In yet another week of interesting political decisions, South Africans were reminded that very few things are certain in our country today. Jobs aren’t. Allegiances or ideological positions aren’t either. And neither is the economy. What is certain, aside from death and taxes of course, is that come the next public holiday and we would be united in celebration.

Usually, many of us celebrating are just happy to have a day off, or to spend a day revelling in the festivities that we can be certain will mark every day of national significance.

Yesterday’s Youth Day was no different except that – besides the activities, the song and dance, the speeches and memorial articles – one could be sure that in the run-up to the anniversary of the start of the 1976 student uprising, we would all be subjected to the constant refrain that “today’s youth are nothing like the youth of yesteryear”.

There is a sort of angst that elders and media folk alike quaff on, certain that there is some measure of truth in the urban legends of a “lost generation”.

Perhaps it is the nature of inter-generational politics that our elders rarely are comforted or assured that we have a handle on things, much in the same way that young people often feel they know exactly what they are doing.

Whilst I will not suggest that many my age and younger are Tsietsi Mashininis in the making, I do not care for the narrative of a sea of rudderless youngsters without moral or intellectual compass. I do not care for the comparison to begin with, particularly when we look at who is providing this prognosis. The expectations that today’s youth must somehow exhibit the sort of courage, moral fortitude and organisational ability that the ’76 generation had is unfair at best and hypocritical at worst.

Before I get into the meat of my argument, allow me to digress slightly. At a luncheon recently a conversation about that other certain conversation-starter, relationships between men and women, resolved that a fundamental hamstring of a long-lasting one is the phenomenon of mixed-messages. A man says he is interested in a woman, and yet doesn’t seem to recall her birthday nor randomly call her in the middle of the day (I’m told this is what real love is made of).

Similarly, a woman may enter in a relationship with an unavailable man (perhaps he is married or just more into his work) and say “I’m not interested in anything serious”, meanwhile she rushes home every day to prepare a feast which she invites him to share.

The dissonance between what one says and does leads to many a cul-de-sac. There is no way to reconcile the difference and in the end we can only look to what one does – hence “actions speak louder than words”. We see this fairly often in our public spaces. And I see dollops of it in the tag of “the lost generation”.

The youth has, by and large, inherited its sense of values from those on display by their elders and those that are peddled to them en masse through the different media they consume. Whether we are speaking about my generation’s (and our successors’) attitudes to money and power, human dignity and abuse, sex and relationships, health and well-being, work and education, we can see clearly the examples of our preceding generations – or the examples of soapie and drama- series heroes.

Arguably the Skhotane phenomenon has its roots in similar subcultures from days past, as well as the rampantly ostentatious choice of lifestyle of many of today’s older luminaries. The rampant sexuality of our teens and tweens wasn’t simply manifest from the ether. A case in point, the young woman who was violated in a sex video wasn’t given the name “Jackpot” by her peers, rather, her older neighbours called her that.

Perhaps the fact that they drove and fostered today’s freedoms (which all races and classes enjoy) has given many within the ruling class the idea that some sort of bonanza is owed to them.

I agree that accolades are necessary, but the unhealthy attitude that many of my politically-active age-mates have is a direct result of this.

As South Africans of all ages scratch their skulls for the reason that today’s youngsters are veering so far from the Class of ’76, they need look no further than the actions they take – publicly and privately – rather than the messages those with influence peddle and the stories that media such as this highlight. A quick analysis will show that the power to influence and direct the attitudes of the Class of 2012 is less in their hands than in ours.

It is said with all certainty that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. Just a cursory glance at today’s youth must be a shocking indictment. Perhaps it is not the youth that is the lost generation after all.

n Sisulu is a social activist, who runs the volunteer mobilisation organisation, Cheesekids. An Archbishop Tutu Fellow (2011), he has recently published a book, “Becoming”.