“The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
This memorable quote from the 1951 novel by J.D. Salinger became symbolic of the adolescent struggle against social alienation during the post-war era and sounds no less relevant today.
Though populism has been sweeping countries as disparate as the United States and Poland, politically speaking, it is nothing new. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus makes this point eloquently. But when combined with other features of contemporary society such as the precarity of labour, the atomisation of communities, and the politicisation of communications technology, it becomes a particularly potent force.
Though populism has been sweeping countries as disparate as the United States and Poland, politically speaking, it is nothing new.
Populist rhetoric all too often inhabits that space between protest and decision-making. It makes for excellent TV and the media colludes with it since it boosts audience figures, click-throughs, and circulation.
However, in government, it is infinitely harder for even the most sincere populist leader to fulfil a meaningful proportion of what they promised the dissatisfied electorate.
Personality-driven politics is ever more defined by soundbites – not achievements. This fuels the 24-hour news cycle but fundamentally degrades the political process and, ultimately, deceives people. At a time when political popularity is more accurately measured by re-tweets than ballots or polls, old-style slow and investigative journalism has ceded valuable ground to opinion journalism, which in turn is easily written off as ‘fake news’. Consequently, the media’s role has shifted from informing people about events and sometimes commenting on them, to taking an active role in structuring political processes, creating an ideologically partisan political discourse and ensuring it takes a central position in public consciousness.
The media’s role has shifted from informing people about events and sometimes commenting on them, to taking an active role in structuring political processes
People have come face-to-face with the difficulties posed by what Klaus Schwab called the fourth technological revolution. Industrial capacities move, there is an inflow of cheap labour, work streams become more automated – in short, traditional labour relations are fundamentally altered. People find themselves trapped in between these different worlds, unable to respond quickly enough to fast-changing economic realities, and unable to fall back on their own resources or state support as they make this transition.
Globalisation offers so much – it brings the world to your doorstep, but there is a price to pay, and that price is paid by local communities built around traditional economies.
These are all powerful elements of our new reality. Each generation comes from a different starting point. They tend to have different understandings of key terms such as ‘authority’ and ‘success’, and they also operate differently: some perform best in very hierarchical structures, others in more fluid and flexible arrangements. This is what diversity means, and it is also a powerful factor in containing the side effects of globalisation.
As the Center for Generational Kinetics notes, our societies comprise five different generations: Gen Z/iGen/Centennials (born 1996 and more recently), Millennials/Gen Y (born 1977-1995), Generation X (born 1965-76), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), and the Silent Generation (born 1945 and earlier).
These shorthand terms go a long way towards expressing the inherent, inevitable, differences between them. As experts note, the precise years which define each generational bloc differ heavily, geography to geography. So do the major triggers of change, which contribute to defining any one generation. However, in all geographies, the key trends are parenting, technology, and economics.
Given the latest developments in contemporary politics, one can argue that new IT tools and social media have helped rejuvenate politics. Across a number of different countries, from Egypt to Ukraine, we have seen young people aged 13-17 become essential elements in manipulated public expressions of political discontent. This segment of GenZ (we suggest calling this generation GenU – Generation Unknown) is clearly making itself felt on the political stage, and in society more broadly.
The focus on generational studies is often used as part of an antagonistic debate that sets generation against generation. Gen Xers criticise the Baby Boomers for not understanding how key markets have changed. GenXers and Baby Boomers criticise Millennials over what they perceive as their sense of entitlement. GenZ (or at least sections of it) shows signs of rejecting all preceding generations.
The focus on generational studies is often used as part of an antagonistic debate that sets generation against generation.
The same can be noted when it comes to political preferences. Surveys conducted in the aftermath of Brexit and of the last presidential election in the US showed that the younger European and American voters (GenZ and Millennials) were more disposed to cast their votes for the ‘mainstream’ or conservative choice i.e., to stay in the EU and to elect Hillary Clinton. In fact, this is only one side of the reality that ignores the underlying danger of populism.
In many quarters, the fear today is that the denigration of responsible governance and the media-ification of the political landscape handicaps power and breeds alt-right movements in many democratic societies.
The Soviet leader Yuri Andropov once confessed that “we don’t know the society we live in”– words which turned out to be prophetic when less than ten years later the entire communist system collapsed, events in which the younger generations, once so eagerly supportive of it, played no minor role. However solid Soviet society might have looked to external observers, the discord between official propaganda and real life eventually led to social atomisation and alienation.
Globalisation has a powerful capacity to generate income and to appeal to younger generations. In theory, it should lead to a global ‘network society’ where all members benefit from progress and increased opportunities. But the life-as-lived is something else. This is the bifurcation that is inherent in our experience – the dreamt and the real life. It is at the heart of these processes that echo-chamber-fed populist movements grow into a powerful contributor to ongoing processes of social atomisation and instability.
It remains the case that coming generations will find themselves facing the same problems of poverty, inequality, conflict, and war, while increased mobility and demonstrable inequality will continue to contribute to the migration of large masses of people in search of better places to live. However, the fundamental motivation for most people – both those migrating and those in the host nations – is strikingly similar: they want to achieve stability, prosperity, and peace.
There thus must be a powerful synergistic potential in capturing the cross-generational experience and building problem-solving mechanisms, which bring their approaches and perceptions together. This is the stage where a responsible society has to step in.
The cherished tradition of offering dignified support and care for the older generations in China, state-supported measures to restore basic social values in Russia, the culture of the family in the United States – all prevent younger generations falling victim to a ‘generation split’ and have had a protective effect. However, while reinforcing the nuclear family, these measures cannot protect societies from slipping into chaos and conflict. The revolt in Ukraine in 2014 and the wave of protests in Russia five years ago (or the unrest surrounding President Trump’s victory in the United States) were further examples of how powerful populist ideas can be, always at the expense of social stability and economic prosperity.
Fake news leads to fake history, fake history breeds ‘lost generations’
Fake news leads to fake history, fake history breeds ‘lost generations’ or ‘mankurts’ – unthinking slaves foregrounded in novelist Chingiz Aitmatov’s re-imagining of the great Central Asian in The Epic of the Manas. Easy trophies for populism and manipulation, lost generations are people to whom the danger of war is just another tweet.
What can we, academia and civil society, propose to bridge the generation gap? First, we have the luxury of telling the truth, which can be supported by historical testimonials, however uncomfortable the truth may be. This has long been our advantage over the political elites and, has, alas, differentiated us from ‘soft-power’ journalism. The former and the latter must be included in this dialogue, even if it might seem difficult in practice.
We should support the peaceful rejuvenation of politics and help young leaders better assess their capacities and recognise the responsibility that power entails
Second, we should support the peaceful rejuvenation of politics and help young leaders better assess their capacities and recognise the responsibility that power entails. Youth forums should include both activists and active young political leaders who can be role models. Third, we should encourage the practice of establishing mixed think tank groups in which more mature and younger future decision-makers openly exchange ideas, and, more importantly, we should draw practical conclusions from these exchanges. Those debates set up at the Rhodes Forum (our annual event held in Greece), which brought together policymakers in their 30s and retired leaders, have often been most insightful and revealing.
“People always clap for the wrong things”, wrote JD Salinger. In curbing the rise of populism, societies must never forget the need to establish reliable communication between generations, especially at a time when civil society is prepared to play an increasing role in global affairs.