From Louis Theroux to Jeremy Corbyn: why are young people’s heroes all middle-aged? | Sam Wolfson

Sam Wolfson
A Jeremy Corbyn fan at Glastonbury 2017. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Louis Theroux debuted his feature-length film about Scientology at the London film festival in 2015, hoping to create a buzz that would lead to a cinema release, but he couldn’t find a company willing to distribute it. Eventually, a year after the premiere, he managed to secure a very limited cinema release.

Those screenings sold out almost immediately. Ben Luxford, the British Film Institute’s head of audience, told me that one cinema chain thought Scientologists had bought up all the tickets as a protest, and that the screenings would be empty. But the seats were not left vacant – they were full of young people. The film industry had been caught unawares, but millennials had been binge-watching Weird Weekends on Netflix. The distributor hurriedly arranged a much wider release and the film went on to take $2.2m (£1.6m) at the box office, an impressive showing for an independent documentary release.

Cinemas might have known to expect a big youth audience if they had looked to the plethora of bootleg Theroux streetwear created by DIY fashion companies such as Homage Tees and sported by Stormzy, or the “No Context Louis” meme account, or the student nightclub chain Propaganda, which released merch with an outline drawing of Theroux’s face, or “sleep tight Theroux the night” pillowcases. Theroux decorations were even a popular choice for student Christmas trees.

When youth culture is discussed, it is always in terms of how divorced young people are from mass media: they stream TV, they pick and choose their political values rather than following a stringent ideology, they idolise Instagram influencers that their parents would never recognise. It might follow that stars of an older generation have lost sway with the young, but Theroux is part of a generation of public figures, in middle age and beyond, that are heroes to young Brits.

The example most often trotted out is Jeremy Corbyn. In some ways, the 2017 general election followed the pattern of Theroux’s cinema release, with expert pundits ignoring that Corbyn had his image emblazoned on T-shirts and was filling up social media feeds, right up until the “youthquake” election result arrived. Corbyn’s age is part of his appeal: it is difficult to imagine hoards of Glastonbury-attendees chanting for the Labour leader if he was a slick thirtysomething. Like Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Corbyn is attractive to young voters because he comes from a period when politics felt principled and high-stakes. Black-and-white photos of him in scruffy jumpers protesting against apartheid were as important to his success as anything in the Labour manifesto. When the Tories sought a response to Corbyn it was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a politician once nicknamed “the honourable member for the 18th century”, who became the likely candidate, his moral conservatism seen as more appealing than any fresher faces in the party.

Across popular culture, there has been a shift in who is considered to be cool. Go to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition, a Paul Mason talk or a Sofia Coppola film and you might think you’d stepped into a student union (the enthusiasm for older people and things will likely extend to attendees’ fashion choices, too, with plenty of vintage sportswear last popular in the 80s and 90s: Ellesse, Kickers, Tommy Jeans). On Tuesday, everyone was fretting about the influence of Youtube stars on teenagers after vlogger Logan Paul filmed a dead body, but a 2016 Radio Times/YouGov survey of the people who were most admired by 13- to 18-year-olds gave top 10 placings to David Tennant, Brian Cox, Barack Obama and JK Rowling (although Emma Watson was at No 1).

It’s not that you have to be going grey to appeal to the young. It’s just that the era when youth icons were roughly the same age as their fans – the Beatles, Kate Bush, the 80s alternative comedy boom, Joy Division, Oasis and Chris Evans – has come to an end. The age range of cool has broadened out a bit. Take Radio 1, which constantly strives to reach a young audience – yet a lot of their most credible DJs are pushing 40. Annie Mac, 39, not only hosts the station’s flagship new music and dance shows, but headlines Ibiza superclubs and runs nights across the country that are hugely popular with students and twentysomethings. She is young compared with David Rodigan, 66, and Annie Nightingale, 77, who both have shows on Radio 1Xtra.

There are a number of reasons for this new-found respect for the middle-aged. People my age grew up with nostalgia TV blasted at us, constantly being told about the brilliance of the Stone Roses and The Young Ones until we started to accept it.

But it goes deeper than that: I think we admire people who grew up before the internet age. In the past, coolness came from nonchalance, leather jackets and a sense of fatalism. Today, it comes from those who in some way feel disconnected from the endless content cycle, sponsored posts and hashtag engagement. People who are connected to something real: club nights of human beings gathered together, politics of principle, slow-burning documentaries that were once shown on old-fashioned telly. Authenticity now comes from existing in the physical world.

You don’t have to be old to seem authentic, but the lives of people who grew up in a time before Facebook can seem almost fantastical to those of us who spent our childhoods behind computer screens. It’s why we adore the 80s nostalgia of Stranger Things, even though we never lived through the 80s; why the average age of Glastonbury headliners has been creeping up, from 25 in the 1970s to 41 today. It’s why the most talked-about show among millennials is Black Mirror, and why shows by Theroux, Charlie Brooker and Jill Soloway are so much more celebrated among young people than traditional youth drama. The way we access these people is more digital than ever. But that has only made their corporeal world seem more attractive.

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