Young Suburbanites, Assemble!

Previewing his upcoming book, Oly Durose explores myths and misconceptions commonly held towards the suburbs by the Labour movement and beyond. ‘Suburban Socialism’ is out on January 11th 2022, and can be pre-ordered here

“People just want to keep it quiet. If you don’t speak about it, it doesn’t exist.” 

Madison Hollingshed had never attended a protest before, let alone organised one. Raised in a predominantly white and wealthy suburb in Florida, the 15-year-old high school student hadn’t exactly grown up in a neighbourhood known for rebellion. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Madison joined millions of people across the globe in a youthquake of widescale dissent. A youthquake so seismic that it pulsated outwards from its urban core into seemingly unlikely terrain. In fact, for Madison, it was suburbia’s reputation for reticence that made her call-to-arms all the more essential. Young people like Madison were not just protesting racial injustice. They were protesting the idea that suburbanites had no reason – no obligation – to resist.

More than a year later, and the suburbs are still largely excluded from discussions of collective and radical change around the world. Rooted in assumptions about their white, middle-class character, the suburbs are equated with orthodoxy, placidity and dispassion. In fact, this reductive stereotype creates a particularly convenient backdrop in which to ignore the living conditions of those who shout the loudest. Young suburbanites are either concealed by an image of the urban fringes as a staid place of retirement, or, unable to recount memories down the coal-mine, crassly subsumed into a narrative of middle-class irrelevance. But the suburban terrain – and the reality of young people that reside there – is far more complex. 

In both the US and the UK, the suburbs are increasingly home to a youthful and multi-racial working-class, who are being displaced from urban centres. Take Chingford & Woodford Green, an Essex constituency on the outskirts of London. Despite its reputation as a wealthy suburb, half of workers subsist below the living wage. Displacement has been most noticeable in the south of the constituency, where young — predominantly Black and brown — people have moved in from Walthamstow, Hackney and Clapton to relatively cheaper housing. Even in suburbs (like Madison’s) that are heavily populated by the “middle-class”, to end our analysis there is to overlook the varied living and working conditions disguised by this vague characterisation. And, crucially, it is to ignore common bonds that exist across blurred class boundaries. Bonds that are shaped in response to the suffocating realities of young, suburban life. 

As the Black Lives Matter protests attested, reducing suburbia to white homogeneity is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Not only does it ignore the existence of Black-majority suburbs (where resistance is met with far more brutal suppression), but it disregards people like Madison, herself a young Black woman, protesting the experience of marginalisation in – and by – an otherwise white neighbourhood. The suburbs are not characterised by white homogeneity per se. They are characterised by racial inequality, which exists between and within suburban spaces. 

Young protesters were not speaking out against racial inequality in isolation, however. Anti-racist action in the suburbs was situated within a wider refusal to accept an increasingly unfulfilling, unfair and uninhabitable future. Low-paid retail staff on suburban High Streets bear the brunt of an exploitative economy, but those who enjoy a higher salary often share a common experience: monotonous work. For those starting a new job in the New Year, let’s raise a glass: to embarking upon a forty-year project in which you’ll perform the same tasks, nine-to-five, day in, day out. This is before we’ve considered the fact that most young workers’ shifts are a lot longer than nine-to-five; commuters trying to make a good impression spend their journey replying to emails and preparing presentations for free. In performing unpaid labour, commuters join a gendered workforce, neither recognised nor remunerated for countless hours of reproductive labour that keeps the suburban cycle turning.

An inauguration into a life of labour isn’t the only thing hidden behind the façade of the white picket fence. So too are those excluded from the suburban dream: young and stigmatised social tenants and precarious private renters. Is it any surprise that the number of young adults living with their parents has increased by almost 50% in the past twenty years? When I lived at home in my early-mid-twenties, I was fortunate to have parents who own their own spacious house an hour away from my job in central London. Others live with their parents out of economic necessity rather than prudence, intimately tied to the fact that 80% of graduates will spend thirty years of their lives with tuition fee debt, while non-graduates are for the most part less well paid. If either group needs to pay rent to help with running costs, they may not even be able to show savings for their loss of autonomy. At best, a private model of homeownership forces young suburbanites to choose between sacrificing their autonomy or their future economic security. At worst, it chooses for them, and sacrifices both. 

Perhaps the most grievous sacrifice of suburban atomisation, though, is the fading possibility of any habitable future at all. Fenced-off lawns in sprawling settlements are the epitome of individualised, inefficient and unsustainable planning. And while some suburbanites may continue to distance themselves from the impending climate catastrophe, they are not immune from heat stress, storms, flooding, droughts and respiratory disease. Somewhat ironically, anybody with a suburban dream should ultimately have an interest in dismantling the hyper-privatised and relentlessly extractive economy that underpins it. After all, striped front lawns, neat hedges and multicoloured flower baskets won’t look so pleasant when they’re on fire. 

In the face of these accelerating suburban crises, it’s easy to despair. Alternatively, we could embrace a far more emancipatory discovery: the suburbs are an untapped site of youthful resistance. That’s not to downplay the challenges of mobilisation. In my experience of campaigning, you’re more likely to be joined by activists in their sixties-and-over than you are by anyone else. After all, many young people who reside in the suburbs know it won’t be permanent, counting down the days until they can move to the city. Can you blame young suburbanites for their unwillingness to spend time and energy campaigning in a constituency they ultimately want to leave? The question is not whether we need greater youthful participation in suburban campaigns (we do); it’s how can we channel the youthful energy that already exists in ways that expand its impact, and in ways that encourage young suburbanites to advance a future worth sticking around for?

A youthful suburban campaign will never succeed inside the electoral arena without revolutionising its strategy outside of it. That means subverting urban-centric notions of youthful dissent. Since we are not always able to emulate the kind of direct action we see in metropolitan centres in terms of size or scale, suburban organising is an obstacle in itself. But it’s also an opportunity to catch the edifices of suburban capitalism off guard. After years of being asked to join protesters in the city, suburban protesters should demand something in return, and ask city activists to lend their support in filling local High Streets, parks and cul-de-sacs with the kind of formidable presence other suburbanites will not be expecting. 

With youthful dissent must come youthful demands for a more collectively fulfilling future in the urban outskirts. For a meaningful stake in its design. For a suburban manifesto that brings white picket fences under collective control. I know that, for some politicians, these are youthful demands for a reason – they are naïve, wide-eyed and utopian. Why is it, though, that as children, we’re told to chase our hopes and dreams, but when we get older, we’re ridiculed for trying? Sure, young suburbanites cannot save their future by themselves. But there is one reason, above all, why schoolchildren, students, debt-laden graduates, non-graduates, first-time renters, lifetime social tenants, young people living with their parents, young workers and young carers are best placed to fight for a suburb that shares. In striving to replace racial hatred with radical empathy, monotonous work with creative pleasure, precarity with play, and environmental destruction with collective care, young suburbanites are fighting for more than just themselves. They are fighting for the youth in all of us. 

This article explores one aspect of Oly Durose’s forthcoming book, Suburban Socialism (Repeater Books: 2022), in which he argues for a radical suburban strategy. A strategy that recognises the complexity of the terrain and responds to the crises of capitalism that tie it together. One that builds the largest possible coalition for socialism in the suburbs, mobilising the suburban working-class while bringing other “unlikely” suburbanites into the frame. One that puts young suburbanites right at the very heart of the campaign for a more collectively fulfilling suburban future.

Oly Durose is a socialist activist, parliamentary researcher and writer. In the 2019 UK General Election, he stood as the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Brentwood & Ongar. In February 2020, he was a Caucus Site Leader for the Bernie Sanders Campaign in Nevada. He tweets at @olydurose


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