Sticking It To the Olds


Arguments like this shouldn’t be necessary. There are better things to do than validate other people’s marketing labels by talking up generational conflict. But there are also better things to do than allow Australia to believe that its 20-, 30-, or even 40-year olds are just ‘young people’ unworthy of contributing to public life mired as ‘Generation Next,’ stuck in a queue that doesn’t move.

In today’s world, change happens with unprecedented speed, yet we live in a country unable to deal with the one inevitable change we face: demographic, or generational, change.

Baby Boomers rule by numbers, not talent or potential. The buying power of suburban middle age triumphs over the animated spirit of youth. It’s an inefficient, unfair and dumb system a recipe for slouching towards mediocrity.

Boomers at play

Why pick on Baby Boomers? I’m not. I believe change is the responsibility of all of us. But many Boomers see themselves as permanently young and cool, when actually they are mostly conservative, and often incredibly selfish. Twenty-nine year-old Erica Lewis seemed to capture the frustration when she told me: ‘as a theory, making it better for the next generation, seems to have died in the arse.’ Never get between a Baby Boomer and the property market not if you value your personal safety, anyway.

Their figureheads have all the originality and sophistication of bratty two year-olds. Anne Summers wants you to write to your MP to change the world (link here); I want you to live the change you want to see. The Friends of the ABC pine for radio drama; I pine for proper multi-channel digital TV.

It’s not that Boomers don’t have anything to contribute it just shouldn’t be the same contribution in the same roles as they’ve been giving for decades.

In Australia there is a mismatch of First World lifestyle and Second World public culture. The type of public culture we applaud here is an old person’s paradise. It is familiar and slow. Not chaotic and public like Asia, not over-the-top like America, lacking the sheer depth of historic and emerging Europe. We have completely dropped the ball compared to London a place pumped full of diversity and raw opportunity. Not only that we hardly even know what our problems are anymore, thanks to years of shedding skills and refusing to ask the hard questions.

And in this old person’s paradise this Adelaide writ large we have let generational change, or lack of it, creep up on us. The 1960s ended 35 years ago and it’s time to get over it. Refusing to recognise that reality, will see ‘generational change’ become ‘generational conflict’ in our time. Boomers can hobble away from these facts but they can’t hide. And as the 65+ population doubles by 2030, we can only look forward to worse.

Forget the tussle of selfish generational interests for one moment and consider what it takes to make a country prosper. Most often, groundbreaking achievements go hand in hand with youth. The young achieve because they haven’t learnt to follow rules and are eager to break new ground. We know how to innovate and we actually want to.

But in Australia, instead of embracing that, we let our young thinkers, doers and leaders languish in the cultural shadows in a wasteland of fringe email lists, Party backrooms, websites and independent magazines, cut off from a mainstream clogged with the same old faces.

My recent book Please just F* Off is a little window into those different ways of doing things. It’s not a counter-culture or a mass protest. It’s not even a movement it’s a view on hundreds of little movements, technologies, communications, social networks and practical philosophies.

This generation’s diversity is its strength and its template for a better Australia. It’s a generation that is going to change Australia because, as even Peter Costello admits, ‘demography is destiny.’

So, about us. We’re global, responsible and live 24/7 lives. We’re pro-capitalist because capitalism supports the opportunity and the lifestyle we are used to. We support social solidarity because we want a market economy without a market society. We are libertarian about personal behaviour because we believe everyone has the right to be happy. That makes us individual, not selfish. As Damian Barr, author of Get It Together: Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis, argues: ‘The self is absolutely at the centre of the iGeneration [a reference to iPods]I like me. I just happen to like you too.’

We are the first post-Politically Correct generation opposed to prejudice and self-appointed cultural police alike. We’ve been to IKEA more often than we’ve been to church. We are income rich and asset poor, immersed in a culture of debt and the victims of ‘Property Apartheid.’

We are the most educated, skilled generation yet. We want conversations, not lectures. We don’t look to State power to accomplish an agenda we’re skeptical of government and would rather do it ourselves where we can.

When the essence of a generation is diversity, a single label is always going to leave out the majority. In that sense we are label-proof the banal and generic ‘Generation Y’ means nothing to any of the people I know.

We look at life in the whole, not in little parts. We see how things relate to each other and it shows in our multi-tasking and sustainable approach. We are not afraid to be contradictory because ours is a complex world.

The communities we make are authentic, rather than forced. Our relationships exist because of choice, not obligation. (Indeed, our friendship networks are the greatest social movement we have.) We have the integrity to show the world exactly who we are. We work in teams and eschew bureaucracy. We process more new information in an hour than a 15th century peasant did in a lifetime. And, most importantly, we want to change our country.

So I want you to answer this question: who do you think is most able to make Australia a better place in 20 years time? Do you think progress to a society based on excellence and compassion can be achieved through lazy old critiques and cumbersome ideologies? If you agree that the old mantras of the Left are impotent in the face of conservative wedge issues, join my generation in talking about the ‘glue issues’ that might bind us back together and move this country forward. Take the risk of letting young people drive this agenda forward.

I dream of an Australia that embraces the animated and innovative spirit of youth, not merely the buying power of suburban middle age. It’s a country where companies are accountable to shareholders, consumers and the public interest. It’s a country that militates against cliques and nepotism and cultivates an investment culture that rewards hard work, entrepreneurs and new ideas from whatever people of whatever age. It’s a transparent meritocracy.

It’s long-haul Australia relaxed and comfortable with the sacrifices and innovation needed for investing and living sustainably in this place. It’s a country that rejects paternalism from every source: the State, charities and even global superpowers.

Boomers are particularly skilled at whining and slutting their way into society’s spotlight, but the inalienabl
e truth is that history doesn’t end with them. You can’t build the future out of nostalgia and this fact will win through in the end. Our expectations are no higher than those of the generations that preceded us. We’re not selfish or greedy or uncaring. If there’s one word to describe us it’s ‘responsible.’

Whether you are ready for it or not, we are going to take our turn.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.