Looking to generational divides tell us nothing
Sitting around in a café the other day, one of my former colleagues bemoaned the fact that young people where not as active as him when he was studying. He raised his frustration that each generation is getting more politically lethargic and ranted about the generational changes we are seeing.
Apart from reminding him that ‘his generation’ had not done such a bang up job in solving the world’s problems, and actually delivering some new ones, the whole area of ‘generational research’ is one that is deeply flawed. That is, to clearly define a population’s attributes based on their ‘generational status’ tends to homogenise a population by their age – despite there always being significant differences within each cluster.
Despite this, we see books and papers about Boomers, X-ers and Y’s – all presented as if this is the missing ingredient in understanding the way of the world and what is going on with our society. So is this the case?
I am far from convinced – rather, I would argue we are seeing fracturing and clustering of different groups based on a cross section of attributes and often displaying contradictory trends. Further, these developments have important implications for the future of Australia that are not being addressed.
I am not saying that generational status is not an element, but that it is merely one of many factors and we should treat claims that there are clear-cut differences between generations carefully. Further, any differences that do emerge should not be analysed in isolation but be looked at within the context of broader trends that are emerging.
Two examples highlight this.
The first is the changing attitudes towards political parties and politicians.
There is a clear disenchantment with political parties amongst many young people: a deep distrust that cannot be dealt with by focus group driven rhetoric. But as the most recent federal election highlighted, this is something that is emerging across a great deal of the population.
Simultaneously, both Young Labor and Young Liberals continue to attract new members and we saw the election of the youngest ever parliamentarian.
There is no clear-cut rule here: we are seeing an increased allegiance to political parties by many while at the same time others are becoming more cynical and again, age is not the defining factor here.
What we are seeing is a growing number of people left dissatisfied with the two major parties – and this is a number that is likely to increase. This is a significant and growing section and it is not based on age or any other single factor.
Consequently, we should avoid placing simple labels on this section of our community: they are not simply ‘swinging voters’, ‘aspirationals’, ‘lazy kids’ who went the donkey vote or any of the other descriptions that have been thrown around. They may possibly be all of these things and a whole lot more we are yet to recognise.
Here then, we can identify three broad groups: those who have lost faith in politics and simply register an informal vote; those who have no political agency and pay no attention to what is going on; and, those who have political agency and hence want to see change.
This later group can also be further split: those who to see change quickly and therefore rallying behind more vibrant ‘reform’ parties such as the Greens. On the other side are those who feel the need for stability. An example would be the former One Nation Party supporters who are now courted by a cross section of groups opposed to more immigration or limiting population or a humane approach to refugees.
Former Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner , earlier this week saw a move away from the major parties – and specifically the ALP – as a failure by the voters to understand the consequences.
The truth, that this is an electorate that is increasingly difficult to define, and hence reflects a failure by the major parties to understand the changing nature of Australian society.
The second example is the changing nature of employment.
While much of the population has been confronted by changing work practices, it is young people who are often at the front line of social and economic restructuring – as can be seen from their high levels of casualisation .
Again, this trend, is increasing across the entire workforce leading to a growing sense of unease but a vulnerability most evident with the youngest generations – but like their attitudes to politics – confronting it requires more than rhetoric or having focus groups to understand ‘what young people want’.
Each of these has a significant bearing on the cohesion of the Australian community.
In this way limiting any analysis by a single issue such as ‘generation’ or ‘multiculturalism’ as former Prime Minister, John Howard, recently indicated, completely misses the point.
We are seeing the emergence of complex clusters that cross many of the traditional social markers indicating a fracturing of our community. Key here is the changing nature of our relationship to the civic institutions who see us as consumers not citizens, political parties who seem more interested in being elected than working together to confront challenges such as climate change and water, and the ongoing restructuring of the economy.
It has little to do with any specific generation – and much to do with the inability of our major institutions to change the way they do things.
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