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The new look of discontent

Young people drove the 1960s counterculture, and they're the backbone of the Occupy movement. But the similarities end there.

By David Wilson

I caught up with my old friend Steve one night last fall. Over pizza, we shared news of parents, kids, careers and travels. Standard stuff. But one bit of news took me by surprise. Earlier in the day, Steve said, he had ventured downtown to the park where Occupy Toronto had been camped out since mid-October. I asked him why. “Just curious,” he said.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. As products of the 1960s counterculture, we’re both acutely aware of how, for better or worse, a widespread movement of young people can shape an entire generation. The Occupy movement that started in New York last year and quickly went global is the biggest mass mobilization of young people in half a century.

The wrinkle now is that Steve and I find ourselves in much the same position as our parents did 40-odd years ago — on the outside looking in. Our kids are in their late teens and early 20s. While they haven’t unfurled their sleeping bags yet, they’re generally sympathetic toward the Occupy movement. And they’re remarkably unperturbed by the movement’s lack of agenda and specificity. For them, it’s enough that it’s happening.

This is not much different from how most young people a generation ago saw the counterculture. The counterculture was a lot of things, but fundamentally it embodied a general discontent over the quality of opportunity afforded to youth at the time. Take the famous scene from the 1967 film The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman, playing a recent college grad, is pulled aside by one of his parents’ friends at a party thrown in his honour. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” counsels the avuncular businessman. “Plastics.” Young people in the 1960s rejected the assumption that they would live their lives in the service of an economic machine that demanded conformity and created an insatiable appetite for things that weren’t necessary. The counterculture insisted that life could be so much richer than that.

The Occupy movement, by contrast, seems to have coalesced around discontent over an absence of opportunity. Doors that had been creaking shut slammed tight after the economic meltdown in 2008, and for the most part have remained so. Young people facing a future of dead-end jobs or no jobs at all have woken up to realize they have more in common with the marginalized than they do the middle classes into which most were born. Seeing rampant greed and corruption at the top of the economic food chain, indifference in the established political order and the continued degradation of their planet, they’re reaching out to the most tangible opportunity available — each other.

United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal got it right last fall when she wrote, “I see the movement as both a search for hope and a statement of hope, made by people who have come to believe that something is deeply wrong in the staggering inequality of our current society. I don’t think it is required of anyone to provide a complete, documented solution before they’re allowed to express concern. To the contrary, recognizing that ‘something is not right’ is the essential first step toward defining change.”

Most Occupy camps either shut down or were forced to shut down for the winter. This doesn’t mean the movement evaporated. If anything, expect to see it stronger and better organized when it re-emerges with a global day of protest on May 1. The tent cities, with their ragtag populations and extravagant democracies, will no doubt spring up again, and there will no doubt be confrontations with the authorities. This year, instead of demanding more clarity from the movement, I’ll make an effort to check out Occupy for myself. Maybe I’ll give my friend Steve a call, and we’ll go together.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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