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Questioner: Looking at our political lives today, how do you talk to young people about the future?

Will Self: I think a lot about how the world was when I was in my early 20s, when I was finishing university…

And what strikes me is how much more anxious young people are now than we were, and this despite the fact that when I left university there was major unemployment, we were losing manufacturing jobs hand over fist. Our foreign policy was unstable; we were still living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud and a dispensation of mutually assured destruction. There were legitimate fears about Soviet aggression. A lot of these things you would imagine hit some of the same buttons in some of the same combinations, and yet… and yet… and yet… we weren’t as anxious as a lot of people are now.

And you know what, I think people are right to be more anxious now, oddly. Obviously that’s offered with the benefit of hindsight, but my suspicion is they are right to be more anxious…

I honestly think if I were a young person now I would concentrate, not selfishly on my own life; I think it’s very important in life to have compassion toward others and to do things for other people. But I would not place any expectation or faith in political change. I’m sorry: that’s not the story of your era.

The story of your era is going to need to be stoical. Perform, as the great Zen poet Bashō says, random acts of senseless generosity. Engage with your work. Enjoy the spectacle of life. But I wouldn’t place any great expectations on the idea society or political systems are in some way evolving or progressing, and that if you can just figure out how to get your shoulder to the wheel in the right way, and encourage some other people to do the same, that the whole thing is going to move. I’m sorry, but I really would abandon that idea. I think you’ll have a much happier and productive life, incidentally, and probably end up doing more good.


Comments adapted from Will Self’s recent interview at his office at Brunel University. I like his answer, but can’t bring myself to agree.

I’m sorry: that’s not the story of your era…

Image courtesy of Pin Drop Studio.

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