on the other side of the Atlantic. The lack of opportunities for young Americans has been “a huge part of what’s happening”, says Laura Long, who has been involved in Occupy Oakland since September.

But it is far more than material privation that underlies these revolts, more than just a question of how to integrate into the globalised economy the talents and expectations of 80 million unemployed young people from the most well-educated generation in human history.

At the heart of this most potent insurrection since 1968 is an expression of the deep uncertainty about how the future will pan out.

“It’s the first time in US history that a generation came along and was told: ‘No, things are gonna be worse for you than they were for your parents’,” says Jesse LaGreca, a prominent Occupy Wall Street figure who has travelled to occupations across the US.

When you speak to those organising the Occupy movement, it is remarkable how important Tunisia and Tahrir were to their own action. No longer was the west to be a democratic beacon to West Asia. It was very much the other way around.

It is easy to dismiss the interconnectedness of 2011’s youth-driven resistance movements; and it is possible even to deny they amount to any kind of identifiable social phenomenon at all.

Certainly, comparisons between the pepper spray of Oakland and the tank shells of Homs can be facetious, and the triumphs of the protester — named this week as Time’s “person of the year” — appear scant if limited purely to the arena of formal political change.

But connections there are, not just in mutual recognition and frustration, but in method. The movements that made the headlines in 2011 were largely non-hierarchical, creative and locally autonomous. And consciously so.

Where the movement goes next remains to be seen. But as the Jordanian human rights activist Laila Sharaf recently told a group of young people in Beirut: “Today the rules of the game have changed, and the ball is in your court.” Or, to put it in the words that are so often held aloft at any street protest today, part in hope, part as threat: “This is just the beginning.”