The Pointless War On Generation Y


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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