Once upon a time holidays were designed for times of happy escape. The British holiday in particular was seized upon by many propagandists and painted as a utopic scene of family harmony. Happy children splashed in the shore, overlooked by mothers in spotted bathing suits while fathers relaxed in striped deckchairs, sipping on a ginger beer and watching the clouds.
Holiday packing might have included a bucket and spade, some picnic blankets and marshmallows to boot. In the 21st century, hangover remedies most likely top the list of essentials for many a young British holidaymaker as they fly to foreign countries in search of cheap alcohol and legal highs.
The changing nature of holidays highlights the rising level of anomie drifting through our generation. It worms its way through society and hangs in the economy’s air. It is the biggest disease of our time, and it is eating away at the young.
First popularised by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his book Suicide, anomie is described as “derangement” and “an insatiable will”.1 Durkheim:
…used the concept to speak of the ways in which an individual’s actions are matched, or integrated, with a system of social norms and practices… anomie is a mismatch, not simply the absence of norms. Thus, a society with too much rigidity and little individual discretion could also produce a kind of anomie. (Durkheim, 2010: 247)
Today there is a patent discrepancy between social values and reality, the result of which can be traced back to our parents’ generation, who thrived on the economic boom of the 1980s, subconsciously laying down the foundations for a future generation of anomic youths, uprooted and alienated from the sense of community in which our elders were so comfortably wrapped. Studies have suggested that: “the increase in anomie weakens the “social glue” of communities” (Mark Easton, BBC News, December 2008), making the issue somewhat of a vicious circle.
The introduction of the internet has allowed us both a huge amount of freedom as well as an element of entrapment. One of the underlying reasons for the steady disintegration of the community ethos is our generation’s fascination with the cyber world. We now turn to the internet to enhance the lives we already lead, and forge relationships with new people in different communities as a response to feelings of alienation within our own.
Social media is also one of the main factors behind the rise of anomie. When once the lives of strangers took place behind closed doors, now everyone with a Facebook account can peek in through a window. While some people may find comfort in having an extended network of “friends”, many of these are purely synthetic, yet sites like Facebook have allowed us access to their lives in a way that we would never have before seen, or been able to forge an opinion of.
Often social media is used to post only positive things, heightening the distorted nature of cyber reality. We subconsciously compare our own lives to the ones we think others are living, underlining the feelings of inadequacy so prevalent throughout younger communities. Frank A. Well points out:
Instead of old-fashioned “anomie” today, people are experiencing magnification of their sensibilities both positively and negatively. Human psychological balance is at the root of health, happiness and success. Both the amplitude and frequency of imbalance brought on by modern social media is, or should be, of concern. (Well, 2012)
After the recession of 2008, levels of unemployment hit record highs and many young people turned to drugs and alcohol in a state of helpless desperation. The generation preceding us moved out of home at eighteen and owned their own house by their early to mid-twenties. Many of us find it outrageous to comprehend this ever happening now, since it is a concept which has become nigh-on impossible for new generations to compete with.
Yet today many young people, unable to find work, have no option but to stay at home where boredom instils habits of mindless self-destruction. People channel their aimlessness through the medium of alcohol and illegal substances, and fly to cheap Eastern European countries such as Latvia and Bulgaria in a mission of both escapism and indulgence, in a directionless crusade towards a growing lack of self-worth.
However, unlike perhaps two or three decades ago, these people are no longer ‘they, the underclass” a population which could once be so easily labelled in conservative Britain. “They” has become “us”. We, the university graduates who cannot find employment, the professionals made redundant, the businessmen gone bust and the young families who cannot cope under financial strain and social pressures.
Anomie is no longer a state of consciousness which can be specifically applied to the working class, the communists, the homeless or the mad. From the murky foundations of our former generation, anomie has grown roots and established global forestry, most notably since the recession. It is now apparent among young people of all classes, backgrounds and race and is a direct result of economic instability.
In an article published by The Guardian in 2011, Costas Douzinas addresses a Greek minister’s accusation of Greece resembling a state of anomie following mass protests against increasing fees for public transport and road maintenance.
What the minister, in his ignorance and desperation, called “anomie”, political and legal theory examines under the term “civil disobedience”. From Antigone to the campaigners for workers’ and civil rights, pacifists, suffragettes and conscientious objectors, disobedience is not simple illegality. It is the outward sign of moral conscience and of political fidelity to the principles of justice and democracy. Throughout history, disobedience has changed regimes, constitutions and laws… (Douzinas, 2011)
Douzinas outlines the way in which anomie can be wrongly translated as political rebellion, rather than a reaction to an economic climate which continues to fail us. The economic success our parents enjoyed two decades ago has become an albatross, slung around the necks of their children, and serves as a cruel reminder of the financial mistakes of yesteryear and the comparative economic slump in which we currently exist. It represents the struggle this generation now face to forge an identity for ourselves in social wilderness, weighed down by the ever increasing burden of social pressure and the expectations of success when so many factors prove against us.
The phenomenon has been described as “the social inability of individuals to keep pace with social change.” (Huschka and Mau, 2005: 10). Society has changed shape drastically in the last half a century, yet there remains a set of social ideals which many young men and women feel are still expected of them, despite the shift in social, political and economic factors, in addition to the internet, which all alter our futures by default.
The pressure of expectation coupled with the inability to fulfil it is the combination which has begun to make us question our social existence. As Philip Rockstroh points out, human beings now are “like an animal in a cage, we are no longer what we were meant to be … we have forgotten what it is to be alive.” (Rockstroh, 2010).
Social anomie can affect any individual at any age, but in this moment it is very much an affliction of the youth. We have to deal with the increasing effects of the destruction the generation before us caused to the planet. The effects of global warming are becoming yet more severe, affecting our quality of life and forcing us to make sensible, rational choices our parents did not. The current financial situation is a backlash from the economic power of the 1980s, whose knock-on ‘slump’ effect today affects our homes, our universities and our job prospects.
However it seems that while society has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last thirty years, certain social norms prevail which now prove out of sync with societal progression. It is to an extent still expected that a degree will promise a job and financial independence, that we will live in harmony within a likeminded community. When we were born it was assumed that we, like our parents, would have sufficient pensions and a working national health service to lean on in our eventual retirement.
Yet the things our elders take for granted are not necessarily things that the younger generations can expect. As a community, the young have to work a lot harder to succeed. Thus, when we fail, the consequences are a lot more demoralising than in previous decades, and a sense of social anomie threatens our feeling of significance in a world whose communities are becoming increasingly obsolete.
Before anomie comes isolation. The more time spent alone, the more distant one becomes from the basic but important concept of human interaction. For too many of today’s young people, friends are not made, but watched. They meet on Facebook, not face to face. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy famously challenged young people to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Perhaps the time is coming for today’s generation to answer The Call of Duty, rather than play it on a console.