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Billie’s Anguish

What do you think the world will look like when you’re 80? is not a question one typically asks a 19-year-old. Vanity Fair put it to Billie Eilish and this is the reply they got:

Girl, I’m not going to live until 80, none of us are… Are you kidding me? We have like 10 years left… We’ve got to help the environment. I hope that the world doesn’t say ‘it’s over for you bitches’ and then kill us all.

Untypical pessimism for someone her age. Even stranger when you consider that Eilish has accumulated an obscene number of musical awards, has millions of followers on social media and was invited to address the Democratic National Convention that endorsed Joe Biden.

But if you put aside the oddity of a presidential candidate tagging you on Twitter [Biden wrote in November: “I’ll just say what @billieeilish said: Vote like your life depends on it.”], this musician of unsettling lyrics and mesmerizing sounds, is a very typical 19-year-old.

Typical because it is likely that her pessimism is what defines Generation Z’s collective state of mind. To be 19 today means that in the last five fairly formative years you sat through the Trump wreckage that continues to burn under the crises of immigration, race, the economy and the climate.

More notably it also means that Covid has seriously disrupted your studies suspending your sense of the future. You would be aware too that the economy that will emerge from the pandemic will not easily absorb you. On top of which you’re not sure the climate will sustain you.

It would be a mistake to think that just because Joe Biden got elected and has begun to reverse Trump’s fossil fuel rampage, is reinstating environmental regulations and has rejoined the Paris Agreement that things will get better. We are all very much on the edge of the cliff.

It may seem odd that a generation that we often accuse of residing in the digital realm would be championing nature’s cause and suffering climate anxiety. But it is happening. A new breed of young activists is emerging. The digital habitat is allowing for rare species like Greta Thunberg to flourish into instrumental figures around whom young and old are rallying.

Throwing her support for Thunberg, Eilish recently said she hoped adults “would start listening to us”.

Non-listening adults tend to forget that they too were 19 once. They forget that they too listened to the music of rebellion. Unlike Eilish, however, they weren’t too concerned about getting to 80. Not so much because they thought they wouldn’t achieve octogenarianism but because they scorned the whole idea of adulthood.

Most went by The Who’s mantra “I hope I die before I get old … talkin’ bout my generation1. Some did their best to live by the anthem and a great deal of talent went to waste. Those who stayed on went to Woodstock and Vietnam protests. Then there was the threat of nuclear war and nuclear accidents (both risks still around and oddly underestimated these days). Music began to engage with big causes, Anti-Apartheid, Live Aid. Awareness was raised, pressure increased, money was collected, good things happened, money was wasted, causes were resolved (partly), others were not and were forgotten. Youths became adults and lives went on.

The thing with climate change is that lives might not go on. Eric Steinberger is marginally older than Eilish. As far as I know he doesn’t sing. But he gives talks on climate change and is the founder of Climate Science2 an organization made up of tens of young scientists who are uncompromisingly committed to finding real-life solutions to turn us into a zero-emission society. Not, he says, just to reduce emissions by X percent or in Y years. They want everything done now and forever.

It rings of typical youthful impatience but it isn’t. Because two things are different this time: 1) Youth has Science on its side. Steinberger is essentially facing the facts and working with, and in, Science. Thunberg’s distinctive call is “Listen to the Science”. 2) Eilish, Thunberg, Steinberger et al have the prudence and digital know-how to communicate widely, mobilise quickly and reshape mentalities across generations.

Which is why adult hegemony should give way to them. Adults must not just offer them token seats at the table or invite them to address high visibility events. They must bring them in and seek their help in reaching out to the numbers necessary to bring about change. Our adult bias that youths don’t fully understand the political complexities of (the failing) global market economy must be overcome. They know too well – we all do – that governments are slow and industries are unwilling. They have seen millions of adults willfully send a shameful specimen to the White House. They have watched us fail repeatedly.

Inevitably nature will not allow The Who and their fans to ever know what type of 80-year-olds the youths of today will become. But it is not at all natural that Eilish and her fans should feel that they are unlikely to make it that far. It’s time to listen to her generation.

  1. The Who, My Generation, 1965.
  2. https://climate-science.com

Photo: Vanity Fair