You Don’t Get to Grow Up in the World You Imagined

We all felt a pang of the immediacy and excitement of youth when lockdown came around, in those first days when it seemed like everything was closing. The sweet thrill of departure and ending; of leaving the normal drudge, mixed up with all the anxieties of the unknowable and unprecedented. So many last days at school, as it were, collided at once.

Out of those end days, when it felt like people might be saying goodbye forever, and indeed some were, all of us could consider again what that glorious age of 17 might have been like without new connection, without touch, and in which all of those moments of novelty and earnest possibility, for better or worse, were now cancelled.

None of this can be tabulated or traded-off. The COVID experience is many things, mundane and profound: but is also destined to be so many summers that you didn’t quite get to be young in, and were thus not quite bliss, let alone very heaven.

The experience of youth involves coming into a world that was not shaped for you, and realising that many people who should have accrued enough maturity to do otherwise still want to make it about themselves. The world of the 17 year old is therefore both marginal and universal — weighty influence is everywhere — but there is still the thrill of possibility and newly revealed difference in all its glory.

You don’t get to grow up in the world you imagined: and that, at least, is one home truth that cuts across the great generational divides of our times.

The younger cohorts don’t demand much, it seems. Certainly not the revolutionary impossible of ’68. Instead, they want a reheated social democracy that, though lying almost cold and dead as a way of living, is still palpably alive in memory and unfolding consequence. They want, I suppose, to live a life like that lived in the mid-1990s — they want cheap housing and debt-free education, but with WiFi too.

But, COVID aside, we’re coming to the end of an era when the concept of living standards could define political imagination: in which left or right would compete to offer a better route to higher gains for a greater number. With that goal in mind, there was once a deep notion of a social contract, a deal, a promise. Looking at the bin fire of so many contemporary reactionary movements, it seems likely that all that can be promised by mainstream politics now is a loop of disruption and ever more hollow victory. Where trust seems impossible, the cruel strongman or the zero-sum deal maker, can seem like a safer bet.

Yet we were still brought up to expect that, at certain key moments, generational deals are bound to be made. Some think COVID is one such moment — rich with the potential for change and overturning old ways. It’s not impossible, but the deal remains so elusive, even at this seminal moment, because the twin trade-offs of ’45 and ’79 continue to exert their weight.

In the intervening years, Europe and North America have become far less central to the global economy. But that sense of being young and marginal, a little late to the party, is also about the inescapable knowledge that the scale of ecological recovery required to maintain a liveable planet has called time on the politics of growth and accumulation.

We know we are doing it wrong, but still traipse out to buy imported consumer goods as an act of national salvation — more stuff will set you free and save the economy. The cause of the virus is also the saviour from the consequences: a kind of ideological boosterism that would make Pravda’s editors blush.

Tom Paine once described the ancien regime as a tyranny of the dead. Under capitalist modernity, that tyranny becomes particularly literal in our time: our atmosphere is still clogged with the great effusions of the first industrial revolution 200 years ago (although, worryingly, a majority of total emissions are in fact the product of the era of global hyper-consumption that began in the 1980s).

Implicit within the rise of the capitalist system that now girds the globe was this difficult, hidden, compact — that the future would run out of road, that resources and new frontiers would one day be depleted, that the dead ancient stuff that powered it all from underneath the ground would choke off the basis for renewal.

Movement, with so much ease and lightness, was posited as the salve to all this dead weight. Travel has since become the great status and privilege activity of our time. Even the children of middling sorts could swap Bali for Barcelona at a whim, and probably find a geo-located date within minutes of arrival. In calling a halt to that, even for a brief flash, something has changed.

At the very least, COVID has demonstrated to the young that the conciliation prizes they were awarded in place of a generational deal could be snatched away at a moment’s notice. Movement and novelty; experience and connection; have a lot more to be said for them in their own right than the drab old world of predestined apprenticeships, gender roles and stifling obligations. But the prize of a planet for a playground was always absurdly ephemeral.

I spent most of lockdown looking out across the street at an empty boutique hotel. The cheap tourists hostels nearby stayed open weeks into the wave of shutdowns — initially, their inhabitants simply had nowhere else to go.

It brought to mind sepia photos of the doss houses that catered to army service personnel during the last big pandemic at the end of the first war. Mostly young, mostly single, squaddies squeezing out of windows, still smiling and garrulous: the delights of any form of leave enough, you suppose, to feel like bliss.

Today, in even the richest places, the world of cheap, cramped, beds is the lot of millions still. If you could zoom out and observe with detachment humans move around since the advent of capitalism in the space of a few minutes, you’d observe ever greater concentrations of people in ever smaller spaces.

Throughout its history, the global economy has been organised around the modus operandi of confining large numbers and moving them around: that insatiable thirst for cheap inputs, is one of the basic premises on which it works. Looked at through the lens of lived experience, it is a great shovel: loading people into steerage, shanty towns, budget aircraft, sweatshops, queues, slums.

It was the profit motive that moved asylum seekers in Glasgow into hotel rooms and conditions of grinding, deadly, proximity as the pandemic began to bite. But that inhumanity is not an aberration in the system – it is a model of how it functions everyday, everywhere. Life really is as cheap as a five pound daily living allowance that can be withdrawn on a whim. These, mostly young, people have travelled in ways most of us can scarcely imagine — but because they have nothing other than their bodies to bring, we pen them in stress-inducing cages, while the immaculate classes of the well-heeled and locked-down celebrate the moral virtue of their splendid isolation.

Like the caste system, the global economy still requires its own Brahmins and Untouchables. Somewhere in the gut we all know that bodily autonomy is not universal when structures force some bodies to be unclean, servile and permeable, to be touched and violated and shunted around, disposable.

And yet, touch is the most powerful act of communication — this means that there is a deep sickness in the glittering, distant, world of our men-children rulers — who could never really be reconciled to the idea that spontaneous, human contact underpins survival.


Instead, at the heart of capitalist thought is an inexhaustible reservoir of loneliness, separating the clean from the unclean, the wealthy from the dispossessed.

This is the raw material out of which billionaires of our age have come to thrive. The evangelists of connection told us that it would just make everything better. But now that touch unhindered is a social ill – we can see new divides opening up. If we could rewind back to Zuckerberg’s dorm, we’d be reminded that these people thrive on the mantra of connection precisely because they are so isolated. This is why the doctrine of the ‘sovereign individual’ is also favoured by the same class. The surge in popularity of private yachts, private jets, and private islands wasn’t decadence — it was strategy.

A line from American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Survival series reads, “Let Your Hand Wander on Flesh to Make Possibility Multiply.” So now, possibility and the bliss of it can be made literally and figuratively deadly. In its place, we have the new mantra of connection. Flesh was already moving out of fashion in favour of the curated instagram feed. But images are not alive to any touch and they have become, in turn, a weighty and difficult set of social obligations for the young — the need to be seen to be beautiful at that age is perhaps as crushing as any other novel morbidity.

We could suggest instead that their beauty is inherent, and that to be 17 again, to move around and feel the thrill of new possibility, with all its risks and wonders, is a right. More stuff, connected or otherwise, won’t change you: but one summer can.


Images from Jenny Holzer’s Survival series.

Comments (4)

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  1. Kevin Hattie says:

    Lovely piece of writing. Enjoyed reading this.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Those of the younger generation of my acquaintance were groundedly prepared for the pandemic by playing games like Plague Inc: Evolved:
    which is a lot more use than the neverending plague of zombie-contagion movies. And a lot of them will be concerned about whether this northern-temperate zone summer will continue the record-breaking trend noted by the UK Met Office. More than any other generation, this batch of school-leavers faced the greatest uncertainty yet about what their future held career-wise or in other prospects. Narcissism, under these circumstances, might be a form of escapism.

  3. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    ‘You don’t get to grow up in the world you imagined: and that, at least, is one home truth that cuts across the great generational divides of our times.’

    I must confess this isn’t my experience; the world I imagined as a youth was the world I’d grown up in, and the subsequent history of that world has been the series of reimaginings through which I’ve continued to grow over the course of my own proverbial seven ages.

    Nor have I ever imagined or expected a ‘generational deal’. The deal I imagined was the one my father imagined for me, which was the same one his father imagined for him: you work like a mule when you leave the school, and in return you drink on a Saturday and watch the fitba. That deal was part of his ideology, how the world he inhabited imagined itself through him, an ideology that had served many generations of workers before him, and of which lineage my generation (as my father imagined) was only the latest.

    But that was in 1979, just as we were embarking on the transition from a modern industrial economy to a postmodern knowledge economy, and the need for an industrial proletariat was fast coming to an end. All existing bets were off and there were no new odds on the table, only mass redundancy and scant prospects. And while quixotic working-class heroes tilted at windmills and wrung their hands over the hopelessness and despair of ‘the Thatcher generation’, there was no going back to the old postwar deal of social democracy, which was an ideology of the industrialism we’d gone beyond and left behind, its final death-rattle.

    Twenty years into the revolution and the children of the redundant industrial proletariat had been transformed from producers into consumers. Blair’s babies were offered a new deal: serve the administration of the new knowledge economy and, in return, you’ll get credits you can spend on transient stuff you can continually replace. Stuff like art, education, heritage, identity, politics, technology, travel, welfare, etc., in the wideness of all their various lifestyle-brands, a.k.a. ‘choice’.

    A further twenty years on and it’s evident that the postmodern world of hyperconsumerism is unsustainable. It’s based on the premise that the economy will grow and grow forever and pay for the excesses we allow ourselves on credit today. But infinite growth is incompatible with a finite planet, finite resources, a finite ecology. Infinite growth’s a cancer.

    But even environmentalism has become, like all ‘movements’, a commodity we consume, a lifestyle-brand, a virtue-signal that those of us who can afford it and are bewitched by its marketing can spend our credits on. In this respect it’s no different from any other locus of protest in postmodernity; it’s a brand choice, an intangible commodity we swallow and shit out.

    I don’t have a crystal ball; so I don’t know what deal the next revolution will bring, when the knowledge economy ‘deconstructs’ or collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions, as I imagine it will.

    But I do suspect that the present deal has a lot of mileage left in it yet.

    1. florian albert says:

      I agree with much of what you have written but would add a couple of points.

      The consumerist ‘revolution’ was – for a number of years – very attractive to people in Scotland and beyond. Things which had been scarce, clothing and electrical goods, now became, by previous standards, plentiful. Even today, a return to consumerism is probably the most favoured option for voters. Materially, people are better off as consumers than they were as industrial workers.

      Critics of consumerism have a poor record when it comes to promoting an alternative. Environmentalism has failed to break through the 10% barrier and is seen by many as a rejection of the comforts which make modern life materially superior to the past.

      I am less sure than you are that the status quo will survive intact. 2008 was a shock to the system; 2020 is a second. In each case, the consensus has been to patch things up and carry on as though little has happened. A third shock might be too much.

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