Hope can be a dangerous thing. It can create expectations that never arrive and aspirations that, despite all good intentions, can’t quite be met. It is an inherent fragility, embedded with doubt and ambivalence, that differentiates hope from wanting or needing something. But still we have it. We hope for a society that delivers on its potential to create prosperity for the many, for a political system that fights for the well-being of its people and, most importantly, learns from its mistakes. And, despite our cynical tendencies and the endless uncertainty that we are bound to, hope continues to flicker in Northern Ireland.
While not in the way we expected, nor to the pleasure of all, choice and equality are slowly making their long-awaited arrival on our shores. Climate breakdown, similarly, is finally receiving public attention and mental health, a topic of major concern in the country, is a more open, considered issue. There is much to be done on these matters, of course, yet there is encouragement that they can be legitimately tackled in time. While the seeds of these movements have been planted by citizens of all ages, it is a younger generation that has driven them forward and continually attempted to ingrain them into public discourse. If this process of progressive change is to be sustained, this new generation of socially engaged, active citizens must continue to grow and break new ground. Hope, in and of itself, will only bring us so far. It is transformative action that will create genuine change. Perhaps this new age of citizen, more so than its predecessors, is well placed to instigate such action.
The birth of a new social generation
This is the age of generation z, individuals born in the mid-to-late 1990’s, entering the scene. Bursting through the door, frustrating baby boomers and taking the media spotlight off millennials. This is a generation of the most racially diverse, entrepreneurial and technologically literate individuals to call Northern Ireland home. While millennials grew up in the midst of mass technological advancement, becoming more proficient over time, representatives of generation z were born into technology. Hence the ‘children of the internet’ or the ‘i-generation’ tags. While they are said to be risk-averse, born with short spans of attention and increasingly unhappy, research suggests that they are optimistic about the future. This generation feels comfortable not having only one way to be itself. Its search for authenticity generates greater freedom of expression and greater openness to understanding different kinds of people.
Increasingly conscious of the social injustice and inequality that they have been born into, many generation z-ers are fed up with those who resist change. Alternatively, they are driven to act in enterprising manners and create their own opportunities. This has led research to suggest that generation z behaviour is anchored in one core element: the search for truth. They value individual expression and tend to avoid labels, mobilizing themselves for a variety of causes. Importantly, they believe profoundly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world, making decisions in highly analytical and pragmatic manners. In Northern Ireland, generation z citizens have grown up in a time of recession and austerity. As such, many are both personally and collectively motivated to improve their society by working to mitigate the impacts of economic and social inequality.
Signs of a politically and critically conscious age
Next month’s general election will be an opportunity for many of this new age to cast their first political vote. After missing out on the chance to add their voice to 2016’s European Union referendum, there is anticipation that traditional strongholds may be challenged and alternative representatives given newfound support. There is already evidence that a large number of citizens within Northern Ireland, around 235,000, have registered to vote since the start of the 2019. While this figure will include individuals of all ages, there is an indication that it reflects a large proportion of younger, newly eligible voters. This links to wider revelations on the motivations of generation z-ers to become both politically conscious and active, exemplified by the high number of young people supporting workers strikes, university protests, and social movements against the country’s political inaction and persistent disregard of marriage equality, fertility and abortion rights.
We have also seen climate strikes, spearheaded by younger citizens, dominate headlines throughout 2019. In Belfast alone, thousands of school children, students and young adults marched in unison with citizens of all ages to demonstrate their concern at the current political handling of, or lack thereof, climate change. The strikes demand urgent and radical action from governments and the powerful actors in society to solve the climate emergencies we face. A clear message was sent out; what we need is systematic change. What is most telling about the strikes is that the majority of the young generation involved are protesters, not puppets. They are conscious, not brainwashed, and care deeply about the issue they campaign against. When confronted by juvenile protesters, adults often reach for the age-based putdown, rather than engaging with the substance of their argument. Young people deserve to be heard, especially on the topic of climate change, as we will be living with the consequences of the current inaction for far longer than the present political elite.
The sun also rises
Watching Lost Lives, the remarkable requiem for the victims of The Troubles, my confidence has grown in this new social generation, born after decades of bloodshed and hatred, and their capacity to bring about a peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. To do so, younger citizens must recognize the despair that has went before them, appreciate the work that brought conflict to a halt and, most importantly, come to terms with our task of ensuring that we never slip back into such suffering again. Fortunately, the sun also rises and our past does not have to define our future. A new generation has arrived and it is crucial that they are given their chance to grow, without being weighed down by previous mistakes.
The implications of Brexit for the island of Ireland are a testing predicament for Northern Ireland’s generation z. The potential political, economic and social fall outs could create the very things we are working to lessen; inequality and oppression. While there will always be discord amongst a population, and indeed it is important that there is, recent years have illustrated how younger citizens are willing to acknowledge alternative view points and attempt to work in collaborative manners. This is demonstrated in the climate protests, where a common argument is found and collective, transformative action is instigated. It is clear that every age leaves their mark on a nation. This new generation, the real inhabitants of the Anthropocene, are well placed to leave a progressive impact on Northern Ireland. At least we can hope so. For hope can be a dangerous thing to have, but we have it. And when we don’t or when it’s questioned, we need it all the more.