When a 20-something international student complained to me about the whooping 250 euro fine he was slammed last week, after breaking the limit on friendly gatherings, he made a curious remark: “Us young people, we will be the last to be vaccinated – but the first to get called to the army.”
Of course, the pandemic unmasked many of the contradictions inherent in the “youth” label. We were so used to labeling young people as the asymptomatic group that once we recently learned that these same Invincibles were more likely to experience vaccine side-effects than their grandparents, we felt that biology has duped us.
The question, of social but also political relevance, is whether there is such a thing as youth. Recently, the EU promised 28 billion euros for youth mobility programs and the UN held a Youth Forum to voice the concern of such a group. If it is not ungratefulness that these organizational bodies would charge me for suggesting to burn down the bridge between 18 and 30, it will be in the name of impracticality. Foucault said it about homosexuals – how convenient for policing institutions: to have a name for its criminals!
To suspect that our governing bodies also treat young people as criminals is a bold claim – although the question “What do we do with young people?” has been asked more than once during this pandemic, school openings to night delinquencies. Historically too, Antigone to James Dean, we are inevitably brought to confirm the suspicion that indeed young people are hardly ever considered to be a norm in society, rarely an indispensable “essential worker” in the social machinery.
Ultimately, we must wonder what kind of youth shall rise out of a pandemic that has been so uninterested in its present needs, let alone its future. This youth which awakened to a crisis of trust in science before reading Bergson or Husserl in a physical classroom, this youth which bent its dreams to accommodate the market until the market itself demanded its own vacation days – what will this youth want from the world when the world itself let them know loud and clear that it did not want them?
The health experts and economists have spoken plenty – but where are our political scientists? Let them tell us about how a youth is radicalized, us who have the bad habit to discuss radicalization only with the image of a Muslim in mind. We failed to understand he who left the brick houses of Europe to throw bricks with ISIS in Syria, but substitute a religious group trapped in a defined space with an age group trapped in a defined time – and we begin to see that radicalization is not an uncommon phenomenon, but a material reality that has to do with alienation as Karl Marx perfectly understood it.
I am not entirely sure whether 28 billion euros of Erasmus + will compensate for the morale of our young people, who perhaps are better off reading the actual Erasmus and his Praise of Folly. A 250 euro fine – of course it is folly for the youth. Should not have young people themselves decided the amount of the fine – or its nature, since last time I checked the youth can barely afford a glass of good wine – rather than have it imposed on them by older age groups whose social life, its habits, its locations, its durations, are different than theirs?
“Us young people, we will be the last to be vaccinated – but the first to get called to the army”… what a pearl of wisdom, and how unfortunate that inconsiderate politics will have caused a youth to grow up feeling so disillusioned and so secondary in a system that nevertheless wants them to be young enough to consume a whole pack of beer. Surely Leuven’s Stella, too, deserves to co-sign on that 250 euro fine.