My housemate recently was talking with me about how his son - he felt in that moment - never does what he says. I could feel the words of Socrates echoing down the generations. The ancient Greek philosopher famously declared:
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
Blimey. Not even uncrossing their legs. Can you imagine?
Why are children so unmotivated? As a teacher and father, I often hear various iterations of this question. Because they are lazy, people say. Because of social media, because of drugs, rap/pop/rock/metal (or maybe any music that is not 30 years old), lack of exercise, because of tablets and Xbox. I think the answer is simpler than this, and more devastating.
Some young people clearly aren’t unmotivated. In fact, none of them are. They’re just not motivated to do what adults have been doing, or telling them to do. This should not surprise us. Greta Thunberg, for instance, is clearly not lacking in motivation. Neither are the 1.4 million people taking part in the school strikes worldwide.
The issue of motivation here is perhaps essentially about power and relevance.
It is very difficult to feel motivated when we are powerless. Power is the ability to mobilise resources in order to meet one’s needs (Miki Kashtan writes brilliantly on this). The need to be heard, to belong, to survive. And it’s not just young people. This feeling of powerlessness is reflected in some of our recent exercises in democracy. We consider 65% of the electorate a ‘good’ turnout. That’s more than a third of people just not exercising rights which were hard won by blood and sweat and tears and centuries of struggle through painful strategies and oppression. The recent anniversary of Peterloo is a poignant reminder that rights are hard won and easily lost. Our democracy does not inspire the hope or faith that it could. Our government, many say, has broken the social contract.
Even mass marches seem to be pretty meaningless these days. The march against the Iraq war saw between 1 and 2 million people on the streets of the UK. The government didn’t even acknowledge this - the largest protest in UK history, and just kept calm and carried on.
It should come as no surprise that children are increasingly motivated to strike from school with movements like the youth strikes, or form their own groups in Extinction Rebellion. Their motivation comes from the fact that they are seeing and feeling their power. They are using it in the only way society can listen: they are rebelling, they are breaking the rules. They are transcending hope, and moving onto courage. Should we be surprised?
Should we lament this rebellion? Should it be suppressed? No. We must celebrate this rebellion. The children are taking the lead in saving us, and our planet, from total climate breakdown. We, as adults, must stand by them, support them, and learn to follow their lead. To rebel is to live.