'68 Youth Protest Took World by Surprise

By Rick Jobs

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Although there had been active student unrest throughout the West in the 1960s, the depth and breadth of protest in 1968 took the world by surprise. One of the most fantastic and unique aspects of 1968 is the prominent leadership role played by the young in the various sites of protest. Both the concept and social group of youth was at the core of the events in Prague, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Turin, London, Mexico City, New York and elsewhere. Historically, of course, young people had participated in all kinds of movements, protests and revolutions. But this leadership role, and its global simultaneity, was a profoundly new phenomenon.

Yet the 1968 protester was not necessarily 20 years old. The year's protests demonstrated that "youth" could be an ideological foundation for political identity and political protest despite the variability of its definition.

Perhaps this elasticity even strengthened its participatory base. The youth of 1968 were not just university students, but high school and vocational students, faculty, professionals, and workers whose ages ranged from the early-teens to the late-thirties. In 1968, the very act of protest made one a part of the collectivity of youth because the rebellion itself was being defined as young. The "youth movement," as such, was not a single, unified social group acting in concert across international borders. Among the young protesters themselves, chaos reigned. There was no programmatic revolutionary consensus among them, something that anarchists like Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Paris or Yippie! Abbie Hoffmann in Chicago gleefully encouraged. Likewise, many young people sat out the whole thing, preferring to watch the bedlam from the safety of their television sets. Others, on the right of the political spectrum, organized and marched too, yet still drew their legitimacy from being young.

Thus, "youth" had become an ideology, one way of looking at, and participating in, the political world. As an object of public and private policies in the expansion of government after World War II, young people were educated, directed, shaped, and molded within this ideology to constitute the ideal citizenry of their respective nations. Young people were empowered to believe that they were responsible for and capable of initiating change within and for society. In part, 1968 was a spontaneous expression of this empowered identity. Tired of waiting for reform, youth attempted revolution albeit without a coherent ideology, direction, plan, or leadership. 1968 was, in part, a consequence of the emergence of a new postwar social body that was "youth." They tried to imagine, in all kinds of ways, what might constitute a better world, a better future — their future, our future. Their successes in this were limited, but their activism, the legitimacy of which rested on the concept of youth, made history, continuing to inspire the young to believe in the possibilities of change and the viability of youthful political action.