The Cult of Youf

There’s something odd that left-wingers, lovers of the EU and global-warming believers have in common. They think something believed by 20-year-olds is probably truer than something believed by 40-year-olds or 60-year-olds.

Check that sobering red map of 2019 election preferences by age. Revealing over ¾ of the Commons would have gone to Corbyn-led Labour had only votes of 18-to-24-year-olds counted. No wonder Labour want suffrage lowered to age 16. Likewise pro-EU activists, after losing the 2016 referendum, proposed disenfranchising anyone over 70. The undead, vampiric Tony Blair recently cited the ‘beating pulse’ of the young as a reason to reverse Brexit.

These causes thrive on deference to (or lust for) youth: deference that is widespread in English-speaking countries.

Of course, respect for new science served Britain, the US and the Commonwealth well in the last 400 years. In fact, the real secret of English-speakers has been flexible political gradualism alongside hugely important discoveries in technology. Almost everyone overlooks the first part of that magic recipe. Even Continental Europeans are slightly more pro-tradition than English-speakers. That’s sometimes to their credit. The appalling Anglo-Saxon fad for sex-change surgery, for example, is making far less headway there. The stodgy EU cunningly packages itself as radically futuristic but also “technocratically” stable. Euro federalists shrewdly promote sclerotic committee-rule as safe, while their glossy marketing boasts youthful newness. 

Meanwhile Britain and the US, at other times France, display exaggerated respect for the insights of the young. The US influences everyone, so to different degrees the whole world now admires the ‘energy’ of adolescents. 15-year-old Greta Thunberg is not the first schoolgirl to lecture the United Nations, for example. In 1992 Severn Cullis-Suzuki, a Canadian 12-year-old, ticked the UN off about global warming in strikingly similar tones. She’s 40 now. With both, it’s hard not to feel their principal qualification as modern-day Joans of Arc was to be teenage girls. 

Today’s reverence for the wisdom of the underage takes odd forms. I noticed years ago that digital-book-reading devices Kindle & Nook were adopted eagerly by certain middle-aged folk. They talked about how useful the devices were. Squinting closely, I saw there was another motive they carefully kept quiet. Adopting a new device that promised to sweep stuffy old paper and ink out of the way made them feel young. Reading text off a tablet screen made them feel down with the kids, hip with da yoof, not quite as old as they really were.

Novelty has dominated western art for quite a time – certainly since Paris’s Salon des Refuses in 1863 established the central belief of modernism – that the good (“exciting”, “revolutionary”, “progressive”) artists are precisely those who go against convention. In contrast, until very recently, Oriental creatives copied an older artist’s approach. Only when they had painted well in his manner for some years was it deemed appropriate to deviate slightly, developing their own variation on the master’s style.

Modernist themes like abstraction, conceptualism, preference for installations over artworks are now themselves the established order. The young Quinlan Terry nearly got thrown out of architecture school in the 1970s for submitting a dissertation on the classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian…). Retro artists like the Stuckists (a hostile nickname created for them by impeccably mainstream installation artist Tracey Emin, she of the unmade bed) are still derided by orthodox modernists.

There have been exultant periods before when being young carried more authority than being old.

These were not just eras excited by the youthful vigour of some new Mozart or Alexander. Repeatedly there were snatches of a few decades when each time “wisdom” briefly became something you’re born with and lose over time. In the late 1960s hippies told each other: never trust anyone over 30. In the late 1970s, punks told each other: never trust a hippy. As Wordsworth wrote, looking back on himself at the age when France was being reshaped in the 1790s (never mind the bloodshed and destruction): “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.”

We’re in another wave like that. While left-wing Victorians felt nostalgia for France’s thrilling 1790s revolutions, today many are wistfully haunted by a mirage of the 1960s. A few even look back longingly at the embarrassing excitement over Blair and Brown obtaining power in 1997, or Bill Clinton in 1992. The default view again is the young are wise, but the old are stiff and foolish.

This creates a logical need: movements like global warming, the reflexive leftist worldview, or the euro-project now fill an important role. They give topics the under-30s can smugly berate their elders with: something most older people can be considered indisputably wrong about, new Vietnam Wars.

The seething hatred for Margaret Thatcher – even hatred for this magazine – shows the spirit persists. People (now getting on a bit) who blame Maggie for problems that in fact started in the 1940s and 1960s still hate her. Why? Because they were robbed of their precious youthful right to patronise their parents. Outrageously, against all the trends of the late-20th century, 1980s yoof were cheated, denied their seniority. 

Social-proofed projects like climate correction and European federalism neatly feed this indignation.

A friend once remarked to me that the special loathing by the left for Thatcher came from her “reminding them of their mothers”. Reaction against the June 2016 Brexit vote and now the December 2019 election victory for Boris Johnson has this same petulant rage. History is supposed to be on their side. Everyone said their ideas had won. How can things be moving “backwards”? It’s their turn to lay down the law. They’re the young generation.  

Mark Griffith is a financial trader whose weblog follows news on artificial intelligence, economics, and other subjects. He is researching a book on how AI will change the way people live.

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10 Comments on The Cult of Youf

  1. Mark, ‘The appalling Anglo-Saxon fad for sex-change surgery…’ is a very offensive remark, and hardly relevant to the article. Try to keep your intolerant, small-minded comments to yourself. I write as the parent of a transgender daughter. Her surgery probably saved her life.

    We live in the age of NEOTENY, perpetual adolescence, so YOOF is bound to be the dominating factor of our times. Why the left loves YOUTH is because it is opposed to social-Conservatism. YOUTH demonstrates with Extinction Rebellion whilst social-Conservatives stand in the High Street collecting for charity. Worthy but not news worthy.
    “YOUTH” (whatever their age! Have a look at the TV Programme’Loose Women’. Ladies(?) of a “certain age” behaving like teenage girls) are revolutionary, exciting, rebellious, sticking two-fingers up at social convention – Marriage before children? “No thanks we get more money off the state through cohabitation.” They inhabit a world where no one has to do the washing-up. A world with no grown-up responsibilities.
    Unfortunately this brings me to the recent general election. What a fantastic win for the Conservative Party, but what a defeat for social-Conservatism. Boris Johnson, that perpetual adolescence, is now Prime Minister. Look at his campaign. ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ smashing through a wall on a JCB, you could almost hear him “parp-parping” at the top of his voice.
    Putting a reporters phone in his pocket, and hiding in a fridge – what jolly japes! How many failed marriages? How many affairs? How many children? Who cares life is for living. Again a world with no “grown-up” responsibilities. And no Badger to bring him back to boring reality.
    Forget Brexit, forget immigration maybe BoJo struck a chord with the working class of the northern “red wall” for his fecklessness. How many of these new Tories (I use the term very loosely) are “wards of the state”, whom without benefits would not be able to put a (subserdised) roof over the heads of their numerous children, many probably born out of wedlock. Living off the benefits paid to them through the taxes of hard working, law abiding, decent social-Conservatives.
    BoJo and his party (sorry, I can’t bring myself to use the word Conservative) promises to throw money at these people via the NHS, “living wage” and keeping benefits at their absurdly high levels. Cultural Marxism rules UK? As social-Conservatives where do we fit in?

  3. Speaking as a Modern Feminist, I wish to point out the underrepresentation of women in the UK’s prisons, less than 5% of prisoners are women. This outrageous discrimination goes without mention even Women’s Hour will not join my campaign ‘Gaol Fifty Fifty'(Together in chains, means freedom for all).
    Yours Ravenette

    • Would you support my campaign to have equal representation for men among authors who change the sex of their name? Is it not outrageous that George Eliot, Acton Bell et al should have the field to themselves?

      • Dear Michael,
        So much to put right, so little time, I am starting to realise how hard it must be to be Radio4 producer, a whole world to perfect, and another planning meeting to go to!
        Best Regards

  4. Not so in China, despite Mao’s attempt (which many successful people managed to survive and hold on to their property and businesses). The other day Chinese girls explaining why they were studying ‘lessons in courtship and marriage’ referred, of all things, to the wise advice from old President Xi. (Before anyone goes off the deep end about those lessons, remember the One Child policy has left problems – though not as bad as those created by infanticide of girls in Pakistan and India, which are not admitted of course).

    There are lots of Chinese post grad students in English universities and what a pleasure they are to teach: cheerful, lively, optimistic, diligent and very bright.

    I learned the other day – from Canada not our silent BBC – that England (including the town I have lived in all my life) has a major problem with birth defects caused by cousin marriage – amounting genetically to brother/sister after a couple of generations. I don’t think China is letting that sort of thing continue.
    Maybe we need to think afresh about China, and look east.

  5. We need to talk about toxic femininity. This growing anti-male (especially white male) tendency will become a major defining social trend in the coming decade. The “yoof” who drive this movement will be university educated girls impatient with “the patriarchy” and prepared to unashamedly hollow out the lives of men who, it seems, deserve all harm they are dealt. These girls don’t need to be primed up with long-winded feminist theory. They just know that men are in the way. They are a roadblock on the way to female fulfillment and must be forced aside by any means available. Gender equality is now an irrelevance.

    Providing passive support will be a generation or two of demoralised men, already badly diminished by decades of anti-male “teaching”, only too ready to show deference to the superior gender.

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