Think that young people are political troublemakers, passionate about everything from the environment to the rising cost of education? Think again. According to a recent report commissioned by the Dusseldorp Skills Forum called Fearless and Flexible: Views of Gen Y, the generation aged between 16 and 24 are actually “political ingénues” with little interest in current issues. Try to talk to them about globalisation and you’re likely to get blank looks; mention the deregulation of the economy and they’ll fall asleep. In the words of the report, Gen Yers “lived as though politics did not exist. They certainly did not follow national or international political issues, let alone political machinations.”
Could a whole generation be so politically tuned out? The answer, of course, is "No". The problems here are twofold: first, attempting to categorise the beliefs of an entire generation is doomed to failure. So much diversity is painted over. Are the political views of a 20-year-old Muslim girl in Sydney’s south-west the same as a 17-year-old private schoolboy in Melbourne’s east? Both are Generation Y, but is either typical of the age group?
Impressively, the Fearless and Flexible report openly admits that its survey sample is limited: just 70 people across eight focus groups. No Muslims, Indigenous Australians or people from other marginalised groups were interviewed. This might be fair enough for an early stage qualitative survey, but it does not provide a sturdy basis to make generalised claims about the views of Gen Y.
The more serious problem is the attempt to brand 16 to 24-year-olds as apolitical. It’s not a new claim - in fact, it’s become more of a generational cliché. But there’s a fundamental misrecognition at work here: researchers are looking for politics in all the wrong places. The narrow view of political involvement only considers party membership, campaign contributions, joining unions and knowing how you’ll vote in the next election.
It’s true, Gen Y doesn’t look good on these measures. But membership in parties and unions is falling in all age groups, right across the industrialised West. To conclude from this that young people are politically fatalistic is to miss the point. Politics has moved elsewhere. It’s not just in the parliamentary halls of power or on the hustings, it’s all around us. There are identity politics on Oxford Street, single-issue politics outside the gates of the Villawood detention centre, cultural politics at pub gigs and art galleries. If we broaden our focus to look at the miscellany of political interests, the picture is considerable brighter.
As the sociologist Ulrich Beck notes, people are, “involved more than ever before in a wide range of activities that precisely criticise and challenge institutions and elites”. There are community campaigns, global boycotts and countless forms of media activism. Just have a look online. Blogs thrive and multiply, as people engage with social questions, thrash out their opinions and give their two cents on the political issues of the day.
This is mass participation in public debate, a social experiment where people can talk back to politicians and media pundits without having to wait patiently on Alan Jones’ switchboard. Even those online forums that avoid any connection with formal politics are part of a major shift in how we can communicate and interact with our community.
Those aged 16 to 24 are among the most educated generation in history. They stay in high school longer, many will go to university and even more will use the immense information resources now available to them. Their engagements with broader political issues may not match the traditional formulas, but that doesn’t mean they’re just quietly waiting for their turn at the ballot box.
This debate has important ramifications for our understanding of citizenship. If generations are written off as apolitical, they are undermined as contributors to public debate and policy. Their input is perceived to have less authority and less weight. The political theatre is roped off for “adults only” and we create divisions based on nothing more than one’s year of birth.
In order to have a democracy that allows the maximum number of people to speak up, there needs to be a greater awareness of the many ways we engage in civil society. We should be tuning in to the wider conversations that are going on about contemporary politics: be it blogs or bands, on the street or on YouTube. Politics is being refashioned into something more pluralised, more imaginative. It’s time we recognised the bustling activity beyond the ramparts of our political institutions.