James Marriott feels a bit mis. That’s a shame because the bespectacled young Times columnist is a breath of fresh air with his cerebral and often brave takes on the way the world turns and I’m very much a fan. But his age has caught up with him and he has joined his contemporaries in feeling that, a little like Harry Enfield’s Kevin the teenager, his youth is a cross on which he must hang, unique in its sheer despair.
The catalyst to this moment of existential angst was a trip to see Phoebe Bridgers, an indie singer who scooters through the wire-fenced ugliness of urban America, giving ephemeral voice to her alienation and an awful lot of therapy for which she failed to appear. Having trundled on her Triang into Brixton to produce: “A music inextricable from the hurt dreams of a generation” and “the soundtrack of a peculiarly modern sorrow” – get your tickets here – the man from The Times was left feeling discombobulated.
So much so that he went on to lament his generation’s lack of optimism and its developing sense of nihilism prompted by a lack of affordable housing and financial security manifest in anti-natalist “birth strikes” and apocalyptic fascination.
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive but to be young was bleedin’ awful, apparently.
A sentiment shared by GB News’ prolific Tweeter Charlotte Gill who, when not lamenting the state of Sadiq Khan’s London nightlife, is a self-confessed “House SOS obsessive”, recently distilling her despair into a single, perfect howl of social media pain. “Why the f**k aren’t they letting us have houses?” before presumably crushing her Lego.
I’m being harsh, of course. The housing issue is a pressing one, though between the whisperings of the lobby, damn lies and statistics and various sins of omission in the debate from immigration to water to an unbalanced economy, the truth is not identifiably out there while the need is real enough.
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However, in every other regard, one can’t help but feel James and Charlotte are guilty of what one might kindly term folie de jeunesse or, more worryingly, despair. A mortal sin I would save them from.
You see, Marriott’s muse, Phoebe Bridgers, is very far from the first black-clad purveyor of youthful navel gazing prompting late night self-sorrow over the cheap booze and candlelight of the bedsit. Since The Animals begged not to be misunderstood, ranks of pale, underweight misery mongers from The Smiths to The Cure to Radiohead have been convincing the callow listener that theirs is a very special kind of pain and their generation uniquely blighted.
These anthems for doomed youth – and Gill genuinely compared her plight to the war poets’ plea for the young – need only be compared to the British kitchen sink dramas of the 60s to see how the optimism Marriott believes defined a generation was largely buried under unwanted pregnancy, suffocating social stricture, shotgun weddings and the dread fear of living with a harridan mother-in-law whose own misery was often projected onto the latest girl and boy to follow the path.
The fear of youthful pregnancy, Marriott has now replaced with birth strikes, overlooking later parenthood as a western phenomenon often driven by female choice, prosperity and the favourable modern maths of child mortality. Even in places where renting is the norm and childcare comes as standard.
Meanwhile, if you were American, of course, you would have been just in time to get caught in the draft for Vietnam where, lest we forget, the average age of the combat soldier was… 19.
Or there was the 80s which successfully combined the mass, long-term and hopeless unemployment of the rust belt with the joy-sucking fear of sex that HIV brought, youthful antics forever undertaken with that government tombstone ad at the head of the bed urging one and all not to “die of ignorance” and rather spoiling the vibe.
All this was in my lifetime, if not Marriott’s. Should he wish to go back further he might look at those who emerged into early adulthood at the end of the long Edwardian summer and whose reward for enduring industrialised slaughter was the unemployment of the Depression. That really was the Blues, assuming you could sing ‘em with TB, polio or Spanish ‘flu.
All of which is to overlook that neither Marriott or Gill are either children or adolescents but millennial adults. Though there is in their cries a sense of being younger than their years. Theirs, one suspects, is an experience defined by university, media jobs and, and I do assume here, a degree of material comfort. None of which are to be begrudged.
But they are slower out of the blocks and into fully fledged adulthood than previous generations where your best whistle – Burton or blue collar – beckoned much earlier, where expectation was moderated accordingly and where life was seen as a series of predicaments rather than entitlements to be cashed in.
Growing up quicker was enforced and encouraged by a world that was universally harder-edged. As a child you got whacked, you walked miles, you put clothes on straight from the iron and wore a jumper inside if it was cold. You got into occasional fisticuffs and nobody thought this was a behavioural problem. You expected boredom. You took minor jobs from very young and you lived in a world where the adult and childhood dominions were clearly demarcated and, where they met, adult authority held sway and did so confidently and you aspired to it.
If and when you became a student, you lived in near slums with joke signs like Wuthering Depths and prayed the post-sport shower was warm and the “match tea” substantial and half-inched khazi roll from the student union.
You had a bike only till you had a banger – and you learnt enough to fix it and, if not, hoped some bloke, largely a working class fella with a fag off his lower lip and his forearms blue with tattoos, would have mercy on you at the roadside and send you on your way with gruff indulgence. Naturally, pushing your scooter along was something you’d given up when you were seven.
In other words, you just moved through the milestones, vaulting the obstacles and paying your dues. That may have been by the power of Marriott’s much lamented lost optimism but, more probably, the understanding that this was life and you’d better get on with it because alternatives were unattractive.
It is late in that life to say “it’s so unfair”. It’s late in life not to grasp that each generation has its challenges and some are greatly more acute than others. Largely, millennials have known nothing but prosperity and full employment, in a society which is happy for them to be themselves in whatever manifestation of sexuality, colour or creed and one which has indulged them in a lengthy childhood. All things being equal, they will – inshallah – live long and prosper. They still live in a lucky time.
Personally, I’d cut back on the Phoebe Bridgers. Try some Motown. Cheer you up no end.