Around the 2004 federal election, a number of people asked me how I thought young Australians might cast their vote - for many it was their first experience at the polling booth. I made an educated guess that while a small number may have voted Green or Democrat, the majority of young Australians probably cast their vote for John Howard. Not because as a group they are inherently conservative. But because Howard is the prime minister they have grown up with. And because, for some time now, Labor hasn’t offered voters - younger or older - enough compelling reasons to vote otherwise.
The political profile and habits of Generation Y - Australians born after 1981, currently in their late teens and early 20s - are still developing. But there are some stubborn and misguided assumptions circulating about their current political attitudes. In the minds of political scientists and journalists Generation Y is just like the generation that preceded it - Generation X.
X - my generation - was characterised as politically apathetic and ignorant. Indeed it is still common for journalists and political scientists to reiterate “findings” that young people are disinterested in, and not very knowledgeable about, formal political processes. Countless studies in Australia have shown there is a serious weakness in young peoples' understanding about how the political system works. Fewer young Australians eligible to vote are enrolled (approximately 82 per cent in 2004) compared with older Australians (95 per cent): and party membership, comparatively low across all age sectors of the population, is particularly acute among young people.
Many older commentators lay the blame for these levels of political disengagement firmly at the feet of young people themselves. However, smarter political analysts are prepared to turn the tables and ask: what does politics really offer young people? For the majority of Generation Y, the two-party system doesn’t provide any real choices. They feel uninspired by conventional politics because there are only slight differences between the two major parties. Politicians, despite their party origins, appear to be from the same breed of suit-wearing, slogan and jargon speaking apparatchiks, a closed club of professionals who represent older generations and their social values.
Not only are political parties (and their leaders) unappealing, Generation Y feels that there is little that can be done to change them. Few think you can really make a difference joining a political party. The major parties don’t allow for enough internal democracy to satisfy the needs of a generation that expect flexibility and choice in all their endeavours. This is a generation that are enthusiastic about having a say. They get to choose the next Australian Idol or the next eviction from the Big Brother house. The “tow-the-party-line” mentality of the major political parties seem too simplistic, too constraining for a generation that is used to this kind of direct involvement in decision making.
But current levels of youth disengagement and ignorance about formal politics belies the fact in general, this generation cares about how this country is run and the fate of the world at large. “Apathy” just isn’t an accurate way to describe the political attitudes of Generation Y.
While they might see politics as boring, they aren’t comfortable with their current levels of political ignorance. They believe they should know more about how the system works. For example, 83 per cent of those surveyed in the 2003 Democrats Youth Poll believed students should be taught more about Australia’s political and legal system at school.
And Generation Y makes a vital distinction between caring about party politics and caring about the stuff of politics, the issues that matter. They have views and they have some idea about what is going on but that concern hasn’t translated into traditional forms of political behaviour like party membership. Rather than apathy, Gen Y projects something more like powerlessness, either to change the political culture or to make progress with political issues.
If party politics is a turn-off, what are the alternative avenues for political expression for Generation Y? As a response to the constraints and monotony of party politics, they have turned their energies towards local and community politics. This means that young people’s activism has been largely invisible to political scientists. Young people are heavily involved in public life, but often in ways not conventionally recognised as “political”.
Ari Vromen, a leading Australian researcher on the civic behaviour of X and Y, argues that young people’s political activism shouldn’t be measured against some preconceived notion of what “real” political behaviour is. Rather we need to look at the diverse ways in which young people participate in public life beyond party and electoral politics. While they may not measure high on the scales of traditional political activity - donating money, contacting MPs, joining political parties or unions - the vast majority of them are involved in community, campaigning and protest activities.
Vromen found young people involved in church groups, parents and citizens, environmental and sporting organisations. She also found that they are particularly willing to boycott products for political reasons. This mirrors trends in the United States, where youth volunteerism is currently at an all time high. Young America is awash in community service and high school and college community-service activities have never been more extensive. Turning away from the national and the party political, members of Generation Y are taking a small target approach to their own political behaviour, focusing on organisations and issues that are closest to them. These seem easier to understand and influence.
American demographers Howe and Strauss argue that Generation Y has rejected the “too cool to care” credo of Generation X and display a genuine interest in volunteer work, community and local politics. It seems this is also the case in terms of Generation Y in Australia. While some commentators persist in their description of Y as apathetic and politically clueless, they are a principled and idealistic lot with a commitment to making the world a better place. They just don’t see political parties or national politics generally as the place to start.
Political parties are making a grave error if they think they can ignore Generation Y voters until later, when they start to accrue the kinds of responsibilities we associate with adulthood - a mortgage, marriage, kids and a permanent job. For many, this kind of “growing up’ may take another decade or more. In the meantime, Generation Y voters are waiting to be engaged by a political force prepared to speak their language. The political force that does will carry this generation well into the future.