Headline politics in France and the UK have been markedly similar this week, with government cuts threatening huge economic implications for the inhabitants of both countries. Yet the response from the young people of these neighbouring nations couldn’t have been more strikingly different.
Whilst French students have risen up in arms, organising mass protests and huge anti-government demonstrations, British youngsters have once again displayed the political apathy for which they are famed in their overall lack of any unified action or effort to respond to the enormous implications of the Browne review.
When France announced its bill to raise the pension age by two years, its politicised and vocal student population rallied and marched, organising mass demonstrations against a policy that won’t even affect them for several decades, by which time it could quite easily have been changed and reformed by other governments. British students on the other hand, were faced with the possible removal of the cap on tuition fees, a policy that would almost immediately have a devastating impact on every new university student, increasing their graduate debt by thousands of pounds. Yet there has been no such national activism or mass protest amongst our young people, no huge demonstrations at Whitehall or marches in London.
So why are British students so reluctant to take a political stand? Are we simply the apathetic product of a sheltered 21st century upbringing, with Facebook and Playstation taking the place of intelligent debate and political awareness? Are we simply too wrapped up in our increasingly self-centred and materialistic modern lives? Or is it the fault of the British politicians, who regularly lament the political apathy and inactivity of our young people but don’t do enough to actively reach out and involve students in modern government and politics?
If you look back to the swinging sixties, the last great age of student protest and political activism in this country, there are striking differences between the sort of youth community and social interaction of that decade and ours. Then there were mass meetings, festivals, dances, gatherings, where young people would actually communicate with one another face to face and a message of protest could be passed on and swell to a roar within a defined and cohesive student community. Today young people communicate online when at all, holing up in their rooms with Ipods and Wiis, DVDs and computer games, presenting a virtual image of themselves, fractured and moderated through the prism-like lenses of MSN, MySpace and Facebook. Far fewer real social connections are made. Far fewer real conversations are to be had. And above all there is far less of a sense of community or togetherness in the overwhelming isolation of the virtual void.
A recent study by the Prince’s Trust showed that one in ten young people feel like an “outcast” in their community, whilst a staggering 22% feel isolated “most of the time”. It seems highly likely that this sense of disconnection fostered by our nation’s young people could have a great deal to do with our lack of a sense of a student community or a political presence. With 68% confessing to rarely or never speaking to their elders, and almost half expressing the opinion that older people are “afraid” of youngsters, you wonder whether the problem is not one of apathy at all, but a failure to believe that anybody would listen to them anyway.