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Counter culture is dead: Is brainless television the cause of youth apathy?

(Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

I can remember a time when young people were fired by a righteous anger. Now that they are so cosseted by mainstream culture, the flame has gone out

Who but a reckless fool would make cast iron predictions about an unexpected General Election that our U-turning Prime Minister vowed not to call? What else is never going to happen?

As we stagger towards June 8 in a state of confusion will voters decide to back Theresa May’s Hard Brexit agenda? Will the Tories – as the polls suggest – crush poor Jeremy Corbyn and leave the remains of Labour in an even weaker condition? Or will the result reveal that a worried nation is ready to change its mind over Europe?

No one knows what the next few febrile weeks will bring. The only certainty is uncertainty. But among the many imponderables there is one sure-fire forecast that you can take to the bank. Whatever unfolds on polling day, the turn-out among young voters is guaranteed to be alarmingly low. Despite the historic importance of a snap election on which all of Britain’s prospects depend, the under 30s will be conspicuous by their absence. Not there, not interested, not bothered.

In an epic display of apathy, an astonishing 64% of 18-24 year-olds failed to cast their vote in last year’s EU referendum. Bored by the most momentous issue of our time, they either neglected to register or were too preoccupied with amusing themselves to get to the booth. Although some outspoken youngsters subsequently accused oldsters of selfishly selling them down the river, the sad truth is that the silent majority didn’t really give a damn. And all the signs are that things can only get worse.

The tragedy of this catastrophic disengagement is that if the young generation actually made it to the polling station, Mother Theresa’s fortunes would undoubtedly experience something of a reversal. There’s a whole body of people out there who don’t like Conservatives and don’t want Brexit. If only they’d get involved they could change the course of history. The trouble is there doesn’t appear to be any way to persuade them to vote. Unless we work out how to solve this depressing problem, there are grim europhobic, Tory-dominated decades ahead.

So why don’t da kidz care about politics? The answer, I fear, is they’re too busy being mesmerised by an ever-increasing plethora of high-tech distractions directed specifically at them. The changing nature of the youth-obsessed entertainment industry is in danger of inadvertently creating a race apart, an entire generation that instinctively prefers the cyber world to the real world.

Today’s 50 plusses (including me) grew up in an era when television channels and film studios targeted their parents. If 1970s kids wanted to watch the telly they had to settle for programmes aimed at their mothers and fathers. Now, it’s the other way around. Ditto movies, many of which are little more than big screen versions of computer games.

From Big Brother to The Only Way Is Essex to Geordie Shore, the television business is saturated by downmarket ‘Yoof’ shows. On MTV’s new instant classic Just Tattoo Of Us plucky contestants agree to be indelibly defaced by disastrous designs mischievously drawn by their friends. One sobbing girl ended up with a gorilla peeling a banana high on her thigh, while another is now adapting to life with the word ‘SLUT’ inked in large letters across her backside. Not only jaw-droppingly mindless but also rather disturbing in terms of the permanent disfigurement.

In times gone by, the 18-24s tended to feel alienated by mainstream entertainment that wasn’t for them. The counter culture flourished because there wasn’t enough for young people to do. The atmosphere was ripe for passionate anti-establishment politics. Now, with global corporations focussing all their efforts on capturing the lucrative youth demographic, there’s way too much for young people to do. The poor things barely have time to think.

When they’re not glued to their favourite brainless programmes, they’re trawling through YouTube or locked in pretend mortal combat. Generation Xbox. Meanwhile, in America, 12-year-old children are attending addiction clinics because they’re so chronically hooked on their smart phones. It won’t be long before this nightmarish syndrome crosses the Atlantic. Count on it. The outlook is relentlessly bleak.

In fairness, the technological revolution is undoubtedly making us all more and more remote from real events. But at least older folk still vote. Hence the significant drift to the right. Entranced by tawdry TV, moronic movies and the numerous games, apps and devices that are just for them, all the young dudes aren’t even starting to vote. The only issues that seem to attract university students are periphery concerns revolving around safe spaces, gender fascism and racist statues. I wish them well, but I’ve got other things to worry about. Things that are relevant to me. Brexit, for example.

So is there any way to save the UK from this deepening abyss of indifference? With junior consumers increasingly seduced by an escalating array of compelling diversions, it’s hard to know what to do. A bit more effort on the BBC’s part might help. Inevitably, the profit-chasing outfits will always ruthlessly follow the money. So, free from the commercial imperative, wouldn’t it be nice if the Beeb tried to reach out to a lost generation with thought provoking programmes designed to ignite its interest in the crucial issues that will fundamentally affect its future? Yes. But will it happen? Don’t bet the farm on it.

After all, it was this publicly owned broadcasting titan that kindly offered young people such intellectually daunting shows as F*** Off, I’m A Hairy Woman, F*** Off, I’m Fat and the memorable F*** Off, I’m Ginger. Not forgetting Snog Marry Avoid?, Don’t Tell The Bride and I Believe In UFOs. Like all media giants, the BBC is obsessed with the youth market. It sets its sights on the young… and aims low.

As recently as the early 1990s, the 18-24 age group’s participation in general elections was riding high at 60%. By 2001, the figure had dropped to below 40%. The disconnection between young citizens and their MPs is disconcerting. If traditional politicians conclude that the under 30s won’t vote, they won’t listen to them. No votes, no point. A vicious circle that can only lead to even less engagement and even more disillusionment.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that the political switch-off among the newly enfranchised is all down to the telly, Transformers and Grand Theft Auto. Assailed by cuts in education allowances, the tripling of tuition fees and the removal of housing benefits, young adults feel abandoned. To escape from the harsh realities, many of them retreat into the wonderful world of thoroughly modern entertainment.

It’s far more instantly gratifying to join the queue to buy the latest iPhone than it is to fight for a better country. You’ll walk out of the Apple store with a shiny new mobile. The envy of all your friends. In politics, the endgame is rarely so satisfying. Even if your heartfelt campaign is successful it’s unlikely to impress your mates as much as your cutting edge wide-screen. Welcome to our brave new world.

On an optimistic note, it was estimated that if 16 and 17 year-olds had been able to vote in the referendum, the result would have been an 82% landslide in favour of Remain. Really? A more likely scenario is that the vast majority of these allegedly pro-EU teens would not have made it to the polling booth. And don’t expect the dire situation to improve on June 8. Especially, if Just Tattoo Of Us is on the box.

Kevin O’Sullivan was television reviewer for the Sunday Mirror for 10 years, is resident critic for The Wright Stuff, and features on Radio 5’s Afternoon Edition Television Club. He also reviews at

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