All change please: Gen Z demands revolution

Children of the revolution: The pandemic has made Europe’s youth desperate for change.

Is it time for a new revolutionary age? Hundreds of young people from 30 countries have told researchers they demand a radical transformation in politics, economics and climate action.

Europe’s Gen Z are not happy. For Latvia’s Anete Strupule, the future is “abstract and apocalyptic”. France’s Mickaël Rochat sees himself as part of “a sacrificed generation”. Others have moved from despair to anger. “If it sounds like I’m furious,” says Justin Liu, a British graduate, “that’s because I am”.

These are just three responses to a new survey. Organised by five European newspapers, it assesses the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the continent’s youth.

The results are stark, reflecting a period that has seen 64% of young Europeans at risk from depression, a 15% rise from before the pandemic.

There are many reasons to be unhappy. Schools and universities have closed, disrupting education and preventing socialising. Young people have borne the brunt of job losses and precarious employment — all to protect older generations from the virus.

The pandemic has also widened other cracks. Democracy itself is under threat. The Global Democracy Index declared 2020 was “a very bad year”. In the US, guarantor of democratic values, a mob attacked the Capitol to protest a fairly-run election.

The inequalities of capitalism have become starker. The collective fortune of the world’s billionaires soared to $10.2tn, while millions lost their jobs. Richer countries raced to snap up vaccines, leaving others behind.

All this while the Earth burns. Climate catastrophe is moving ever closer. As one Spanish respondent says: “The previous generations have left a dreadful world and they tell us, ‘You must solve this.’ That simply isn’t fair.”

For some, the only solution is a complete overthrow of the current order. “We need a total restructuring”, says one teenager. “We have so many issues to face, so many revolutions to lead,” says another.

Youth rebellion is nothing new. In May 1968, a wave of student protests in France swelled into seven weeks of demonstrations, occupations and general strikes. President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled to Germany. Afterwards, the government greatly improved workers’ rights.

Over a century earlier, the French Revolution of 1848 saw the overthrow of an unpopular king, the abolition of slavery, the removal of the death penalty for political crimes and suffrage among men.

Yet not all revolutions have ended well. In many cases, quite the opposite. Revolutions, historian Daniel Beer says, “incubate extremes”. The French Revolution of 1789 gave rise to the Reign of Terror. The Russian Revolution led to Joseph Stalin.

As tempting as it can be to rip it up and start again, the most sensible policy might come from refining and improving on the past and present. As Edmund Burke put it: “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Is it time for a new revolutionary age?

Out with the old

Yes, say some. Evolution is too slow: we need change now. Past revolutions might have ended messily or failed to achieve all their goals. But look where decades of moderation have taken us. With rising temperatures, widening inequality and a generation growing up without hope, nothing short of a sudden, comprehensive transformation in the way we live will save us from complete catastrophe.

No, say others. Even initially successful revolutions often descend into chaos. “Those who attempt to level,” said Burke, “never equalise”. Many of the greatest social gains — human rights, minimum wage, universal suffrage — have come from within governments rather than through destroying them. Instead of casting the system down, we should empower politicians who pledge to do the right thing.

You Decide

  1. Should a violent uprising go unpunished if it leads to positive change?
  2. Would the world be a better place if it was run by Gen Z?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are the leaders of an international revolutionary group on the cusp of success. In pairs, write a letter to the world’s governments explaining your demands.
  2. In groups, research a historical uprising. Brainstorm the plot of a feature film set during that revolution, then pitch your idea to the class.

Some People Say...

“If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones.”

Voltaire (1694 – 1778), French Enlightenment writer and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many historians refer to the late 18th to the mid-19th Centuries as the Age of Revolution. It began with the American Revolution (1765 – 1783), followed by the French Revolution of 1789 and the Napoleonic Wars that resulted. There were major French uprisings in 1830, 1848 and 1871. The second of these inspired a wave of revolutions across over 50 European countries, the majority unsuccessful. The same period also saw the Industrial Revolution, which dramatically changed lives worldwide.
What do we not know?
There remains much debate over when a revolution becomes successful. One argument runs that a revolution succeeds only when its aims have been reached. “Many revolutions are begun,” writes political scientist Robert H Dix, “but few are brought to fruition”. Others, however, locate the revolution in the act of uprising itself. Speaking of the 2020 Sudanese Revolution, journalist Nesrine Malik writes that “all revolutions” succeed “the moment they are achieved”.

Word Watch

Abstract
Not having a physical existence.
Apocalyptic
The Apocalypse is the end of the world, especially that described in the Biblical book of Revelation.
Global Democracy Index
An annual index that tries to measure the state of democracy around the world. In 2020, Norway ranked 1st with a score of 9.81, while North Korea came last with 1.08.
Guarantor
A person or thing that acts as a guarantee. A military could be called the guarantor of a country’s security.
Charles de Gaulle
A French army officer and politician who led the French government in exile during World War Two before becoming president.
Suffrage
The right to vote in political elections.
Reign of Terror
A period between 1793 — 1974 when the French Revolution descended into a series of massacres and public excursions.
Joseph Stalin
Dictator of the Soviet Union. Stalin has been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including sentencing around a million political opponents to death and prison.
Edmund Burke
Irish statesman, economist and philosopher. Often regarded as the founder of modern British conservatism.
Gen Z
Short for Generation Z, those born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2000s. Gen Z are seen as the first generation to have access to the internet from a young age.

Subjects

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