Was the pandemic the final kick to the concept of “hedonistic youth”?

Was the pandemic the final kick to the concept of “hedonistic youth”?

By Hannah Kettles

Probably, but self-destruction has an expiry date. 

Being part of a generation that has been forced to experience a bout of old age long before our time has helped me abandon the firmly rooted belief that I deserved to live out the same hedonism that those who came before us experienced in the 90s and 00s. I had always imagined that an unrooted lifestyle was what my twenties were not only destined, but designed to be.

The pandemic feels like the last evil laugh of a steady decline in allowing young people to fulfil such stereotypes. I note this being the last laugh rather than the first giggle because something about our young society, in particular, going into lockdown feels less comical than the thought of Noel and Liam Gallagher, circa 1995, having to stay in for endless months and watch daytime TV. The 00s and 90s, omitting the dangerous glorification of performative garishness, were truly a lot bigger and bolder and messier than we are and, while the pandemic has winded our ability to live spontaneously, why is it that the concept of youth in 2020 had so much less far to fall? And where does it leave us now?

Hedonism 1.0

To be clear, we’re not reviving the Ancient Greek definition of hedonism (noun: ethical theory stating that experiencing simple pleasure can help reach the highest good and proper aim of human life). Instead, we turn to a definition leaning heavier on the more modern, noxious indulgence that we’ve grown up witnessing constant representation of through music and media.

Hedonism (noun: drinking, smoking, drugging too much. See also: being a bit too loud and a bit too rude).

You’ll have your own references that ooze the particularly extravagant, careless, ‘youthful’ energy I’m describing. But the popularisation of heroin chic, paired with a particular interview with a biblically wasted Lily Allen and Alex Turner, epitomises the whole thing for me. Pete Doherty and Kate Moss were a revered power couple, when realistically they were both likely suffering with the callous throws of addiction. The figureheads of this Cool Britannia (et 00s al.) era taught us, and those who raised us, that in order to have fun and revel in the springtime-of-life to its fullest, you had to inadvertently self-destruct.

The tabloid media that boomed in this time period evidenced a love-hate relationship with those that covered its pages. While retaining a toxic infatuation with celebrities and spewing scathing headline after scathing headline, relative to now, the behaviour of those caught on camera suffered relatively low consequences. Seemingly, if whichever story they featured in could facilitate the personal brand of ‘extravagant, careless, youthful’, the careers of those captured remained almost untouched.

A watchful eye

The presence of social media plays a three-fold and undoubtably paramount factor in why now we are known to collectively act more sensibly than our predecessors. Though, I feel a disclaimer is necessary here: there is no fooling anyone that our generation still do much of the same as that described and the generations after us will too. However, I’m confident that what it does feel like now is that the going out and doing things you may regret, is only one factor that contributes to our meaning of being young rather than, contrastingly, our whole identity.

The shift, I believe, is due to the scrutiny of the common person, like you and I, that social media offers in comparison to only those in the public eye previously. The regular faces and their shortcomings in the newspapers and magazines of the 90s and 00s simply served to stitch another layer to their fame whereas typical people, if seen to be acting the same way, lose our jobs. However, without the presence of the self-governing social media, the unfamed youth of the 90s and 00s had more scope to imitate their leery heroes and ladette heroines. Flip to now, we may think twice before glamourising night after reckless night and risk the impact of it landing amidst the immutable whir of social media, it can feel hardly worth it.

In equal measure, I believe we now hold not only ourselves but our peers and celebrities to a slightly higher resolve. Social media is a horizontal platform; you may scroll past an image of a terrified, broken and bloodied Palestine courtesy of @bbcnews immediately followed by a snap of your friend, all grins, strawberry daiquiri in hand. You might continue to scroll and see a picture of Greta Thunberg, followed directly by your friends taking planes or drinking from Starbucks non-reusable cups. This is not to imply that the presence of one makes the other grossly unjust, but instead I raise it to make a point that we see each other now consistently situated in the middle of a global narrative rather than a world away from it, which makes any overexposure of Cool Britannia-inspired extravagance, disposability or disrespect look pretty distasteful.

However, while I’ve expressed my belief that we weren’t on a trajectory anyway to leave the same legacy as our formers, I do think the pandemic has aided us in creating a youthful essence of our own.

Self-destructive to self-loving

Sometimes my head aches under the weight of all of the memories that were waiting to unfold in the past year and now never will. Although, on the good days, I believe the elongated and empty time of lockdown means we’ve been offered, if not forced, the opportunity to learn a new type of hedonism that we can finally allow ourselves and it no longer has to equate to something very loud. The Ancient Greeks celebrated simpler pleasures including the sea, the sky, listening to music and I think a slower, quieter appreciation of life is a skill that many have also honed during lockdown living.

I would never, ever make a claim that we won’t make mistakes, and go to work hungover sometimes, and drink too much, and be too loud, and waste money. However, in the long run, I’d like to think that we know the true, vast scope of self-indulgence and that the long, quiet days can mean as much to us as the whirlwind, noisy ones.

Having spent so much time isolated and without the more typical hedonistic comforts, we can recognise that hedonistic behaviour also lives in the moments of watching the sky turn from hazy pinks to inky blues or the process of taking time, extensive time, to make something all for the pleasure of your own. The act of holding onto a friend that you haven’t seen for a year, so tightly that your hug feels like it stretches for a lifetime and being scared to let go in case it’s ever that long again, is bathed in pure indulgent hedonism.

While it’s tempting to think of the 90s and the 00s as better times gone by, there is little to suggest that their hedonism had the longevity that the type our generation may be learning now will. Paired with being an age-group renowned for caring about the betterment of society, it feels like, as a young collective, we’re facing a far more holistic investment in our futures. Perhaps, in fact, we are the those that, through the next ten years and into later life, will have a long way less to fall.