The global meltdown has seen a wave of speculation about the plight of Gen Y. How will the fun-loving, not-a-care-in-the-world, "generation me" deal with high unemployment and somewhat less credit? Older generations have been quick to condemn Gen Y as the unpleasant smell released during the economic boom. In a Fairfax op-ed in November last year, Michael Pascoe suggested that our younger generation should, "cop a dose of harden up" and he certainly wasn’t the first to suggest it. I was.
But why does Gen Y elicit so much dislike and ill-will? One reason may be that the self-appointed "voices" of Gen Y seem to be asking for it. At times like these, when we are in desperate need of new thinking and new ideas, we apparently get neither from those guys. Politicians keep playing politics and the younger generation seems to be stuck in fairyland.
What else can we make of the latest Gen Y treatise, The Future By Us? I haven’t read it because I’m worried it will suck so hard I may lose my lunch — but the initial signals are not encouraging.
Readings Books describes The Future By Us as "an inspiring and provocative collection of essays by the some of our best young minds who attended the 2020 Summit." (Perhaps this was supposed to say, "the sum of our best minds" — Gen Y has always been a rich source of malapropisms.)
The book was co-authored and launched by Hugh Evans, Australia’s Gen Y pin-up boy, the winner of the 2005 Junior Chamber Young Person of the World Award, and co-founder of the Oaktree Foundation. Hugh’s good friend Kevin Rudd wrote the preface, although the Prime Minister was adamant he did not endorse "all of the ideas". (Well of course not, that would require at least a year’s worth of inquiries.)
Media coverage of the book’s launch last week, 12 months after the 2020 Youth Summit, suggest the transition from butcher’s paper and crayons hasn’t seen an increase in substance. One "bright idea" is the creation of a "global intelligence quotient", or GQ. Co-author Tom O’Connor suggested a GQ would rate Australians’ worldliness and understanding of other cultures by such measures as overseas travel, and could appear on a CV to employers.
Another suggestion is about "forging stronger communities through small acts such as inviting neighbours or looking out for society’s invisible people, such as those who have no homes or cannot speak English".
Is that it? Yep — more or less.
Like most people faced with a lot to read in a limited time, I have to be selective. To some extent I trust that at least one of the experienced journalists covering this book would report a decent idea if they saw one. The fact that they haven’t seems like a pretty good indicator that there aren’t any.
None of the "ideas" reported in the media this week offer significant, useful suggestions for poorly prepared Gen Ys faced with an uncertain future. They are utterly irrelevant to a generation of people still trying to find their way into careers and who will probably be over-represented among those who get the boot when the economy really tanks. These are gimmicks rather than real contributions, and they might seem like genius to Gen Ys at the top of the food chain but they’re not going to be any use at all for those exposed to loss of income, loss of housing and the potential chasm which opens up from there.
And that’s the real problem here — one that’s partly our fault too. The people we think of first when we think of Gen Y are the tech-drenched, high disposable income, inner-urban elites who are only one part of the actual Gen Y age bracket. What use is a GQ system to a young unemployed woman on the NSW Central Coast when all it does is highlight the fact that she hasn’t ever been able to afford a year off to slum it doing some volunteer work in Central America, or an internship at daddy’s old law mate’s firm in London?
What use is a program to make an unskilled kid in Perth’s east hang with other "invisible people" when he’s flat out surviving as one of the working poor? And why do these genius notions always seem to be told from the point of view of the elites?
Hugh Evans seems like a remarkably gifted and able individual. Perhaps even exceptional, but maybe being an exception is part of his problem.
Evans also spoke this week of his concern with the failure in the past 15 years to modernise schools. He can’t possibly speak from experience, having attended Carey Baptist Grammar School in Melbourne which boasts facilities including five ovals and a gymnasium with two netball/basketball courts, (which can also accommodate three volleyball or eight badminton courts).
From a profile piece on Evans last year, it was reported that "Every Wednesday, he is taught Mandarin by Asialink chairman Sidney Myer, and Macquarie Bank’s Melbourne head Simon McKeon is one of his mentors. Evans describes both as "men of real integrity". "What often you don’t see of Simon is that he might be the executive director of Macquarie, but on the weekend he plays the keyboard at his church. He’s as connected in the community as anyone."
Interconnectedness is a real theme for the Gen Y elite. But it’s more about being well connected to get further up the chain, and certainly not starting from the bottom. For Gen Y there is a seductive sense of being a part of something bigger, or at least having the potential to bullshit your way to something bigger. But this isn’t a readily available tool to everyone stuck with the Gen Y moniker. It’s only available to the Gen Y elite.
Much more than for earlier generations, the actual sum of Gen Y’s "best minds" is really the product of the most privileged, the most prominent and most vocal.
The reality of the current economic crisis for the unrepresented unknowns who also qualify as Gen Y is that the current economic crisis is going to be hard. They will have to adapt and change — like a lot of other people. But slow growth in real wages, high living costs and precarious jobs did not commence around September 2008. This reality has been with many Gen Ys for years. Given that, a lot of the outspoken "Who drained the liquidity from my fishbowl existence?" elite Gen Ys will be in for a shock, even if their less well-off contemporaries will actually be put out a lot more. For the elites, as Pascoe and company have said, harden up and cop it. Unlike the Boomers, Gen Y have time on their side to dust themselves off and come back stronger.
Over at Brazen Careerists (a veritable hotbed of Gen Y insight: currently the most popular article is What’s Wrong with Sleeping Your Way to the Top?) one of Brazen’s founders has posted a nice take on the current climate for young go-getters: "I’m convinced that when Brazen Careerist does end up a success, we will have George Bush to thank (Did I really say that?). The recession allowed us, or some might say forced us, to re-evaluate and start over."
Meanwhile Hugh Evans is soon heading to New Zealand to spread his gospel at Christian college Bethlehem Tertiary Institute. If you haven’t heard of this college you should — their tag line is: "Real Men Teach (and Knit)". Seriously. If you find yourself missing him while he’s away, check out his website, where you’ll find extensive details of his achievements in a mere 25 years. Among the many accolades, it mentions that in 2006 "Hugh was the recipient of the ‘Free Your Mind’ award — a title he also shares with Burmese human rights activist Ang San SuShi [sic]."
Sorry Hugh, please deduct 10 points from your GQ.
Update: Since we published this article, the spelling of Aung San Suu Kyi’s name has been corrected on Hugh Evans’s bio page. Below is a screen shot of the way it was.
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