Back in the late nineties, when raving meant dancing and sun-dried tomatoes meant culinary sophistication, I joined a group at university called ‘The Activist Left’. It was the obvious choice for someone who had spent their high school years weeping over woodchips. I believed another world was possible but had no faith in parliamentary reform. Revolutionary overthrow sounded infinitely more exciting than slow and gradual change in due course. So I sailed past the Labor Party at O-Week and headed for the kids with piercings, radical politics and whose verdant forests of body hair should have constituted a zoning issue. I exchanged friends for comrades, tampons for moon-cups, deodorant for patchouli oil and dinner for beer. They were happy, smelly, tofu-filled days.
In the years that followed I participated in protests around Jabiluka mine, sexist advertising, refugees and cuts to university funding. Some of these protests, like Jabiluka mine, were successful. Others, like accidentally spray-painting ‘sexist crab’ on a billboard were just confusing. But victorious or not the very experience of protest was transformative, empowering and divinely pleasurable.
Protest is crucial to democracy. It takes us out of our soft and selfish refuges as we stand up for other people, places and ideas. Protest translates individual human empathy into wider social change. Public spaces in the CBD devoted to the rabid pursuit of self-interest are transformed into carnivalesque sites of collective revolt. Even if laws don’t always change through protest, participants certainly do.
Which is why I cannot help but bewail their extinction. Where have all the protests gone? When was the last time you saw the CBD cordoned off because 5000 students were complaining about the treatment of refugees? Why did Reclaim the Streets suddenly die? Why was Occupy Sydney mostly populated by Gen-Xers? At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly grannie muttering darkly over the state of the youth these days, I have to ask: what’s wrong with the youth these days? Why are they so nauseatingly conservative?
This is not just anecdotal. A recent Mission Australia study found that the economy had overtaken the environment as the issue that most concerned young Australia. Support for the Greens among young voters has decreased from 22% to 16% in the past two years and Tony Abbott still leads Labor on youth first-preferences since the last election by five points. Even worse, they’re stinking rich! According to a 2012 Bankwest Financial Fitness Index Gen Y are ‘more conservative with their money than any generation before’. Gen-Xers (between 33-45) I’m proud to say are financial train-wrecks.
I’ll grant that studies have shown young people to be socially progressive on issues like gay and lesbian rights and the war in Afghanistan. But their support rarely extends beyond online petitions, indignant memes or heartfelt status updates. It’s also true that Jonathan Moylan’s coal hoax and the marches for Jill Maher were great protests. They were, nonetheless, exceptions to the rule.
I’m abundantly aware of older generations berating the youth for their lack of radicalism. I read Helen Garner’s vile lectures to younger feminists and was a recipient of Ann Summers’ execrable letter to the next generation. Baby boomers grossly overstate their own counter-cultural spirit, particularly given their voracious appetite for real estate. While I was personally active, I make no claims on behalf of Gen-X to revolutionary fervour. My concern is simply that baby Gen-Y appear to be doing absolutely nothing at all except taking duck-faced photos of themselves on instagram.
Some commentators have blamed social media for the profound indolence of youth. Mark Bauerlain puts it beautifully: ‘the fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.’ Criticisms about google making us dumber intersect with generational critique. The internet, it’s argued, has created a frantic world of distraction where deep thought and empathy (fostered through reading books) is impossible. The E-generation are skaters upon the surface of life.
Personally, I think that this is hogswash. Aristotle argued that books prevented us from reflecting on our souls, T.S.Eliot thought that typewriters would thwart literary eloquence and everyone in the 18th Century thought that novel-reading would cause chronic masturbation.
The problem does not lie with technology. A quick glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Spain’s Los Indignados and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and facebooking their way to radical street protest.
Sadly, it seems like Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They’re more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.
Brittany Huppert, a twenty-year-old SMH intern, attributes her generation’s apathy to the fact that they were born into economic prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for except home-ownership, which she notes will be hard without mum or dad’s help. This is all probably true, but I can’t help but wonder why on earth a twenty year old is worried about home-ownership. Travel Brittany! The world is more interesting than a mortgage! Worry instead about how indigenous people can win land rights! And honestly, if you think you have nothing to fight for then maybe you should read up on the wage gap between women and men, rates of sexual violence, the intervention, global poverty, James Price Point and the list goes on.
To be honest, I’m not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just the spawn of John Howard? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?
All I know for certain is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.
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