It would be easy to have a free, cynical dig at the holding of a conference on how to engage the young with politics. All you’d have to do is sit and listen to a series of academics, you could make trenchant observations about the considerable average age of the audience, while marvelling at the way obvious comments are absorbed as profound insight by a readily-nodding audience, before concluding with phony disgust as the audience and speakers mingle over the wine and cheese and ponder why they can’t identify with ‘the young’.
Too easy. The thing would write itself.
Instead, last week’s Evatt Foundation forum on ‘Young people and politics: engagement and participation’ held at Sydney’s Mechanics Hall provided a rare insight into perceptions that today’s young lack an interest in politics. The speakers included social researcher and writer Dr Rebecca Huntley; advisor to the Shadow Minister for Work and Family Childcare and Youth and Women, Monika Wheeler; political researcher Damian Oliver; and University of Sydney lecturer, Dr Ariadne Vromen.
Thanks to Scratch
These speakers, thankfully, weren’t interested in pontificating about what apathetic sods young people are, how they’ve squandered the legacy of the Baby Boomer generation, and when were they going to wake up to themselves. Missing were such cultural citations as ‘MTV’, ‘Britney’ (surname intentionally omitted as if to emphasise how au fait with youth issues the speaker is) or ‘Ronald McDonald’ – terms which have traditionally been used by pundits as snappy and supposedly pertinent frames of reference for understanding the young.
Huntley clearly had these traditions in mind when she condemned studies into politics and young people which ended up ‘blaming the young’. Concerning herself primarily with ‘Generation Y’ (roughly, those born between 1981 and 2000), Huntley contended that rather than being apathetic or apolitical, young people are more dissatisfied with what politics, and political parties in particular, have to offer..
Wheeler also considered this trend of disinterest as a problem within political organisations themselves rather than the young, pointing to what she called ‘the Left’s failure to recruit and engage young people.’ Focusing on the Hillsong phenomenon as an example of youth-targeting gone right (or Right, as the case may be), Wheeler to demonstrated how young people could be persuaded to engage with a social movement (in this case, religion) if handled properly.
Oliver discussed his research into youth attitudes to trade unions as part of his PhD at Griffith University. He talked of a ‘worrying degree of ignorance’ towards the role of unions and employment conditions, which should be alarming for the union movement. Vromen concluded the speeches with an analysis of the differences between young men and women in their political participation, noting that, among other trends, women were generally ‘more socially progressive’ than men.
The concluding ‘Q and A’ was also revealing, though, as the audience was mainly composed of political activists, most of them took it upon themselves to provide both the ‘Q’ and the ‘A’, and simply vent. It was revealing in the sense that even at this point in the conference, even when given the opportunity to play devil’s advocate, no one was prepared to lay any blame at the feet of the young themselves. Most showed dissatisfaction with the major parties, others harangued the unions; no one was game to criticise ‘the kids’.
Perhaps everybody truly believed that the young are completely misunderstood and represent an untapped wealth of political fervour. Perhaps I left too early and the youth-bashing began after the wine and cheese had sufficiently emboldened everyone to let loose about generations X, Y, Z and whatever’s next. Or perhaps as I suspected, it’s that no one wanted to be seen as the old codger having a go at young people.
The tendency to indulge young people is not unlike the indulgence of any minority. As the African-American protagonist in the bestselling political novel Primary Colors said: ‘Most white people do this patronizing number: They never disagree with you, even when you are talking the worst sort of garbage. It is near impossible to have a decent, human conversation with them. They are all so busy trying not to say anything offensive- so busy trying to prove they aren’t prejudiced ‘
I would have asked a question at the end, except I thought that whatever I said would have been indulged, that whoever responded would have felt it inappropriate to disagree with a young person about a youth issue (as if they were lecturing an Aborigine or a Muslim Australian about racism), that my contribution would have been absorbed without objection because I was somehow on my home turf, so to speak. That somehow, because I was young, I was therefore right.
If we accept the old axiom that ‘a man will be criticised, he will not be laughed at’, then we might well say ‘young people can be criticised, they should not be patronised.’ Treating youth apathy, disinterest or disillusionment as a problem caused solely by ‘the system’ is unrealistic. Maybe it’s the fault of political organisations, maybe the young need a bit of a shake-up; in reality, it’s probably a bit of both. Criticism is a two-way street, and overlooking the role that the young play in their own disengagement with politics is unfair, especially to young people who deserve to be respected enough to be criticised.
While it is true that simply blaming the young or youth culture in the Richard Neville style (‘Come on kids, dare to resist’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3/5/2004) is a lazy, cynical and misguided way to approach the issue, the issue is done no favours when debate is missing.
But please, feel free to disagree. You’re allowed to.
Part 2 of Daniel’s analysis of young people and politics will appear in next week’s issue of New Matilda.
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