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Power shift, power change

By Lucy Manne - posted Thursday, 8 July 2010

I am a proud member of Generation Y. I teach my parents how to use their phones, access the news largely through social media, and vehemently defend Harry Potter against detractors. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that was for the most part prosperous and secure, and am aware that this is a privilege that does not extend to the majority of human beings with whom I share this world.

Like many in my generation, I also volunteer. I spend a couple of days each week at the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), a national youth-run organisation. I do this because I firmly believe that my generation has the perspective and vision to create the change we need to tackle the climate crisis.

As I read an article detailing the latest report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, then, I might have been discouraged. The findings show those aged 18-24 are more likely than older groups to care about climate change, but less likely to be taking steps in their own lives, like taking “green” bags when shopping and cutting back on their electricity use. The conclusion many might reach is that while young Australians care, their concern is relatively shallow.


But the only reason we might draw that conclusion is because of a stereotype that already exists. The media teaches us to think of the current generation of young people through a framework that labels the 18-24s as materialistic, privileged, and politically apathetic.

This stereotype is like any other - it may describe individuals, but is ultimately nothing more than a crude caricature that the diversity of Generation Y defines. And just like other stereotypes, this one permeates our culture with such subtlety that often we don’t even realise it exists. But it does - just look at mainstream current affairs shows. The “delinquent youth” story is such a fixture it has become the subject of parody for groups like The Chaser.

This is not to say that the media never casts young people in a positive light - the media coverage of Jessica Watson’s dazzling achievement immediately springs to mind. But these narratives aren’t prevalent enough to displace the dominant paradigm.

A due wariness of the stereotypes in play suggests a fresh take on the ABS report. Young Australians may be the least likely to take small-scale individual action, but perhaps for different reasons than one might initially assume. Those aged 18-24 live unsettled lives. Transitioning out of the familial home into rental properties with restrictions from landlords isn’t conducive to activities like improving household energy efficiency. As Jenny Macklin pointed out earlier this week, young Australians are particularly vulnerable to unemployment, with youth joblessness in some areas as high as 25 per cent. This context needs to be taken into account, as the ABS report links higher unemployment with a lower level of personal action.

This is not to suggest that these findings aren’t problematic, and we don’t need to develop ways to increase young people’s engagement with waste management and household water and energy consumption. Such education is vital to effect the long-term cultural change that is at the core of the AYCC’s mission. But it is equally important to appreciate that differences between age groups probably have less to do with stereotypes and more to do with material circumstances.

What the report also highlights is that young people are more likely to be concerned about climate change than any other group. This is unsurprising. It is young people who face the consequences of climate change in their own lives. As young Australians we are also the ones who most want to transition to a clean energy economy, a step that is vital to the nation’s long-term prosperity.


Cutting carbon pollution and creating green jobs for future economic growth requires changes at the policy level. Individual action is necessary but not sufficient, and shouldn’t distract from the political work still to be done. There is good evidence that it is this aspect of the issue young Australians understand best. When the government shelved the ETS until 2013, it was young voters who reacted most strongly. A Newspoll covering the period in which the decision was announced showed that the only group for which “someone else” was preferred to either major party to handle climate change was those aged 18-34.

At the AYCC, our membership increased from 5,000 at the start of 2009 to 50,000 by the end of the year, making us the largest youth run organisation in the nation. Our Facebook page increases by 100 fans each week, and sees its most dramatic increases when a weakening in climate policy is announced. In July and August, a series of three youth summits called Power Shift will bring together hundreds of young people in Adelaide, Canberra and Geelong passionate about creating change.

Young Australians are currently less likely to take small-scale action, but that doesn’t mean this same demographic won’t demand a credible climate policy from our Federal government. This is not to generalise the diversity of opinions held by young Australians. But what the ABS report, and other polls confirm, is that climate change is a defining issue for many members of Generation Y. This age group will make up 20 per cent of voters in the upcoming election, and politicians will disregard the call for climate leadership at their peril.

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First published by the National Times on July 7, 2010.

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About the Author

Lucy Manne is a university student at the University of Melbourne, currently completing a Bachelor of Arts. She has written for the student magazine Farrago on a wide range of subjects, and volunteers with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.

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