A fellow academic once said that working at a university is one of only a few places where you grow older while everyone around you stays the same age. It was this remark that occupied my mind this week as I trundled through campus, smiling and greeting our ever-younger-looking first-year undergraduates. The whole idea of ‘Welcome Week’ was no doubt conceived by a university bureaucrat with good intentions. But having experienced it first-hand, and as the one doing the welcoming, I can only conclude that it is torture. Once a year, like clockwork, we older folk must be visibly reminded not only of the relentless passing of time but also of our general insignificance amid life’s great generational churn. As I sat alone on a bench, gazing at the endless enthusiasm that surrounded the fresher stalls, another quote bubbled to the surface.‘Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away’ (Marcus Aurelius). All in all, I was pretty depressed.
But my mood then sunk to new depths as I conversed with a group of first-years. While they talked with energy and passion about all that they wanted to achieve it dawned on me that the members of this particular cohort had been born in 1999 or 2000. Just think about that for a second. This means that they have absolutely no memory at all of 9/11. Or, for that matter, the Bush v. Gore battle, Mad Cow Disease, the death of Princess Diana, and probably all three of New Labour’s election victories. Nor, for that matter, do they remember the War in Iraq and all that went with it: the protests, the dossier, the lying, the miscalculations.
I probably shouldn’t have but I continued with my experiment, prodding and probing their collective memory. Ready to feel old? I asked them if they remembered Tony Blair. They didn’t. Confused and increasingly bewildered I asked them to name the first general election they really remember. The answer? 2010. The first election they remember delivered the first coalition government since the Second World War. They probably thought it was normal, like the Liberal Democrats being in power. Some of the other defining moments of our age also had little resonance. They only had a vague memory of the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the financial crash that ensued. ‘I sort of remember something going a bit wrong but that’s about it’, said one. This means, in turn, that they can only remember Britain during austerity. “We are aware that we have been dealt a rotten hand”, said one. To shine even more light on this frightening state of affairs, when some of these first-years were born the number one spot in the charts was occupied by Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’, Craig David’s ‘7 Days’ while Kevin Spacey was picking up the best actor Oscar for his role in American Beauty. In hindsight, this now explains why a poor joke about the pop-star Shaggy’s song ‘It wasn’t me’ didn’t get a laugh. Some of them wouldn’t even have been alive when it was number one
But it was the last question that really sent me doolally. ‘So what did you make of the EU referendum?’ A long pause. ‘Yeah, I guess it was OK, but of course we were not eligible to vote in that one’. ‘Of course’, I muttered. ‘Of course. Too young to vote. Indeed. Well, er, do consider my course on Brexit when you reach the third-year!’ On that note I literally ran to the college bar for a stiff one, alongside a handful of other professors who, based on the fact that they were sitting in silence and staring into the abyss, had clearly just had the same experience.
Matthew Goodwin is professor of politics at the University of Kent