Not in the Image of the Father


They get called the ‘Howard generation’, not yet the Howard Youth. They are supposed to be materialistic, manic 20-somethings who grew up when globalisation was background muzak and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was cultural comment. They didn’t so much discuss postmodernism as live it, ironically under Howard’s modern gaze.

The generation is fictitious, of course. But generational fictions hint at the spirit of the age.

In a recently published book Please Just F* Off It’s Our Turn Now, Ryan Heath, a self-appointed Howard-generational spokesperson with a propensity to bombast and offence, gives us reason to reflect on this spirit, and on Howard’s success in shaping today’s youth.

I don’t know Heath’s age; he might be 16, he might be 34. Let’s say he belongs to the long-20s generation which ranges from the fake ID-card set to the soon-to-use BOTOX set. Heath writes in New Matilda 77 (link here):

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.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

This is nothing less than a testament to Howard’s failure, his missed opportunity to mould a generation in his image. Instead of polite conservatives we have brazen capitalist libertarians who read quarter-life crisis manuals. They go to IKEA more than they go to church, as Heath points out.

Assuming that Heath has identified a real sociological entity, let’s explicate it (if you are under 30 you may delete ‘explicate’ and insert ‘pontificate’).

Being politically correct is now a form of satire. This generation says ‘chick’ and ‘hunk’ with no self-consciousness, and with some lust. Their chat on radio consists of uninhibited sexual innuendo and fart and dildo gags. Instead of the arts, the Howard generation holds up the narcissist’s mirror and watches reality TV.

Howard has not reversed the sexual revolution. In the last decade there has been a generalised liberalisation of sexual attitudes such that holding to 1970s identity politics is as revealing about your age as a Starsky jacket or a foxy scarf: gay has morphed into queer, and young queers and straights (who have yet to redefine themselves) mix in post-metrosexual venues. Such frenetic, consumption-identity driven change is enough to leave the ‘oldies’ out of breath.

Even ‘metrosexual’ is so yesterday. The He-Man and Barbie doll played ironically of course are back, intercoursing on/in all sorts of positions. They have sex before marriage, before they know their partner’s real name, and even before they realise they have had sex. Often, after a property investors’ seminar. Howard is not pleased.

That sex has not gone away is a mark of the limits of the Howard Decade.

Ditto, the erosion of good manners. Howard’s generation do not apologise when, with eyes on the mobile phone and fingers texting hieroglyphic expletives about last night’s bunking gymnastics, they bump into elderly folk.

However, despite its libertarian strand, this generation, seeded from Howard’s political loins, does offer some hope for conservatives. Many of today’s youth value the fact that Howard has apparently looked after the economy and the country.

With Mummy and Daddy’s support, they can still enter the property market. And the IR laws are perfect for those who have no plan to be in the same company in six months time and who believe they can rise above the rest. Who, they ask, wants to carry lazy losers through collective agreements? Howard is delighted.

Some have found their way to singing songs on a hilltop. Some travel overseas in pilgrimage to those who died for empire and liberty, instead of rising up and setting up a soldier’s committee that might have turned its guns on the officer-class. They then get drunk. But Howard won’t have a word said against them.

They value Howard’s ability to get away with things so that the greater good of Australia is protected. They’ve watched with amazement at his aplomb: he’s got us in with the US; taken us through the self-serving redemptive process of ‘liberating’ East Timor after abandoning it; he’s created a modern day ritualistic place for national identity in Bali; and he took us to war, and paid-off the enemy too. He is not so much self-centred as a centred-self of control and manipulation the kind of person MBA students credit with ‘knowledge management’. They think he is one funky nerd.

This is all to Howard’s credit — the shift from collective notions of good to individual ladders of opportunism, shaded by thin nationalism and religiosity. He has spawned a generation that missed the merry-go-round of the pointless 20s. Instead, they are on the I-can-do roller coaster. Risk is in.

But these value shifts, and the quasi-nationalism of self-centred Aussiedom, are not embedded, nor are they likely to be enduring. They’ve been built upon a more fundamental restructuring of Australia around self-consuming identity, where nation comes a distant second. Howard’s success lies not in furthering his own desire to refurbish Australianness, but in cutting the market loose, and in increasing that circle of self-regarding individuals driven by asset accumulation.

He has done little to foster the conservative social values that fit his vision, unless we are to regard racism, materialism, paranoia, the uttering of falsehoods, and the shrinking of the public sphere as germane to the conservative project. Howard’s Australia is a society of the centred self-centreds and those who resist. And there are plenty who do the latter.

Howard has not won any culture war, despite the opining of columnists. The culture wars have slipped out of the clutches of the Left and the Right and gone down the road of capitalist gratification. This road sacrifices conservatism at the altar of a narrowly economist vision of the world. Howard’s failure is to have believed that economics, and a few sermons, would lead us back to white picket fences.

For desperate cynics, it would seem that the only way to get the Howard generation to read Australian history, as a form of civics, would be to restage it as a reality TV show. They picture the youth of Australia through the caricatures that appear above, and they despair.

For the hopeful, Howard’s failure makes the regeneration of progressive social values that much more possible, because there are many more people disillusioned than are enamoured with the marketing-self that neo-liberalism has conjured into being.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.