Young people, nowadays, get criticised for their laziness, lack of impetus and for being blissfully unaware of their surroundings. The stereotypes regarding the ‘Millennial generation’ and ‘Gen Z’ are countless. Apparently, we spend all our time dabbling in veganism and trying to make it as an Instagram influencer. Although the tendency of young people to engage in the latest fad is often viewed by many as being somewhat pretentious and frivolous, it does demonstrate the open mindedness of the generation to challenge their belief systems and see things from a different perspective. Putting aside the rich collection of stereotypes teaming with avocados and quinoa, it is a simple fact that young people will be shaping the world we live in, for better or for worse, and it is negligent to view them simply as an idle generation. History has shown us, time and again, the impact that young people have on our world. Game changers like Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez and Malala Yousafzai (aged 17, 20 and 23, respectively) have played a key role in tackling some of the world’s major issues — namely climate change, gun crime and women’s rights. Similarly, Hasib Hussain, Germaine Lindsay and Marwan al-Shehhi (aged 18, 19 and 23, respectively) changed the world when they detonated their suicide jackets on the London Underground and guided a Boeing 767 into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre.
A lot of the world’s ever-present issues stem from hatred — humanity’s most dangerous learned behaviour. Jeanne Calment, from Aries, France, is known for being the oldest person in documented history with a lifespan of 122 years and 164 days. Using this as a conservative upper limit, that means that the human population completely refreshes itself at least every 122 years and 164 days. Prejudice and hate, however, exceed the limits of a human lifespan. As much as we young people may claim to never judge a book by its cover, we all inherit subtle prejudices that have cascaded down the generations, either getting diluted or concentrated by key events along the way. The reason why these prejudices persist is aptly highlighted by the famous idiom ‘there is only one past, but many versions of history’. Most of us will go through life having only heard one, unchallenged narrative.
Being a Millennial myself, watching the news has always been quite confusing. Although many of us may prefer to live within the comforts of our own echo chamber, rarely challenging our views or bothering to learn about things that don’t appear to have any effect on us, most will still be familiar with the omnipresent themes in the news. These include, but are not limited to, racism and inequality, poverty in Africa, the crisis in the Middle East, terrorism, and tensions between the world’s superpowers. If we watch the news for 30 minutes today, we may have a vague idea about the current state of the world. We may even be able to have a somewhat informed conversation about Brexit with our barber. Tuning in to world affairs without a decent grounding in history, however, is sort of like starting to watch a TV series 13 minutes into the third episode of season six. Furthermore, history is complex. This TV show isn’t Friends or Family Guy, it’s Game of Thrones.
Given that all of these issues are important enough to occupy most of our prime time newscast, it’s confusing then, that the history pertinent to these issues is not particularly well explored within the school curriculum. Every British school child will have learnt that the Romans built our roads, and they will be able to robotically recite the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives, however, there is little or no mention of the British Empire — a historical colossus that goes a long way in explaining the demographics of our country and the roots of various ethnic tensions. Our only exposure to Africa may be the odd WaterAid advert which paints a bleak picture of a disease-riddled continent with scarce resources. It was never explained to us that Africa is the richest continent in the world, in terms of natural resources, and that the Europeans ‘scrambled’ to slice off a piece of this lucrative cake to satisfy their rapacious appetites. Pretty much every day, for the last several decades, the news will have some feature about the issues in the Middle East. The ill-informed Millennial should be forgiven for viewing this region as a dusty wasteland overrun by terrorists and despots. It was never explained to them that Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq, Syria and Turkey) was home to the world’s earliest civilisation and that the region has spent more of recorded history as a prosperous trading area than a barren warzone. Anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism is often given a lot of attention, however, there’s a tendency to view terrorists as psychopathic mass murderers which overshadows our ability to consider, for a moment, the forces that are driving young people to commit such atrocities.
We see Donald Trump’s tweets engaging in online trash talk directed at Russia or North Korea, somewhat akin to an 11-year-old lashing out after conceding a 93rd minute winner on FIFA 20. Some of us may learn about the Cold War at school with some mention of key proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, however, we do not learn about the covert operations run by various superpowers to tacitly tug at the puppet strings of the world.
The recent popularity, amongst young people, of books that shed light on major issues, such as race and class, is testament to their curiosity and determination to better understand their world. Many of these books, however, are a confronting read. The issues covered are, understandably, very personal to the authors and readers are encouraged to engage in difficult conversations that are all too easily sidestepped.
My life story is far from unique. I was raised in Norwich as the son of first generation immigrants from Sri Lanka. My parents are doctors, I was privately educated and lived an idyllic middle class life in a detached house surrounded by farms. I have since become a doctor myself, after a wonderful six years at Imperial College London. I never faced any major adversity, and I was never discriminated against. So, none of the issues I explore in this series of articles are particularly personal to me. Nonetheless, I am exactly what you, the reader, are — a young person wanting to make more sense of the world that we live in. I have written these articles whilst working as a junior doctor during the coronavirus pandemic. If any positives can be gleaned from the pandemic, it has shown that mankind is capable of putting aside their differences when confronting a common enemy. It has created a global sentiment of camaraderie in a species that has spent much of history fretting over our differences. It has made us acutely aware of our own mortality and it has emotionally primed us to understand each other a bit better.
This series of articles is intended to be an introduction to the historical context of current major world issues which, I hope, you will go on to explore in further detail. Above all, I hope that these articles will enable you to switch on the news, make sense of the content and be more understanding of the viewpoints of those that you previously disagreed with.
Young people, the world is in our hands. Let’s get to know it a little better.