It is not a fun time to be twenty-two, though to be fair it’s not a fun time to be anyone that isn’t healthy and rich. But in your early-twenties, you notionally have your whole future ahead of you. Even if you’re like me and fortunate to have a sense of what you want to do, the future looks like a path full of financial ankle traps, landlord shaped roadblocks, and pitfalls onto stakes made up of debt incurred for probably useless qualifications. Even the known paths are filled with dead ends and U-turns with no clear way forward and long periods of seemingly inevitable stasis. For my friends who don’t know what they want, the future isn’t a looming path full of traps and obstacles but a vanta black wall absorbing all light, impossible to see past, to even conceive of. Before I discovered journalism I felt like this too, and even now, looking at the job losses and the dire state of much of what is considered print-worthy in many major nationals, I still feel the dark wall of futurelessness bleeding at the edges of the perilous path that has captured my imagination.
Though many of us on this path have studied humanities, what I’m describing is not the hipster nihilism of stoned literature grads. Rather, it is the logical outlook for a generation who are aware of the findings of the IPCC report detailing ongoing climate breakdown—which could spiral into a literal apocalypse—and who came of age through the longest squeeze in living standards since the Napoleonic wars, only to graduate into the worst recession for 300 years. For us, the future is a meaningless concept.
In his 2011 book After the Future, the philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi coined the phrase “the slow cancellation of the future,” by which he meant the grinding disintegration of the widely held belief that things would continue to substantially improve. This, for Bifo, meant the inability to create any media or cultural avant-gardes after the end of punk. For the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, this manifested itself in a culture industry that became addicted to pastiche and nostalgia, and which could no longer experiment with novel forms and anticipate a future of any substantive difference to the present. Fisher pointed to popular music, arguing that it is trapped in a clapped-out eternal present: “While twentieth century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, the twenty-first century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future […] When I first saw the video for the Arctic Monkeys’ 2005 single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,’ I genuinely believed it was some lost artifact from circa 1980.” While the cancellation of the future is rooted in concrete material realities, trust in the future is an idea, so a lack of confidence in the future expresses itself in the sluggish, stagnant culture Bifo and Fisher lamented.
Even with the gradual deflation of expectations that accompanied neoliberalization, the 2008 crisis still came as a shock. People had been inculcated in the ideology of the end of history, so while they were not hoping for a better future, they had also not been expecting a sudden lurch that would see their circumstances spiral further into decline, and political power become even further disconnected from the people. While Millennials might have been indoctrinated into a liberal progress narrative, the parameters of what was considered possible were always incredibly narrow—Obama didn’t campaign on a promise of single-payer for example—and the ambient consensus in the culture was essentially that “there was no alternative.” So while Millennials hadn’t been promised much—virtually no alternative to the existing order and an eternal static present—even that promise turned out to be a kind of Potemkin future. It collapsed the second the crisis revealed the reality that finance-led growth was a mere illusion.
One of the first responses to the crisis among activist Millennials was to occupy their universities. The occupation at the university of Santa Cruz produced a document called “Communique from an absent future,” which laid out the perspective of the students on capitalism, the crisis, and their situation. It’s a fascinating document full of memorable lines decrying the world as they saw it, such as, “We power the diploma factory on the treadmills in the gym. We run tirelessly in elliptical circles.” But what is most revealing about the communique is the sense of loss that pervades it. They described the poisoning of adolescence by the nationalist hysteria that followed 9/11, which suggests wistfulness for a state of prelapsarian calm. The first line of the piece reads like the authors are mourning something that they have lost: “Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the university is bankrupt. This bankruptcy is not only financial.” Equally, the following paragraph gives the sense that the authors feel they have been sold a lie: “‘Work hard, play hard’ has been the over-eager motto of a generation in training for…what?—drawing hearts in cappuccino foam or plugging names and numbers into databases. The gleaming techno-future of American capitalism was long ago packed up and sold to China for a few more years of borrowed junk. A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors.” It reads like the authors (rightly) expected their degrees to be of much higher value before the crash took it away. While the future was being slowly cancelled and expectations gradually deflated, there was still enough of an understanding that society owed you something for people to feel cheated, even when it was only an eternal present founded on conspicuous consumption and cheap credit that was ripped away.
The Covid generation of graduates, on the other hand—my university cohort, the one above and the couple below and our peers outside university—will probably produce nothing resembling the Communique because I don’t think our generation even has expectations of anything beyond collapse. Even the paltry expectations of the Millennials who were young adults pre-crash seem fanciful. The cancellation of the future was completed materially and psychologically with the bailout of the banks after the financial crisis. We have become used to hearing soundbites like “Millennials will be the first generation since the 1800s to be worse off than their parents,” meaning we have had it drummed into us to expect nothing when our time comes.
This is not to say we’ve never had any hope at all. There was the briefest of moments in which the heavy smog of capitalist realism cleared slightly and we could see the glimmers of a brighter future. But the establishment’s successful abortions on the Corbyn and Sanders experiments—mere weeks before their arguments were vindicated—put a stop to that pretty quickly. Our inability to anticipate anything beyond collapse has returned to how it was before the destruction of these political projects.
Despite Millennials’ sense of being cheated out of neoliberalism’s paltry offering and my interstitial generation’s inability to even expect that, it’s the Zoomers whose generational mindset is the darkest. Their childhoods have been dogged by the potentially quite realistic expectation that they will live to see some kind of apocalypse. They are (correctly) taught in schools about the threat of climate breakdown and when they look ahead all they see is the end.
I spent a year as a teaching assistant in two high schools in France. I taught English and wanted to get my fifteen and sixteen-year-old pupils using the future tense, so I introduced them to Xenofeminism and Silicon Valley transhumanism, then asked them to sketch in groups what they thought the future would be like. Despite being shown two visions of “gleaming techno-futures” as inspiration, the futures they imagined were incredibly dark, nihilistic hatescapes. One group’s idea of the future consisted of a sterile, polluted desert in which the remainder of the poor would live while the rich escaped the clouds of pollution, hovering above them in floating citadels. Another group’s dystopia was a mirror image of it, the rich descended into bunkers, lined with the goods they had hoarded from before the collapse while the poor majority were left to fight bitter resource wars over the remaining scraps. The most optimistic vision was a vanguard leaving to terraform Mars after capitalism had destroyed the planet. The mindset of the Zoomers is no longer pessimism but apocalypsism—they are quite sure that the future is cancelled, not in the sense that outcomes are getting worse and worse and there is no new culture, but in the sense that there will literally no longer be a future.
Jason Plautz’s essay in the Washington Post Magazine corroborates this. He reported from a climate school strike in which two of the signs read, “We won’t die from old age, we will die from climate change” and “Why should I study for a future I won’t have?” Plautz cites a poll of teenagers in which 57% of respondents said climate change makes them feel scared, 55% said it makes them feel angry and just 29% said they were optimistic. This majority of the angry and scared will continue to grow if nothing is done, and this cautiously optimistic minority will shrink.
This not to say Millennials, and the smaller in-between cohort Zillennials, don’t also have these fears: the growing birthstrike movement is a sign of apocalypsism as people decide that it’s not worth bringing children into this decaying world, and it’d be better if their name dies with them. I and everyone I know is terrified about climate breakdown. But we have not grown up with the credible threat of the apocalypse hanging over us so visibly from such a young age, and while our generations are more politically engaged than we are often given credit for, we never felt forced out to protest when we were still in school. This certainty and terror in the face of an apocalypse which is yet to come is akin to haunting. For Mark Fisher, hauntology appeared in music that seemed nostalgic not for the past itself, but for the futures that period of time promised. This is why, he felt, much culture kept returning to the sixties, a period in which it felt like the West was on the cusp of a freedom-inducing revolution. In his book The Worst Is Yet To Come, Peter Fleming adapts the concept that Fisher himself adapted from Derrida, and argues that the present moment is haunted not by the lost futures of the past, but by the “misfutures” of the present. Fleming argues that we can feel the spectral traces of a selection of apocalyptic futures that might yet materialise. This apocalyptic haunting is making young people sick as teenagers see the ghosts of Armageddon everywhere they go.
Is there any hope for these three young(ish) generations who are all struggling beneath the titanic weight of cancelled futures and a biosphere poised to collapse? A lot of hope among progressive Gen Xers seems to be placed on young people, which is bleeding out into pop culture. In season one of the Netflix series the Umbrella Academy, it is the character who resembles a schoolboy in uniform (he is trapped in his younger self’s body) that is most serious about stopping the end of the world, and ultimately he does so by leaping back through time with his family to the 1960s,a plot point that incidentally recalls Fisher. Although there is something asinine about comfortable and progressive older people looking at teens making socialist Tik Toks and lazily tweeting, “the kids are all right,” without the self-awareness to realise that they were once looked to as the generation of saviours, there are some more water-tight arguments that an alliance among the young could yield change.
As well as a widespread sense of a cancelled future, young people are for the most part much more left-wing than their forebears. Keir Milburn has labelled this trend “Generation Left,” and argues that what is occurring is not just a culture war played out across generations, as has occurred in the past, but a fundamental recomposition of class largely along age lines in Britain, America, and the many Western European countries that saw left populist insurgencies. Milburn’s thesis is that the 2008 crisis was a generation creating event and those who have come of age on the wrong side of that event have had their economic prospects severely diminished. For example, in the US the median net worth of 45 to 54 year olds is $124,200, the median net worth of 36 to 44 year olds is $59,800 and the median net worth of those under 35, people who came of age after the crisis, is a meager $11,100. This has created a new sociological type of young, socially liberal people whose cancelled futures have pushed them towards socialism. Milburn analyses the Occupy movement in the US, the student protests and anti-austerity movement in the UK, and the movement of the squares across Europe and argues they were the first manifestations of Generation Left’s political life. He argues that Generation Left then took an institutional turn by orienting towards left populism through Sanders, Corbyn, Podemos, and others like them. Nathalie Olah makes a similar argument in her book Steal As Much As You Can when she claims that the proliferation of university degrees as a prerequisite for many jobs, in combination with the dire state of the labour market and extortionate tuition fees has given graduates the tools to develop class consciousness while proletarianizing them. Perhaps this is why, in Britain and the US, conservatives are aiming to use Covid to introduce shock doctrine measures against universities and against free transport for the under-18s in London, because the people in these groups have dared mount a challenge to right-wing hegemony. Where the hope lies in Milburn’s thesis now that left populist projects are for the most part destroyed, is that he does not believe that the generic left populist party is Generation Left’s final political form. His analysis is materialist, so he argues this recomposition of class will continue and will potentially be enough to, at some point, constitute a historic bloc that can reshape society. But if the conservatives continue their assault on the forces that help cohere Generation Left into a class-conscious bloc then perhaps there is nothing to be done.
I hope Milburn is right and that things come to a head sooner rather than later, but a glance around at both liberal and conservative governments who stick their heads in the sand and refuse to reckon with climate breakdown and inequality, as well as the increasingly unhinged right populist governments that have taken the reins of power from Brazil to India to Israel to the US, fills me with nothing but despair. Mark Fisher wrote at the end of Capitalist Realism that, “The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” Things are clearly shifting very fast, but as far as I’m concerned at the moment, the future is well and truly cancelled.