In debt, out of luck: why Generation K fell in love with The Hunger Games
November 16th, 2015
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The brutal, bleak series that has captured the hearts of a generation will come to a brutal, bleak end in November when The Hunger Games:Mockingjay – Part 2 arrives in cinemas. It is the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga, which has immersed the young in a cleverly realised world of trauma, violence, mayhem and death.
For fans of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy about a young girl, Katniss Everdeen, forced to fight for survival in a country ruled by fear and fuelled by televised gladiatorial combat, this is the moment they have been waiting for.
Since the first book in the trilogy was published in 2008, Collins’s tale has sold more than 65 million copies in the US alone. The films, the first of which was released in 2012, have raked in more than $2bn worldwide at the box office and made a global star of their leading lady, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the increasingly traumatised Katniss with a perfect mix of fury and resignation. For the huge appeal of The Hunger Games goes deeper than the fact that it’s an exciting tale well told. The generation who came to Katniss as young teens and have grown up ploughing through the books and queuing for the movies respond to her story in a particularly personal way.
As to why that might be, the economist and academic Noreena Hertz, who coined the term Generation K (after Katniss) for those born between 1995 and 2002, says that this is a generation riddled with anxiety, distrustful of traditional institutions from government to marriage, and, “like their heroine Katniss Everdeen, [imbued with] a strong sense of what is right and fair”.
“I think The Hunger Games resonates with them so much because they are Katniss navigating a dark and difficult world,” says Hertz, who interviewed 2,000 teenagers from the UK and the US about their hopes, fears and beliefs, concluding that today’s teens are shaped by three factors: technology, recession and coming of age in a time of great unease.
“This is a generation who grew up through 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings and Islamic State terrors. They see danger piped down their smartphones and beheadings on their Facebook page,” she says. “My data showed very clearly how anxious they are about everything from getting into debt or not getting a job, to wider issues such as climate change and war – 79% of those who took part in my survey worried about getting a job, 72% worried about debt, and you have to remember these are teenagers.
“In previous generations teenagers did not think in this way. Unlike the first-era millennials [who Hertz classes as those aged between 20 and 30] who grew up believing that the world was their oyster and ‘Yes we can’, this new generation knows the world is an unequal and harsh place.”
Writer and activist Laurie Penny, herself a first-era millennial at the age of 29, agrees. “I think what today’s young people have grasped that my generation didn’t get until our early 20s, is that adults don’t know everything,” she says. “They might be trying their best but they don’t always have your best interests at heart. The current generation really understands that – they’re more politically engaged and they have more sense of community because they’re able to find each other easily thanks to their use of technology.”
One of the primary appeals of the Hunger Games trilogy is its refusal to sugarcoat the scenarios Katniss finds herself in. In contrast to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there are no reliable adult figures to dispense helpful advice and no one in authority she can truly trust (notably even the most likeable adult figures in the books tend to be flawed at best and fraudulent at worst). Even her friends may not always have her back, hard as they try – Dumbledore’s Army would probably find themselves taken out before they’d uttered a single counter-curse in the battlegrounds of Panem. At the end of the day, Katniss can only rely on one person, herself.
“Ultimately, the message of the Hunger Games is that everything’s not going to be OK,” says Penny. “One of the reasons Jennifer Lawrence is so good is because she lets you see that while Katniss is heroic, she’s also frightened all of the time. She spends the whole story being forced into situations she doesn’t want to be in. Kids respond because they can imagine what it’s like to be terrified but know that you have to carry on.”
It’s incontestable that we live in difficult times and that younger generations in particular may be more acutely aware that things aren’t improving any time soon, but is it a reach to say that fans of the Hunger Games are responding as much to the world around them as to the books?
“At heart the Hunger Games works because it’s a great story with a kick-ass and complicated female lead,” says Saci Lloyd, author of the young adult novel Momentum, which details life in a cruelly divided London of the near future. “I don’t think that the majority of young readers are connecting to it on a political level, but I do think that it taps into their sense of anxiety. It’s clear that today’s teenagers feel a great deal of anxiety, that they’re under a lot of pressure, both internal and external, and that depression rates are rising among teens. There’s a sense that the hyper-connected world can be overwhelming, that there are no clear boundaries any more and today’s teens always have to be ‘on’ – given all that, a girl with a bow and arrow sorting shit out is a lovely story.”
Last week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission painted a dire picture of the prospects of British teenagers relative to previous generations. Louise O’Neill, whose bleak but brilliant Only Ever Yours has struck a huge chord with the millennial generation, agrees that the popularity of dystopian tales such as the Hunger Games is an echo of the times. “Millennials are the first generation unlikely to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents enjoyed. They’ve been priced out of the housing market, unemployment is almost a given and they’ve been saddled with economic debt which they did nothing to accumulate,” she says. “The anger they have about this, coupled with their genuine concern about social, political, and ecological crises, has created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. That’s why so many of this generation are drawn to dystopian fiction.”
Certainly there’s a sense that the Hunger Games trilogy was very prescient. When the first novel was published in 2008 the global recession was just beginning. Since then we’ve seen economic collapse in Greece, the Arab spring, civil war in Syria, the rise of Isis and the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police in the US leading to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Small wonder that the Hunger Games, with its tributes and brutal deaths, its armed rebellion in District 13 and its pleas by traumatised citizens for the state to stop killing its citizens, seems less like fantasy fiction and more like a dark reflection of our times.
“What works with the Hunger Games is that it’s really good about the way mass media makes a spectacle of brutality,” says novelist Daniel José Older, whose recent book for young adults, Shadowshaper, is an addictive story of magic, music, art and death on the streets of Brooklyn. “Whenever something awful happens and it gets shown repeatedly on TV, it really does make me think of those books. The idea that today’s teenagers respond so strongly because of what’s happening in the world is a simplification, but what’s interesting about the books is the way in which they take violence seriously and tackle the lasting effects of war and trauma. That’s what gives the work its power and makes it so unsettling.”
The Hunger Games continues to shape today’s stories, on both shelf and screen. Bookshop shelves are stuffed full of dark tales of bleak worlds, from Blood Red Road by Moira Young, to Veronica Roth’s Divergent, while the freshest new show of the year, Mr Robot, available in the UK on Amazon Prime instant video, feels like a New York-set reality-based companion piece to the Hunger Games, similarly driven by paranoia, trauma and betrayal. “Sometimes books arrive at the time you need them,” says Penny. “The Hunger Games is the right book for the right time – which is kind of frightening.”