Thursday, 7 April 2011

Beer Cans Not Enough for the Lost Generation

The article reproduced below appeared as part of the Guardian's Polish series and raises some interesting points about Poland's younger generation.

Adam Leszczyński describes how young people reacted to the protests around the raising of a cross outside the President's Palace following the Smoleńsk tragedy. He recounts how young people spontaneously responded - using new social media tools – by organising counter-protests to those 'defending the cross'. Leszczyński notes how this was significant due to the fact that young people have tended to be politically very passive in Poland.

Brought up during a period of market restoration, Polish youth bought into the demands and promises of the new system. They have educated themselves like no other generation in the country's history. However, new Polish capitalism has been unable to offer them the jobs and life-styles that their efforts deserve.

Around 2 million, mainly young, Poles have emigrated since Poland entered the EU - which has created a social safety valve in a country still plagued by very high unemployment and low wages. However, especially without an accompanying policy of encouraging immigration, this is creating large social and cultural problems as the country's population ages and de-skills.

Leszczyński identifies a light of optimism in these protests and hopes that one day this 'lost generation' will return to its homeland and help make Poland 'more liberal and open, a nicer place to live'. One can hope.

However, Leszczyński only focuses on one aspect of Polish life. He shows how young Poles are reacting against the cultural conservatism of a section of society and pushing back against those who want to impose their values upon them. The problem for the young generation goes deeper than this. If today's youth want to claim society for itself and shape it in its own image it needs to create an economy in which it can thrive. It needs jobs which both pay a decent wage and leaves people with some time and energy for other pursuits. It needs housing at an affordable price, a health service that looks after it, education for its children, transport to move it around, etc.

Importantly it has to find a way of bridging the growing cultural divide with the elder generation. The conflicts around the cross outside the President's Palace were an emotionally charged example of this schism that blights society. With two parties from the right dominating politics this generational cultural gap is growing and indeed encouraged. If the younger generation can rise above this and offer a positive vision and practical solutions for the country that all ages can benefit from then it will have been successful. Crosses made out of beer cans will not suffice.

A Very Polish Protest Party (Adam Leszczyński)

Perhaps the most telling symbol of Poland's younger generation – those 20- to 30-year-olds, born during the dark night of General Jaruzelski's martial law in the 1980s – is a Christian cross built from empty beer cans. The history of this cross is complex, long and very Polish. It started when a government plane carrying 96 people – among them the president and political elite – crashed near Smolensk, in Russia.

The catastrophe was a seismic shock for Polish society. A few days later boy scouts, accompanied by followers of the dead president – many supporters of his conservative Law and Justice party – erected a large cross in front of the presidential palace. It was a powerful symbol of mourning; but it was also a reminder of messianic, romantic ideals of Poland as a "Christ of nations" and our history of national suffering under Russian oppression. The national mood had changed. Many who were sharply critical of President Kaczynski before his death now appeared on national television saying he was a great statesman.

The self-proclaimed "defenders of the cross" guarded it 24 hours a day. Conspiracy theories flourished. The "Russkies", some said, conspired with Donald Tusk's government and killed our president! The authorities were clueless; officials hesitated; for days nobody could think of a way to remove the cross. This whole mess was a huge boon for Kaczynski's party and very delegitimising for Tusk's democratically elected government.

Then the unimaginable happened. One night a huge crowd of young people organised through Facebook surrounded the "defenders of the cross". A strange occurrence, but full of joy and jubilation: they mocked this cross and the pope, told rude jokes and laughed at the amazed defenders (though nobody touched them). They then erected their own cross made from beer cans.

This cruel act of parody was completely unprecedented. Young Poles do not usually join demonstrations – few of them vote, and sociologists say that they are apathetic towards politics. Poland is still ruled by the generation of politicians who started their careers fighting communism in the 1980s. This was the first act of protest in years, if not decades, organised by the young rather than for them.

Millions of young Poles now have experience of living and working in the west. Will they come back? And if they do, will they transform the country? The homeland needs them – but also fears and loathes them. And, of course, all the good jobs are already taken

The young generation is puzzling. They are open-minded and self-reliant. (Almost 2 million Poles, most of them young, have emigrated west since 2004, when Poland joined the European Union.) Almost half are graduates. Yet they do not expect much from life. According to a recent poll for Gazeta Wyborcza almost 70% of Poles aged 19- 26 are ready to move out of their native town to get a good job. They are ready to work for – on average – less than €600 a month. One in five of them would accept any job. But the jobs are not there: almost half a million under the age of 26 are unemployed.

In conversation they appear quite conservative. They tell you their most important values are marriage, family and a stable, peaceful life. Most of them are against abortion in principle. But in real life things are very different: almost universally they accept sex before marriage, and contraception; they live together for years before getting married – if they marry at all; and they seem much more tolerant of gay people than the older generation.

A nice house with a garden, an expensive car, a stable corporate job, ample savings and good holidays abroad – this seems to be the limit of their dreams. They don't dream about rebelling and changing the world. They are deeply suspicious of collective action: all solutions to their problems are private. Trying to make it in London or Dublin is the solution chosen most often, because it is so easy. They don't try to change the country – they leave it to rot.

However, in their own country they take exception to those who try to impose their ideas on them: that was the important lesson of the protest in front of the cross.

So far they seem to be, unfortunately, the lost generation. We raised and educated millions at enormous cost and effort. But the country seems to have little need for them: we just made their cheap, educated labour our main export. I still believe they will change the country and, hopefully, make it closer to their values – more liberal and open, a nicer place to live. When they come back. I am still hopeful – but I guess I need to wait

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