30 Jul 2009

The Pointless War On Generation Y

By Daniel Fitzgerald
The intergenerational 'debate' isn't really a debate at all, but that hasn't stopped the Federal Government buying into it. Now it's time Gen Y hit back, writes Dan Fitzgerald
Alright, Boomers, Gen X-ers — we get it now. We're at war.

We Gen-Ys didn't notice at first because you never declared war, forgetting, of course, that you guys phased out that old-fashioned notion along with radio plays, message tubes, and Don Lane. Dubya is a boomer; never actually declared war. Rookie mistake on our part.

We should have seen it coming, but we're ready now. It's on.

Like the war in Iraq, it started with a few pot-shots here and there — a survey about unrealistic salary expectations, a few remarks about the rise of reality TV being our fault — but Y-bashing officially became federal policy this week, with Employment Services Minister Mark Arbib declaring that the reason youth unemployment is so high is because Generation Y is too picky. "Job snobs" was the term being bandied about by some though Arbib was more artful than that.

"Job-seekers need to look for their dream jobs and, while they're doing that, realise that in the current climate that may take some time, and there are often other options," Arbib declared in front of (ironically) a Young Labor gathering.

And this was no off-the-cuff remark with Arbib returning to the subject the next day on Sunrise. He cannily made his appearance shortly after the 7am news, probably to avoid offending the intended target of his remarks who wouldn't be up for another four hours.

Arbib wasn't on his own, with the ALP clearly content to leave Gen-Y votes to the Greens. Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner saw fit to prescribe a teaspoon of cement, declaring that Gen Ys need stronger stomachs. "It's just the nature of life," he philosophised. "We don't always end up where we would like to end up. Things happen in ways that we don't anticipate."

The Ruddster himself also weighed in on the issue, saying "it is important for all of us to be practical in terms of the jobs that are available in the economy," while Turnbull relished another opportunity to work on the poor-boy-made-good image he's so keen to cultivate for himself, citing his time loading bananas at Sydney's Ultimo markets as "useful experience".

The assault was relentless — "shock and awe", you might say. Indeed, Arbib's appearance on Sunrise was followed by a commercial break featuring an ad for Channel Seven's World's Strictest Parents which opened with the solemn intonation: "Generation Lazy".

Between the program and the commercials, there was no escape. No wonder we Gen Ys prefer YouTube.

The Government's comments touched off a predictable avalanche of criticism on talkback radio and the blogosphere from the "they-don't-really-want-to-work" crowd, though interestingly the focus of the debate had widened. The criticism wasn't just aimed at "job snobs" and "dole bludgers", but rather at Gen Y itself — because they're all job snobs and dole bludgers.

This is a generational profile some parts of the media have never relied on their audience to elicit, however. The day after Arbib's comments were stamped in newsprint, the Sunday Telegraph ran a story with the headline, "Gen Y Simone Francis from Sydney has tried 70 jobs":

"She's tried 70 jobs but can't find work that interests her.

"Simone Francis, 25, of Marrickville in Sydney's inner west, is typical of a generation that jumps from job to job — to the frustration of employers across the country.

"Ms Francis's age bracket is known for having itchy feet, and she typifies a generation that has no qualms about leaving a job."

But it's in the world of "current affairs journalism" that this attitude has really taken hold.

In Sunday's episode of 60 Minutes, Charles Wooley got stuck in to what he and many others have termed the "Me generation". In "Reality Bites", a story about the challenges of job-hunting that was eerily similar to what Arbib was saying just a day earlier, Wooley affected the tone of a curmudgeonly grandfather who had experienced the Great Depression first-hand and resented everyone who hadn't:

"Generation Y, those 20 to 30-year-olds, they had it all, didn't they? They could do what they liked, be whatever they wanted to be.

"Reality is biting for this generation who've grown up never hearing the word 'no', encouraged to believe they could pick and choose the future.

"Of course, that's what they all want — one of those cool jobs in media, entertainment or fashion.

"Gen Y, love them or hate them, probably the latter, they're our kids and we indulged them.

"It's likely they'll keep telling us what to do. But, right now, Generation Y is coming to terms with the fact that getting everything you want is harder than it looks."

However, Wooley's condescension wasn't nearly as remarkable as colleague Peter Overton's outright contempt for both Generation Y and the principles of journalism.

Last year, Overton's appalling "Generation Debt", which got a plum airing straight after the NRL grand final, did more than just remind us how crap 60 Minutes has become: it kicked the Y-bashing into overdrive.

In a turgid 15 minutes more heavily grounded in anecdotal sensationalism than fact, Overton centred his report on Amanda Nabulsi, a vacuous 20 year-old with an over-endowed credit card and the intelligence of a goldfish, who he then used to extrapolate ridiculous conclusions about Generation Y, even managing to lay the blame for the current economic downturn at the feet of "Generation Debt".

"You'd think we'd all be a bit cautious with our credit cards. Some of us maybe, but not the kids they call Generation Y. They're young, reckless and they've racked up an astonishing $60 billion dollars of debt.

"These kids have never known tough economic times, so they think they're invincible but now they're in for the shock of their lives.

"Underpinning their attitude is a naive confidence everything will be OK.

"The world financial crisis is being caused by debt, why does Gen Y keep spending? [This was before the stimulus packages, obviously.]

"What's fuelling this crisis is ridiculously easy credit being offered to a generation who are used to getting what they want."

Listening to Overton, you would think that Gen Y invented the credit card, that they were the only people who have trouble managing its use, and that they — rather than investment bankers — are running (and ruining) the global financial system. Overton also showed an ACA-like knack for extracting the sex and tears from more or less any story, introducing us to the tale of foolhardy young Zoe Zirkler, who racked up a $70,000 debt on a supermarket-worker's salary — which was arguably less about her being Gen Y than it was about her being a moron. Zirkler sobbed in glorious technicolour as she confessed that she had considered turning to stripping to help pay off the debt, but decided she couldn't do that to her mother.

But could you do it for your country, Zoe? As Lindsay Tanner might say, you gotta take the jobs that are there, and if that means stripping, well "It's just the nature of life", after all ...

I understand sniping between generations isn't a new phenomenon, but with Generation Y the media seems keen to present the traditional space between young 'uns and oldies as an absurdly wide chasm. Apparently it's now fine to make generalisations about an entire subset of people — generalisations that would be considered obscene if applied to a specific race or gender — based entirely on the year in which they were born. Born in 1985? You're Gen Y, and therefore lazy, self-obsessed, unemployable, and unable to be trusted with money.

While the Federal Government appears to have cynically tapped this vein of "generationist" resentment to provide an easy answer to a complex problem, Tanner did manage to say a few words against going too far with the Y-bashing — mainy because he doesn't like it when people pre-judge his own generation.

"One of the things that annoys me in public debate a lot is that people tend to generalise about generations," he said. "I am a baby boomer and I get lambasted for having had it easy. Of course, the average living standards today in Australia are getting towards double what they were when I was a kid. People forget that."

However, Tanner's hopes for generational reconciliation appear optimistic. And with the chance of a diplomatic solution to this conflict fading fast, I urge my Gen Y cohorts to begin returning fire.

Comrades, we are vastly outnumbered in the print, radio and television media, so we must use our more advanced technology skills to control public debate through the online media.

It's a debate that thrives on misinformation, irrelevance and shallow analysis, so, using Overton's logic, I've drawn up a list of things we can start blaming people born before 1980 for. It includes (but is not limited to): the invasion of Iraq, climate change, Gretel Killeen, AIDS, the Holocaust, Two-and-a-Half Men, and the Challenger explosion.

Or, to paraphrase Gen-Y poster-boy Bart Simpson: if the world looks a bit rooted, don't blame us — it was like that when we got here.

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Posted Thursday, July 30, 2009 - 15:09

Of course, the media (and other bashers) conveniently never mention who raised Gen Y to be as we are... or who is in charge of the world that we're trying to live in.

Posted Thursday, July 30, 2009 - 15:41

You can't blame any one generation for the economy or any other thing going wrong: as stated in your article some of the REAL culprits are those supposed, knowledgeable bankers et al who got a whole lot of people into debts they couldn't obviously manage (although these individuals should have thought things through also) and in my opinion they are to blame for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Of course things snowballed and this then spread to other large corporations and individuals. Admittedly, the baby boomers always saved their money until their debts were paid off (not relying on credit cards until a later age) and this is one of the most basic of rules: only buy what you can afford - too bad if if you cannot have the latest car, fashion, house or whatever!!
This is all it comes back to!

Posted Thursday, July 30, 2009 - 15:42

You don't realise how quickly life passes. In no time at all generations following your lot will be reviling you too.

When 'you're in charge of it' will you do better?

Posted Thursday, July 30, 2009 - 18:50

Depression generation dumped on the boomers, the boomers dumped on Gen X, now Gen Y is copping it. Love to read what you write about Gen Z in 15 years.

Get over it.

Posted Friday, July 31, 2009 - 08:32

Listening to the Labor government is part of the problem. It's the same as listening to the preacher in a Catholic church. All those years of listening to the young parents of the sixty's telling their kids that that the world is their apple & you can bite off as much as you want, whilst the church was convincing in it's brainwashing the next generation & that all will be provided for them. When things didn't turn out the way they should & the next generation showed it's hand of rebellious retaliation, they were labeled spoiled & irresponsible tantrum throwers. The churches attempted to over-ride this problem with the same old propaganda & to be faithful to religion at the same time the governments were covering up the corruption of the corporate thieves. Theres nothing like putting the blame onto the younger generation, to save the face of politics & it's religion.

Posted Friday, July 31, 2009 - 09:28

The media has always bashed the younger generation. It was like that in the 30's with the emergence of Jazz, it was like it in the 60's as Elvis and the Rolling Stones inspired old, wise heads to condemn the young'uns for their gyrating hips and loose morals, it's been like it through the 90's when kids have been demonized as shiftless vandals and Internet pornographers.

Criticism about behaviour in the workplace goes along with the rest of it, but what's new in this generation is the sheer irony of it.

Since the 1980's, we've all been berated by successive Governments for failing to deliver "flexible workplace reform." Corporations have demanded "flexibility," which has inevitably been a euphemism for "less pay, worse conditions, if you don't like it you can always leave and get another job somewhere else." Mobility has been lauded: if a company cuts 5000 staff in one place, the political response has been that there are lots of jobs out there if you want to find them, and if they happen to be in another city that's hundreds of km from where you live then perhaps you should uproot your family and go chasing after them. Forget any notion of "community", they're hiring meat packers in Toowoomba for gods sake!

While us X'ers and older have been mildly horrified at the callousness of those declarations, Gen-Y quietly by lives them. They'll work in a job somewhere, and if its pay and conditions aren't sufficiently rewarding they'll get up and leave. No mess, no fuss, they just show every bit as much loyalty to their employers as their employers are expected to show to them.

They are, in short, the ultimate flexible workplace.

... and the employers and politicians, who have been crying out for this result for decades, now find that they can't stand it. Apparently Gen-Y's are unreliable, they make demands on companies, and when their employment doesn't suit them they piss off and go elsewhere. They're treating employers in exactly the way that employers have wanted to treat employees, which is exactly how a rational flexible workforce is supposed to behave.

The irony is brilliant.

If our country's institutions don't like this outcome, perhaps they should be thinking about the policies and societal changes that brought it about.

When my parents were growing up, they saw employment as a career: They'd find a job with a company, and they completely expected to be loyal to that company until retirement. The other side of the social compact was that the company would be loyal to them, and reward them for sticking around through thick and thin.

When I was growing up, my generation was taught to see employment as a job rather than a career: You'd find an industry you wanted to work in, and you'd chop-and-change employers within the industry, building up a corpus of valuable expertise. Individual employers were quite possibly assholes who'd sack you without a second thought if times got tough, but there'd probably be more work in the same career path, so you'd end up spending three or four years with each employer and get promotions by being recruited into them by your employer's competitors. We'd end up with a deep but relatively narrow skill base.

I was near the back-end of Gen-X. When my younger Gen-Y siblings were growing up, the whole concept of a career path was out the window. Rather than changing employers every three years, you'd change industries. 20 years worth of headlines about layoffs, industry collapses and retrenchments has taught everyone that expecting loyalty from an employer is delusional, so why show any in return? If a company wants you to stay they'd bloody-well better be offering more fulfilling and lucrative compensation than everyone else -- Exactly the way that Howard, Abbott and Costello said everyone should be behaving when WorkChoices was passed.

If companies don't like the situation THEY HAVE SPENT THREE DECADES LOBBYING FOR, then they need to accept some societal rollback, and they need to play their part in making it happen. If they want loyalty (which means "Staff accept less money in exchange for reliable longevity of service") then they ought to be re-emphasizing the concept of a "career" and putting their money where their mouth is by standing by the concept in the tough times. Employers need to rediscover the notion of "loyalty" that they abandoned when the economic rationalists took charge in the 80's.

If they're not going to do that, and if they're going to keep disrespecting those who are making up an ever-increasing percentage of their workforce, then they're going to keep suffering the costs of the "workplace reform" they wanted for decades.

Or, if Gen-Y is one of those problems that bad enough to whinge about but not bad enough to actually fix, then they also have the option of spending the forseable future carrying on like whiny little 2-year-olds about how terrible their employees treat them.

Which, ironically, is exactly the kind of behaviour that they castigate Gen-Y for right now.

Posted Friday, July 31, 2009 - 11:14

I couldn't deny any of your comment marknewton, but I was lucky, or unlucky enough to have been bought up by parents that had seen the end of the first world war & not only lived but fought through the second. All of the other kid's my age had parents that were sixties born & bred. My Grand parents were long gone & still influencing my life's outlook, as well as my employment strategies, which are basically what you've stated. There isn't that much difference between the Gen's in the circumstances to which you describe but there is a difference of what was taught & how much you listened.

Posted Friday, July 31, 2009 - 15:22

Are we missing something here? Next will be Generation Z, but what comes after Z?
Will this be the end of civilisation as we know it? ... or the beginning of Civilisation?

Posted Monday, August 3, 2009 - 22:23

Perhaps all this Y bashing is because the pollies are beginning to realise they are going to cop an awful lot of flak for what has been allowed to happen to the planet that our children will inherit.

Apart from that, I doubt there has been a time when the older generation hasn't been trying to knock the younger down a peg or two - these are the "upstarts", trying to put the seniors out of their jobs, even telling them how to do their jobs. Sounds like a rubbish novel! But people do talk such tripe.

Posted Tuesday, August 4, 2009 - 23:10

To Mark Newton - brilliantly put! I wouldn’t have seen employer/employee behaviour in quite those terms before, but your analysis is so right; what you write really does make sense. Now I can’t wait for coffee time at work tomorrow! (I’m not Gen Y at all but I work with several Y-ers).

In fact, you’ve written the basis of an article in its own right - you really should think about publishing it more widely, whether here [NM] or elsewhere, expanded or just as it is.

Best wishes to you.