Our generation is confused about the future. It’s difficult to know what’s worse: expecting not to have the things that your parents had, or assuming everything’s going to be OK until you realise that everything – whether it's a job, a house to call your own, or even a degree - has been privatised.
In the past, people mostly knew where they stood and where they’d end up. But our generation was taught we could aspire to climb the social ladder higher than our families had ever been before…with school a waiting room to prepare us for the workplace.
Since the economic crisis started, though, many of us have fallen further down the ladder than we started off, with few jobs on the market and tuition fees becoming more and more expensive.
If the expectations we've been brought up with have now become dreams, how we cope with the shock will affect not just how we can build a better future, but whether we can conceive of a better future at all.
While this narrative echoes across the media, there is another story that is waiting to be told. As part of the “Making a Living” project, the European Alternatives Cooperative has travelled across the continent meeting and speaking with young people, to find out how they are dealing with the social and personal challenges presented by austerity politics.
Austerity by default, resilience by design
From our research, we’ve uncovered how, through the process of coping with the crisis, young people across Europe are changing their mindset about what is important to them, in what the Spanish call “cambiar el chip”. As one of the young people we met, Rhiannon Colvin, says: "Instead of searching for jobs, I will search for people, people who have similar values, questions, hopes and dreams.”
Although a quarter of young people across the EU are unemployed, they have gone through different stages of coping, from reflecting on their situation to looking for ways to stay resilient. Some have become independent of the pressures that traditional work lifestyles impose, whether through choice or constraint.
In the same way that technology hackers share “source code” with others to help program applications, there is a new generation of young people we could call “lifestyle hackers”, who identify and share “common goods” to help others make a living. These common goods are resources that meet basic needs and that can be shared with others, like a place to stay, food to eat or skills they can share.
Lifestyle hackers have become experts at spotting resources around them. Groups like the London-based New Cross Commoners, for example, navigate this journey through “exploring their neighbourhood to understand which resources [we can] collectivize and use as commons”. They believe that “it will be a matter of gradually shifting from an individual to a collective approach when coping with needs and using skills and resources.”
Paolo Plotegher from the New Cross Commoners explains that the group came together “through a desire of engaging more deeply with our neighbourhood. Many of us study at Goldsmiths, which is located in New Cross, the New Cross Commoners is also a way to break the separation between the university and the neighbourhood.”
“There are other motivations for the New Cross Commoners,” he continues, “it is not just discontent with academia and its privatization, but also the desire to learn differently, and to experiment with ways of living together that can provide an alternative to the option of competing individually as part of a job market.”
On the other side of Europe, the Cooperativas Integral are another platform for young people to self-organise. Rhiannon visited the local Granada cooperative. She says: “For housing people either squatted abandoned buildings, pieces of land or lived in the caves.”
In order to eat, Rhiannon says, “Most people ´recycled´ food from bins and restaurants and seemed to have quite amiable relations with the workers and owners. If this failed there were always the soup kitchens that offered free food.”
But does self-organizing through the Cooperativas Integral meet other basic needs – like filling spare time? Rhiannon adds: “For entertainment somehow people always seemed to have a couple of Euros for a beer that they gained through playing music on the streets, making crafts or perhaps selling weed, and this city is full of free and fun things to do such as concerts, film showings, discussions or juggling in the park whilst watching the sun set over the Alhambra.”
The methods described above to develop social resilience are never more important than in times of crisis. In Athens, for example, where one community acted to stop their electricity being cut off in the middle of a freezing winter when they couldn’t pay their bills. It started with a letter to the mayor, and quickly progressed to an occupation of the companies’ headquarters, people blockading homes to stop cuts offs, and skills shares on how to self-connect to the grid. Although the occupations only lasted several days, the skills shares have helped people access electricity themselves.
This is the crux of what it means to be a lifestyle hacker. It’s not about young people creating new ways to get ahead in life, it’s about helping those around them imagine new ways of making a living. As Ejos Uribo, founder of Graft & Glamour, highlights:
“There is a domino effect in terms of seeing entrepreneurs in your community. A lot of them mentor young people in inner cities where they grew up. [They] know the nihilism and lack of empathy of young people who grow up in those environments, who don’t get the support, who failed at school. It’s the idea of giving back and saying, 'I know so many young people who grew up like you did and who are very successful and nothing was given to them'. A lot of them feel a sense of community and want to share their story.”
This kind of support not only helps young people have the tools to make their own living, it influences how they relate to each other and how they see society. Ejos concludes: “I definitely see how what they create speaks to who they are and their identity. A lot of that is wrapped up in the things they choose to create and how personify their sense of self through those things.”
Many young people don’t believe that employers are going to give them jobs…and that if they do, the jobs will be low-paid, insecure and won’t make them feel valued. Rhiannon, Paolo and Ejos may have once felt this way too. But they changed their mindset about what was important to them. This re-evaluation opened up the space to imagine and create new ways of making a living, ways making use of the assets of their local environment – from the caves of rural Andalucia to inner city London.
But one question remains. While these young people invent new ways of making a living, of looking out for their peers, who is looking out for them?