Where Is America’s Real Youth Rebellion?
By Stephen Marche
Never has a time been more ripe for protest. Never
has a generation seemed so ambivalent about it.
The dream of wild rebellion rises and falls like clockwork. In every generation, the youthful cries for personal freedom coalesce, at one moment or another, at one place or another, into a collective howl of hope and defiance, and a desperate dream of overturning the old order is born. Today that revolutionary impulse survives mostly on screens or in the pages of books. The escape from or destruction of an overly regulated, overly controlled society is, in a sense, the adolescent story proper, and recently it has been everywhere in the massively popular genre known as YA: It’s in the destruction of the Ministry of Magic by a ragtag bunch of kids in Harry Potter;
in the flight from “the Sameness” in The Giver; and most clearly in girl-on-fire Katniss Everdeen’s leading of the peoples of the Districts against the overlords in the Capitol in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, out this week. A dispassionate outsider anthropologist confronting this glut of popular material promoting the violent youthful overthrow of corrupt adult hierarchies might assume that a grand upswell from below was imminent—that the streets would soon be teeming with wild youth. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The dream of youthful rebellion is so intense and so ubiquitous exactly because actual youthful rebellion has never been so dead.
Those currently under thirty constitute the most obedient, the most docile, and the best-behaved generation in recent American history. Today, less than half of American teenagers have had sexual intercourse, compared with 54 percent in 1991, when the Centers for Disease Control first started measuring the statistic. The teen birthrate has been plummeting for fifty years, declining from 89.1 women per 1,000 in 1960 to 26.6 in 2013. Contraceptive use is up. Drug and alcohol use are down. Since 1980, there has been a dramatic decline in high school seniors’ consumption of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and cigarettes. Sex and drugs are so over. As for rock ‘n’ roll, its inherent rebellion was co-opted long ago by corporate fantasies. The angry shout of hip-hop has devolved into a celebration of pure consumerism: “Make money.” On the awards shows and in social media, there remain certain brands of faux-bellion at work, but all are transparent. The rebellion of Nicki Minaj is turning herself into a more effective sexual commodity; the rebellion of Lady Gaga is a facsimile of Bowie’s and Madonna’s; the rebellion of Taylor Swift is being really, really nice to everybody.
The elites are those who follow best, and not just in popular culture. In all forms of work and all forms of power, the ones who fit in and who learn to obey the codes subsequently triumph. William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, a sharp critique of the “credentials race” at Ivy League institutions, has implications far beyond the narrow confines of top-flight universities. Deresiewicz’s book is full of examples of young people who basically have destroyed all aspects of their individuality—their health, their critical intelligence, their sense of any moral purpose whatsoever—to be attached to an Ivy League school name. And these are the people who will eventually run all the institutions, both major and minor, in America, if not the world. The loop feeds on itself, “exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is as isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead—and even more smug about its right to its position—as the WASP aristocracy itself,” Deresiewicz writes. The portrait that emerges from Excellent Sheep is of a generation so desperate to fit in that its very humanity is in danger.
It’s easy to judge, though, when you’re past the point at which rebellion has consequences. The truth is that the obedience of today’s young adults—they even exercise more than they used to—is simply a response to stimuli. It’s not just that the followers succeed more than ever but also that the deviators are punished more savagely. To catch your finger in the machinery of American “youth justice” is to have your whole body and soul consumed. The thin blue line has become a thick blue chasm; American police increasingly resemble occupying forces. Even among those who are comfortably middle class, the economic reality is that nobody can afford rebellion. To go to college to get a decent job puts you in a financial hole you must spend the entirety of your early adulthood scrambling out of. To miss even a single hurdle is to take yourself out of the race entirely, and that race goes on to the death. There is no outside the race. The real rebels of our moment are the ones who simply step away from the system altogether, but you never hear about them. They are willfully marginal, off the grid, self-silenced. Their rebellions may as well never happen.
The death of youthful rebellion is a mixed loss, it has to be said. When the spirit of revolution does enter the world, it is one of the most unpredictable of political forces. Across the Middle East, youth movements have overturned evil and sown chaos in its place. In warm, comfortable, safe, anxious, systematic America, the last real-life movement to indulge the aesthetic of revolution, Occupy Wall Street, was an utter failure, having little more impact on the actual forces at work in the world than a half-forgotten dream—like a book you once read or a movie you once saw. And yet the dream of rebellion survives—it survives because the world we live in, the one the elders rule, is corrupt and restrictive and careening toward self-immolation, and the youth, the rule-abiding, educated, sober, well-behaved youth of our time, know it.
There is no more appropriate time for revolution than now. The democratic institutions, bought and sold like any other corporate interest, are totally ill-equipped to deal with the problems of our time: the burgeoning inequalities of race and class, the accelerating environmental crisis. The ember of hope for a better world, lurking beside bedside tables and in the movie theaters filled with superstressed, overprepared kids, keeps burning despite the constriction, the marketing, the exclusion. It will flare up again, inevitably, and the youth on fire won’t just be in the movies—that is, if they aren’t utterly exhausted just trying to keep up.