Is Generation Y apolitical & apathetic?

Rebecca Huntley

I thought I might talk more about the nature of the problem rather than the solution to current levels of political disengagement amongst young people. That's not because I don't have any ideas about how to solve these problems - I do. I have also come to some firm conclusions about the nature of young people's political outlook and activism - it is there if you look in the right places. These are issues that can be explored in questions and I address these questions in my forthcoming book, The World According to Y.

I think it also has to be mentioned that much of what can be said about Generation Y's cynicism and disinterest in party politics can also be said of the general population. Political parties could do much better in meeting the needs of all Australians. I just believe the malaise is particularly acute amongst young people.

Around the 2004 federal election, people asked me how I thought young Australians might cast their vote. I made an educated guess that, whilst a small but dedicated group may have voted Green or Democrat, the majority of young Australians probably cast their vote for John Howard. Not because as a group they are inherently conservative. But because Howard is the prime minister they have grown up with. And because, for some time now, Labor hasn't offered voters enough compelling reasons to vote otherwise.

"The majority of young Australians probably cast their vote for John Howard. Not because as a group they are inherently conservative. But because Howard is the prime minister they have grown up with."

The political profile and habits of Generation Y - Australians born after 1981, currently in their late teens and early twenties - are of course still developing. But there are some stubborn and misguided assumptions circulating about their current political attitudes.

In the minds of political scientists and journalists, Generation Y is just like the generation that preceded it - Generation X - apathetic and politically ignorant. It is still common for journalists and political scientists to reiterate 'findings' that young people are disinterested in and not very knowledgeable about formal political processes'.

Countless studies in Australia have shown that there is a serious weakness in young people's understanding about how the political system works. Fewer young Australians eligible to vote are enrolled (approximately 82 per cent in 2004) compared with older Australians (95 per cent). And party membership, comparatively low across all demographics of the population, is particularly acute amongst young people.

Many older commentators lay the blame for these levels of political disengagement firmly at the feet of young people themselves. However, smarter political analysts are prepared to turn the tables and ask - what does politics really offer young people?

For the majority of Generation Y, the two-party system doesn't provide any real choices. They feel uninspired by conventional politics because as they see it, there are only slight differences between the two major parties.

The sameness of the major parties is reflected perfectly in a Halloween episode of The Simpsons, entitled "Citizen Kang". In this episode Homer is abducted by aliens who take him to Washington, where they replace political leaders Bill Clinton and Bob Dole just before an election. No one believes Homer when he tries to alert people to the fact the two candidates are aliens in disguise planning to take over the world.

In the end, Homer manages to unmask the aliens in front of a crowd of voters, yelling 'America, take a good look at your beloved candidates - they're nothing but hideous space reptiles'. The aliens respond to their public unmasking calmly, telling the crowd: 'It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It's a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us.'

This Simpson's moment shows just how Gen Y'ers view politicians. Politicians, despite their party origins, appear to be from the same breed of suit wearing, slogan and jargon speaking apparatchiks, a closed club of professionals who represent older generations and their social values. They seem like aliens from a planet far, far away.

Not only are politicians and their parties unappealing, Generation Y feels that there is little that can be done to change them. Few think that you can really make a difference joining a political party.

The major parties don't allow for enough internal democracy and freedom to satisfy the needs of a generation that expect flexibility and choice in all their endeavours. This is a generation enthusiastic about direct democracy. They get to choose the next Australian Idol and the next evictee from the Big Brother house.

The 'tow-the-party-line' mentality of the major political parties seem too simplistic, too constraining for a generation that is used to this kind of direct involvement in decision making.

If young people are, as one commentator described, 'the great unwashed of the electorate - ignored, rarely spoken about, and never, ever spoken to', then it is no wonder they are disengaged from politics.

'Apathy' just isn't an accurate way to describe the political attitudes of Generation Y, however. Whilst they might see politics as boring and distasteful, they aren't comfortable with their current levels of political ignorance.

They believe they should know more about how the system works. For example, 83 per cent of those surveyed in the 2003 Democrats Youth Poll believed that students should be taught more about Australia's political and legal system at school.

And Generation Y makes a vital distinction between caring about party politics and caring about the stuff of politics, the issues that matter.

While the care factor is pretty low when it comes to who is in government, young people do care about how the country is run. They have views and they have some idea about what is going on ,but that concern hasn't translated into traditional forms of political behaviour, like party membership.

Rather than apathy, Y men and women project something more like powerlessness, either to change the political culture or to make progress with political issues.

Even those more optimistic about the possibility of change set their sights pretty low. Gone are the big, bold pronouncements of the Baby Boomer era about changing the world and revolutionising society.

When Y'ers do identify a possible change to society that can happen, it is usually something small but profound. Saving some trees in a public park. Raising money for a local community project.

The achievement of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, whose film Super Size Me put significant pressure on McDonalds to change its marketing techniques, is appealing to a generation that feels that 'one person can make a difference in the world - but not much'.

Political parties are making a grave error if they think they can ignore Generation Y voters until later, when they start to accrue the kinds of responsibilities we associate with adulthood - a mortgage, marriage, kids and a permanent job. For many, this kind of 'growing up' may take another decade or more.

In the meantime, Generation Y voters are waiting to be engaged by a political force prepared to speak their language. The political force that does will carry this generation well into the future.


Dr Rebecca Huntley has degrees in film, law and gender studies, and is an active member of the ALP. Her forthcoming book, The World According to Y, looks at the views and behaviours of 'Generation Y'. This is the text of her address to the Evatt Sunset Seminar on "Young People & Politics", presented at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts on 6 September 2005.


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