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What’s the big deal about Generation Y?

By Rachel Hills - posted Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Sad but true: the surest way a person under 30 can score a byline in the opinion pages of the daily papers is to muse on the qualities that distinguish that most over defined of creatures - the members of Generation Y, or those born between 1978 and 1994.

They’re apathetic and conservative. Some of them attend demonstrations or chat about politics on the net. They’re cynical of Howard and Beazley, but totally into religion and early marriage. They’re ambitious, materialistic and demanding of their employers, but they’re also happy to throw in the towel on corporate life in favour of an early seachange to concentrate on their personal goals. Oh - and they totally love their mobile phones.

If you regularly pick up a newspaper, you’ll have seen it all often enough that you can probably predict the contents of any Gen Y-related article from the article’s headline alone. Articles about “youth culture” are for the most part repetitive, reductionist and based on little more than the last lot of clichés to rear their unpretty heads (and of course the knowledge that the easiest way to get your first broadsheet byline is to shoot off 600 words on the ins and outs of contemporary “youth culture”).


But for all the repetition, Generation Y keeps popping up in the media, and if soft news (and soft opinion) is written to appeal to readers’ informational wants rather than their needs, someone out there must be loving it. Which begs the question, why is there such an obsession with Generation Y?

Are we really that interesting?

Despite the deluge of comment that would tell you otherwise, the answer is likely not that Generation Y is all that remarkably different to any generation to come before. We live in a culture obsessed with all things new, young and zeitgeisty. Where youth - or at least the appearance of youth - is revered, and the popular culture consumed by the young takes centre stage. Where people want to look younger, act younger and avoid the responsibility that comes with adulthood for as long as they can.

But it’s not all vanity and vicarious living. Opinion and feature writing exist to help make sense of the world as it is at a given point in time, and examining the young people of that time is one way of doing that. If we accept that people are influenced by their experiences and that their experiences are shaped in part by the circumstances and qualities of the era in which they live, as people who have only lived in the past couple of decades, it’s easy to see how young people could be viewed as the ultimate expression of the times.

Which also explains the negativity. For those afraid of change or unhappy with the direction the world is taking, young people - like immigrants - make for an easy scapegoat.

So maybe all this talk about Gen Y is actually worth having. Maybe it has the potential to tell us something interesting about where we’re at and where we’re heading. But the way we approach the subject, for the most part, is still problematic. Because for the most part, articles on Gen Y don’t tell us anything more than “young people are apathetic/politically engaged/love their mobile phones”.


And barely ever do they recognise that - approximately, if not absolutely - for every conservative young person, there’s a progressive. That for every Paris Hilton clone, there’s a feminist and a Hillsong devotee heading up the street somewhere behind her. The brush strokes are too broad to capture the variations.

Even within my own social circle, one friend spends her evenings and weekends building an activist coalition, while another voted for the Coalition in the 2004 federal election because she thought John Howard looked “so cute, like a little koala”. Some work 10-hour days for corporate law firms, others 14-hour days at not-for-profits, while others still are backpacking around Europe or struggling to find employment. Some are eager to get married and have children - and have felt that way for years - others never plan to marry at all.

And don’t for a second be so one dimensional as to think that the young woman who asks her friends to help her eye out engagement rings hasn’t also been known to take the megaphone at education rallies, or that the devout Catholic doesn’t spend her weekends with refugees at Villawood.

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About the Author

Rachel Hills is Managing Editor of’s print projects division and a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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