By Patra Z Urairat
London, United Kingdom
“You are all a génération perdue,” said a garage owner to a young, boisterous car mechanic.
“That is what you are,” adds Stein.
The lost generation can be defined in a literal sense as the age cohort that directly followed the end of the First World War, upon whom befell an illusive sense of cultural uniqueness after dominant norms of ‘white picket fences and ‘happy endings’ were shattered by the horrors of war. Characterised by disillusionment and aimlessness, the generation saw the birth of a new kind of moral looseness; deracination. Whirring obdurately along in the background was the bustle of the Second Industrial Revolution, which spewed out the birth of a modern, consumer-oriented mass culture, whose norms intertwined and exacerbated the generation’s anti-traditionalist mindset. The phrase was coined as a literary and mythic signifier by Gertrude Stein and became a sort of cultural phenomenon, fetishised by young men and women who were afflicted by feelings of inconsequence.
Picking it apart, it is important to distinguish where the emphasis in the phrase lies. ‘Generation’ should be accentuated over ‘lost’, as it was the realisation of sharing a narrow, sui generis identity that was more important than an implied emptiness to it. From a retrospective point of view, it seems easy to understand why. The historian Paula Fass observes a steady decline in the national birth rate of America from 1870-1930¹, meaning that there were roughly 3 older persons to every one youth in 1930. The generation stood at the feet of an acutely unparalleled and obviously growing demographic trend.
Across the globe, nearly 40 million died and countless more suffered at the hands of the Great War. The aftermath of its terror lurched, so the arts launched a counterrevolution. Modernism bred excitement, and let the youth undergo a catharsis. The bereaved turned to art of Lutyens and Rouault and Kollwitz, and memoirs sold by the millions. But what stood out for the ‘lost generation’ as a cultural and literary movement was that it was immortalised in a bubbly sort of pride. The intertextuality of modernist literature is unparalleled; authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway both carried their youth like a badge of honour. By no means does this attempt to justify or romanticise the plight of the post-Great war generation. Rather, it draws harder, calls us to listen, perhaps, to the beat of social cohesion that grows deafening when faced with a mass external threat.
The pandemic has elicited the question as to whether the creation of a new génération perdue is at hand. Uncertainty about health risks and increasing financial losses will contribute to widespread instability. In over 180 countries, temporary school closures have, particularly at the peak of the pandemic, kept over 1.6 billion children out of school², giving opportunity for post-traumatic, anxiety, and depression disorders to thrive. Children, particularly those who are undergoing key stages of development, might have long-term responses, still unidentifiable to us in the present, to the disruption that plagues critical periods of their life.
Moreover, inhospitable symptoms of the virus, particularly levels of employment, have hit youth populations harder than any other. The youth unemployment rate in the Asia and Pacific region has risen to an est. 14.1% in 2020, compared to the 13.7% global rate since 2012³. For example, in many African regions, young people make up more than ⅕ of the population⁴ and 95% of their work is considered informal. Since the rise of covid-19, that the income of informal workers has dropped by approximately 81%.⁵
It is clear that the pandemic has had adverse effects on all the world, and these statistics, though disheartening, do not mean that all hope is lost. As all great tragedies have before, covid-19 has proved to be the first breakthrough in the Great Stagnation of productivity since the early 2000s. The cultivation of the MRNA molecule marks yet another step toward human progression and the wave of youth-led humanitarian causes like Teenshelpingseniors and the CCV Global give us hope from new generations.
To avoid letting another generation to escape adrift, governments need to place the reopening of face-to-face education at the forefront of their priorities. Let us consider and understand the structural changes that modern economies will undergo, take the renewal that we will receive from this cataclysmic change, and use it to drive us forward.