Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
– John F. Kennedy
NOTHING IN PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S inaugural address resonated in the hearts of young Americans, and the youth of the world, like the words quoted above. Asking what you can do for your country is all very well, but unless what you’re proposing elicits a sympathetic response from the seat of power; some sign that your motives are understood and your values shared, then your question will be lost on the air. It is from this rejuvenated sense of connection that generational shifts in politics acquire their transformational power.
The big question for 2018, therefore, is: what are the motives and values connecting New Zealand’s 37-year-old prime minister with the generations born after the post-war Baby Boom?
Kennedy was, of course, a member of what some have called “The Greatest Generation”. Raised under the pall of economic depression, and then thrown into the most destructive human conflict of human history, they were nevertheless determined to create the fairest and most prosperous societies the world had ever seen – and in that regard, they’d been spectacularly successful.
The full measure of that success is captured in Kennedy’s proud boast that, thanks to humanity’s technological prowess, “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
The Ancient Greeks would have called this hubris – and they would have been right.
But what of the generation for whom Jacinda now speaks? Untempered by war; undisciplined by the existential stakes attached to global ideological competition; unimpressed with their nation’s colonial heritage; and uncommitted to the universal definition of human rights for which Kennedy pledged his country’s all on that chilly January morning in 1961: for what will the Millennial Generation “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe”?
Well, for a start, they would probably refuse to be bound by such an open-ended and reckless pledge. “Any Price?”, they would respond. “No, not any price. The world has had enough of men who commit the lives of millions to the fulfilment of promises they had no right to make.”
For a great many millennial women, JFK, himself, is a problem. “If #Me Too had been around in 1963,” they ask, “how many women would have come forward to denounce the President?”
No, Jacinda’s millennials are not well disposed to big promises, all-encompassing systems and unyielding ideologies. They have grown up amidst the havoc wrought by a generation far too prone to alternating fits of selfless idealism with bouts of hedonistic excess. That all their Baby Boomer parents’ enthusiasms boiled down to, in the end, was the cold and selfish cynicism of neoliberalism, taught them all they need to know about the malleability of human aspirations. The Labour Leader’s brisk “Let’s Do This” slogan was perfectly pitched to an audience more intent on achieving small dreams than grand visions.
The two great exceptions to this rule are Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. On the face of it, their ability to draw tens-of-thousands of young people into their campaigns seems counter-intuitive. What could these two, ageing, Baby-Boomer males possibly have to say to the Millennial Voter? They had, after all, spent most of their adult lives achieving sweet-bugger-all: two old leaves swirling aimlessly in the stagnant backwaters of left-wing politics.
But that was the whole point. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, Sanders and Corbyn simply refused to surrender the hopes and dreams of their youth. While all around them lay the jettisoned ideals of former comrades, they had kept on singing the hallelujah song.
Sanders and Corbyn were the proof that growing old did not have to mean growing cynical and cruel. The Millennials looked at the career politicians of their own generation and saw far too much evidence of wholesale generational surrender. How had so many twenty-something minds been taken over by so many hundred-year-old ideas? Sanders’ and Corbyn’s bodies may have been old, but their thinking was as young as the kids who cheered them on.
This, then, is the torch which the Prime Minister is being asked to carry into 2018. The inspirational torch of authenticity which dispels the darkness of hypocrisy. If she truly wishes to change their world, Jacinda must first prove to her generation that the world is not changing her.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 January 2018.