Generational changes

Rebecca Huntley

I am here today to tell you a bit about that mysterious category of Australians, Generation Y, their defining characteristics and collective personality.

My book, The World According to Y: inside the new adult generation, has been in shops for a couple of months, so speaking here at the Sydney Writers' Festival gives me the chance to reflect on the various responses to the book, my own feelings about its strengths and its silences and the shape and flavour of our current debate about the generations.

So who is Generation Y? I define them very broadly as young Australians, born in the early 1980s, schooled in the 1990s and now entering their late teens and early twenties. They are in universities, TAFES and workplaces. They are starting to travel widely on their own, and some are even working overseas.

They are starting to vote. For those who have managed to move away from the parental hearth, they are renters rather than homeowners, single rather than married with children. The majority have attended high school up until year 12, with over half going onto further education, making them the most educated generation ever.

How have they grown up? As children, their family environment was one of curious contradiction. Y'ers are mostly planned children rather than 'surprises', born to older parents who wanted to conceive (and sometimes had difficulties). They were usually born into smaller families, growing up as only children or with one or two siblings. All this has made them feel special and wanted.

Changes in politics during the 1980s mirrored this new interest in children's welfare and protection. This was an era where family values and 'the best interests of the child' became public rather than private goals.

Popular culture also registered a shift from adults to children. For example, the 1980s was replete with movies which saw kids cast as pint-sized philosophers and heroes, rescuing selfish or lost grownups from their own relentless focus on adult concerns.

This was a stark contrast from the 1970s where kids were scary demon spawn and poltergeists. These trends in the 1980s ensured Generation Y became the healthiest and most cared-for child generation in history. On the whole they have felt wanted, protected and worthy of all the attention.

"As a consequence of these changes in the economy and labour market, young people are increasingly denied access to those things conventionally associated with adulthood - permanent work, marriage, children, and buying a home."

Despite all this familial care and concern, Generation Y (much like their older sisters and brothers in Generation X) experienced divorce on a widespread scale. They grew up in families of increasingly complexity, with step-siblings, half-siblings, parents who remarried or re-partnered without marrying. One out of four young Australians grew up in a single-parent household.

Three out of four were raised by working mothers. With two overworked parents rather than one, Generation Y has witnessed dissatisfaction and conflict over work and family issues. They have seen stressed mothers faced with a double shift of paid work in the marketplace and unpaid work in the home. They have seen workaholic and sometimes distant fathers who may well have resisted attempts by their spouses to get them to share the domestic burden.

They have grown up with the uneven effects of the feminist movement, at least as manifested in the sphere of home and family, where women got opportunities for more money and better jobs and men got the chance to clean the toilet. No wonder we are still stuck with the vacuuming.

In many ways, the most important change to have affected this generation has been economic. Since the mid-1970s, the costs of setting out in life (such housing, education and training fees) have raced ahead of inflation, whilst the rewards (such salaries and fringe benefits for young workers) have steadily fallen behind.

As a consequence of these changes in the economy and labour market, young people are increasingly denied access to those things conventionally associated with adulthood - permanent work, marriage, children, and buying a home.

This means that while Generation Y enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood, their transition to adulthood, as previous generations understand it, will be slow and difficult. A process not assisted by some in the parent generation who chastise these young adults for their lack of loyalty and commitment.

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