A youthquake might be hitting Britain in 2018

Remember the Nobel Peace Prize 2016? Everyone got very confused when it was awarded to Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, a man who only five days earlier had failed in his mission to deliver peace.

An agreement he brokered to end a 52-year war with FARC rebels was rejected by the public in a referendum. The prize committee defended its decision saying it was a reward for his "efforts," designed to spur the parties involved on in their journey toward a resolution. Full marks for trying, in other words.

This same reasoning is surely the only way to explain the victor of an equally august prize, announced Friday (December 15): The Oxford Dictionaries (OD) word of the year 2017. Apparently, the syllables that have been setting the country alight are—get ready—"Youthquake."

"Youthquake." Yep.

According to the dictionary bods it means "a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people," first coined in 1965 by Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue.

To put it mildly, it isn't a phenomenon we've seen much of in the last year. Like the Nobel committee, the OD must be looking forward to an approaching change.

Young Communists
Protesters from the Young Communist League take part in an anti-austerity demonstration to coincide with the first day of the Conservative Party annual conference at the Manchester Central Convention Centre, on October 1, 2017. Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

When Vreeland was writing, you can see why she was casting about for such a term. The children of the post-war baby boom were coming of age fast and telling the "squares" above them what was "rad" (or something.)

They were remaking music and fashion. They were preparing to protest in the streets. And above all, they were numerous: in 1965 the median age in the U.K. was 35.1 years and heading downwards. In 2015 it stood at 40.2 years.

But what "youthquakes" struck in 2017? There was, I suppose, the terrifying rise of the fidget spinner. And an unintelligible children's craze for making your own goo out of chemicals and shaving cream has driven "slime" almost to the top of Google's own year-end list for most-searched words. The onward march of Zoella continues apace, complete with a 50 quid advent calendar now lightening parents' pockets across the nation.

It's hard, though, to look across the broader political landscape of Britain and place the young in the driving seat.

The defining political story remains Brexit, the shape of which has been most notably influenced within the U.K. by the Democratic Unionist Party (whose time sharing power in Northern Ireland has coincided with 68.7 percent of 18-24-year-olds declaring little or no interest in politics), by greying Conservative MPs, and by anti-immigration sentiment, which is far more prevalent among older generations.

Many aspects of the economy are still skewed against the young, especially the housing market, where an average first deposit will require millennials to save the equivalent value of 30,000 avocados.

In a blog post Casper Grathwohl, OD President of Dictionaries, acknowledges that the word isn't an "obvious choice," though apparently its use increased fivefold in the U.K. this year.

But, he wrote, "at a time when our language is reflecting a deepening unrest and exhausted nerves, it is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note. Hope that the damage we've done to our institutions will enable the next generation to rebuild better ones. Hope that our polarized times are creating a more open-minded electorate that will exercise its voice in the times ahead."

So it really is the Nobel argument: be the change you want to see in the world. Build it and they will come. Stick a word in a bunch of newspaper headlines, and maybe you'll foment revolution.

It's probably not what most people think the word of the year is for and, as the Observer's crossword setter Colin Gumbrell pointed out to me on Twitter, "It's quite a serious departure from the OED's lexicographical ethos of being descriptive rather than prescriptive."

But as a political prediction, it could hold value. The OD points to the 2017 General Election, which to me, given it ended with the same Prime Minister as it started with, wasn't quite a "youthquake," but did see lots of young people mobilizing in unexpected ways. A youthtremor, perhaps.

Young people are now redefining both main political parties: the energetic/abrasive (delete depending on your prior bias) campaigners of Momentum, alongside a wider membership more broadly, are changing the internal dynamics and external messaging of Labour. Meanwhile the Conservatives have yet to figure out their biggest problem: why they're losing among all age brackets under 50.

Whether the answer is a Tory Glastonbury, per former policy chief George Freeman, educating the young about the evils of Communism, as James Bartholemew argued in the Telegraph, or just "doing a bit more to help people get houses," the preferences of at least the older bracket of millennials could help shape Tory strategy in the years to come.

And in Universities, where the future political and cultural character of the British elite is shaped, undergraduates of unprecedented diversity (and unprecedented levels of debt) are asking for drastic changes in the way they are taught.

Campaigns to decolonise curriculums, shore up safe spaces, and implement trigger warnings generate outraged headlines in the press. But whether you agree or disagree, they show a buoyant and confident generation that wants to reshape the institutions that serve it. And, if you're of a more conservative bent, you might enjoy the satirical NUS election campaign of babyfaced former Brexit campaigner Tom Harwood, a brazen political move conducted from the right.

So "youthquake" seems an odd choice for 2017. But in 2018, 2019, or 2020, it might make much more sense. Until then, at least you can entertain yourself by making red-faced uncle Clive explode with rage when you repeatedly use it over Christmas dinner. A micro-youthquake in your own home. All revolutions begin somewhere.