Going with the flow…again

Going with the flow…again
Today’s young people follow the crowd as much as their predecessors did, writes David Quinn


We should beware of romanticising any particular generation of people. At the end of the day, people are simply people, a mixture of good and bad, no matter how old or young they are. Nonetheless, people are shaped by their times and if we have to generalise, we could say that older people were raised in a more dutiful, but also more judgemental society, and young people in a less judgemental, more tolerant (after a fashion) but also less dutiful one in which ‘commitments’ come and go.

The latest World Youth Day ended in Panama on Sunday. In Dublin, a Mass was held to mark the event celebrated by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. He spoke to the young people present about the sort of Ireland he grew up in. He described how choices were far more limited in the country of his youth.


He told them: “The job decision you took as a teenager was almost definitive. You made a choice for life. You became a doctor, a postman, a mechanic, a nurse, a carpenter, a builder’s labourer, an accountant for life. The chances of changing were limited. You tried to get a job for life, a permanent job that would give you and your future family security. Options were limited and very often you took what you could get, rather than chose what you really wanted.”

He might have added that when you married, you also married for life.

He said that now people have far more choices. He remarked: “Today that is very different. Your generation chooses. Young people choose to believe or not to believe, to belong to a Church or to go their own way. Many have some kind of generic faith or spirituality but little to do with the Church. In that sense, your presence here today is a sign that you wish to be different. You wish to move away from an inherited faith and come to a better understanding of what faith in Jesus Christ can mean in your life and in discerning who you really want to be.”

Archbishop Martin is obviously right about the lack of job choices people had in the past. We were much poorer. We sought whatever economic security we could. Many had to leave in search of work. Emigration re-emerged in the most recent recession.

But I had to wonder at his remark that today “young people choose to believe or not to believe, to belong to a Church or go your own way”. That’s not how I see it. I think young people today, like young people in the past, and people in general, tend to just go with the flow. A lot of the time we actually aren’t making choices at all, we are following social norms.

Recall what happened in the referendum last May. According to exit polls, 87% of 18-24 year olds voted for repeal. Were they thinking independently, and their peers who voted against repeal were not? Or were they all thinking for themselves, but repeal arguments were so persuasive that nearly all of that age group independently voted for legalised abortion?

In fact, repeal arguments were more all-pervasive than all-persuasive. Pro-life students will tell you how difficult it is to be openly pro-life, or about your faith in many of the country’s universities. We need only bring to mind the case of Katie Ascough at UCD and the vitriolic campaign which drove her from her job in the students’ union.

A similar, but far less publicised fate befell Clare McCarthy at Trinity College at around the same time. This is what can happen to young people of faith in today’s Ireland at the hands of some of their peers. Our vaunted ‘tolerance’ stretches only so far it seems.

What happened in May is similar to what has happened to church-going among that same generation. The vast majority do not go to Mass. Is that really because of choice, or it is because it is no longer the done thing?

Have they really thought deeply about the Faith and come to a well worked-out conclusion, or are they not going to Mass because of convention, just as a different kind of convention led to most people going to Mass in the past?

Obviously, many young people are interested in politics, but how many actually join political parties, or even NGOs? Older people are more likely to vote and are far more likely to be members of a political organisation.

But lots of young people are as indifferent towards politics as they are towards religion.

The American sociologist Christian Smith has found that in his country, even when Barack Obama first became President, the lack of civic and political involvement of young people was striking. That was back in 2008. Since then social media has become far more dominant in their lives and for the most part this is not leading to greater political engagement except at a superficial level, when a new bandwagon is passing by and clicking ‘like’ for something politically fashionable will win you kudos.

Young Christians today really have to be counter-cultural. It is assumed by many of their peers that they are weak-minded and easily led at best, and bigoted at worst. It is not easy to withstand those sorts of assumptions. They need all the encouragement they can get, from each other, from their parents and other adults, and from Church leaders as well.

If anyone has made a conscious choice in their lives it is these young people because they can never be accused of simply going with the crowd.

They are ones most likely to be free and independent today.