Generations, social change & writing

The new adults
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.

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.

One of the defining features of Generation Y is their confidence and their ambition. They are a startlingly optimistic bunch, even in the face of global fears about terrorism and an increasingly insecure employment market. Insecurity and uncertainty are now part of life for all age groups. But Generation Y, with their unfailing optimism, has refashioned 'insecurity' as a negative into 'freedom' as a positive. Choice, options, flexibility are the buzzwords for this generation, something marketers and the manufacturers of mobile phones have long understood. When Gen Y'ers want structure - in terms of work, finances, living arrangements or relationships - they do so on the condition that their independence and freedom to experiment are not curtailed. They value difference, diversity and change in all aspects of their life. They favour mobility and movement. They are highly mobile in a physical sense, a generation of globetrotters who don't just travel for holidays and adventure but want to live and study overseas. They are highly mobile in terms of their careers, moving from company to company, from city to city, even from country to country, training and retraining, shifting from one professional direction to another with a speed that frazzles their parents and older work colleagues.

The interaction between technology and Generation Y has been the subject of much research and public commentary. Inevitably they are the most technologically savvy generation ever to walk the earth, a group that has never known a world without remote controls, CDs, cable TV and computers. Of course this has ramifications for the workplace and the marketplace. The future of communications companies and electronic manufactures is certainly secure. But Generation Y's understanding and early adoption of new technologies goes beyond their seemingly unique capacity to master the household DVD. Specifically, Generation Y's mastery of and reliance on technology has altered the way they view time and space.

First of all, they have a different perception of time. Generation Y expect things to happen quickly, at the speed of a Google search or text message. The omnipresence of technology means everything is focussed on the moment, the sense of immediacy, the speed in which we can connect with others, but not necessarily the quality of that connection. This contraction of time means there is little space provided for quiet reflection or time on your own. Many members of this Generation feel this acutely. It seems paradoxically but true that whilst Generation Y relies on technology to maintain the social life and connection with the vital friendship network, they also believe this reliance on technology is robbing them of deeper relationships.

Generation Y also have a different perception of space due to the fact that they are the world's first generation to grow up thinking of itself as global. The Internet and satellite television networks are just two of a myriad of new technologies that have made this possible. This shift hasn't just been cultural, with Gen Y'ers sharing a global youth culture of music, fashion, celebrities and movies. It has been political, with the priorities of Generation Y bypassing the issues of national politics and shifting further towards a new politics that links international political problems with local, community concerns. It has been personal, with Y'ers eager to experience life and work in other countries. The distances between issues and places, the national and the international, the personal and the global have contracted.

The description I have just given of this skilled and optimistic generation is one gleaned from academic and market research developed here and in the United States, generational work by people like Hugh Mackay, Neil Howe and William Strauss as well a little over 50 intensive one-on-one interviews I conducted with young Australians. It paints a largely rosy, robust picture, one of abundance, ambition and confidence.

But what of the significant minority of young Australians who we could accurately say haven't got it so good? It was a criticism - and a justified one - that less-than-privileged young people didn't feature heavily in my book, although they did number in my one-on-one interviews.

I like to think that writing a book is the beginning rather than the end of a process, that social research is an on-going dialogue rather than a sermon on the mount. Since the book was released I have been trying to fill the gaps in my own knowledge about young Australians in order to understand the particular life challenges many of them face. In this respect, I am indebted to the Inspire Foundation, a national non-profit organization formed in 1996 in response to Australia's then escalating rates of youth suicide. Serving young Australians ages 16-25, Inspire uses the Internet to create opportunities for young people to help themselves and help others. Inspire runs a number of programs including Reachout (which provides information and support to help young people get through difficult times) and ActNow (which provides resources and skills to young people to take action on social and political issues that affect them and their communities).

When I mentioned I wanted to continue my research on young Australians, the people at Inspire suggested I spend some time in one of their Beanbag centres. Beanbag is an Inspire programme run through youth centres around Australia, providing young people with computer skills and access to technology.

So a few weeks ago I rocked up the Marrickville Youth Resources Centre, a partner in the Beanbag Network. The Centre caters to people aged between 12 and 24. On week days it is full of students from nearby Marrickville High, mostly aged between 12 to 16. Someone might describe this cohort at Generation Z, but that someone wouldn't be me. I think we can officially dispense with the alphabet as a guide to generational change. Generation Y is bad enough, a term I use in the book because I struggled to come up with an alternative that was in any way an improvement on this somewhat cringe-worthy label.

Anyway Â… the Marrickville Centre is a concrete block, well-locked up when not in use, covered with colourful graffiti, right next to a basketball court and a playground. To a real estate agent's eye, a liability if you want to sell your renovated semi situated a block away.

I had a chance to talk to two youth workers, Dana, 26 and Trevor, in his 40s, about the challenges facing the young people who come to the Centre. They listed what we might guess are the typical issues for young people; conflict with parents and carers, problems in friendships and relationships, drug and alcohol abuse and disinterest in school. For Trevor, who works primarily with indigenous kids in South Marrickville, there are problems with crime, mainly petty theft and car-jacking, behaviour he believes derives as much from boredom as from economic disadvantage. Many of these kids aren't living with their parents; rather they are looked after by carers or relatives. There are regular inquires to the Centre about kids gone AWOL and requests for crisis accommodation.

This story of 'youth at risk and in trouble' is one we are all familiar with. It exists along side media representations of young people as selfish, overindulged, Ipod-toting youth who refuse to move out of home because their mother still does their laundry. This can scarcely do to justice to the complex lives of young Australians, no matter what their social background.

And so I asked Dana and Trevor about the strengths of the kids at the Centre, what attributes that had that would help them as they moved into adulthood. Dana believed that their powerful friendships are an important asset, something I found in my own research for the book. She told me: 'They have really close friendships. There isn't a lot of trouble between people at the Centre. The kids here have a strong commitment to their community as well. Many of them talk about staying and working in the area when they get older'. Trevor commented that everyone at the Centre had a 'hidden talent', one that they were willing to develop if given the opportunity. And so the Centre runs successful workshops in graffiti art, rap music, photography and writing.

After chatting with Dana and Trevor, I accompanied them to the hall for 'rec', an afternoon of free pool and games that the Centre puts on a couple of times a week. Basketball is particularly popular. Unfortunately, the outside court isn't lit because, as Trevor informed me, the Council and some residents are worried it will become a 'magnet' for young people (Trevor also informed that it is anyway, despite the lack of lighting). By 3:30 p.m. the Centre was full of students, a wonderful mixed of relax energy and comradeship. I watched a 5 foot nothing boy play table tennis in a fashion reminiscent of a young Paul Newman in The Hustler. There was an entrepreneurial young woman who was prepared to sell one of her cigarettes to a boy but only for $2 a pop. (Note that no one is allowed to smoke on the Centre premises but this occurred outside on the basketball courts).

Trevor said to me: 'This is what the media doesn't show. Kids just getting along and enjoying themselves'.

What was also striking, and typical of the makeup of Marrickville, was the ethnic diversity and integration in the crowd. That afternoon I saw a picture of lived multiculturalism, usually reserved for government reports and Benneton advertisements. The Centre attracts Pacific Islanders, Africans, Asians, South Americans, Eastern European kids as well as Anglos. As I was leaving, I saw a large group of students, from a tiny 12 year old Cambodian girl to a well-built 16 year old Pacific Islander boy, playing a spirited game of basketball. Something the recent Cronulla riots has obfuscated is that Generation Y, both here and in the United States, is the most ethnically diverse and, I would argue, racially tolerant generation yet.

The role the Centre plays is particularly crucial when we consider the lack of public space in our cities, save the commercialised public space of shopping centres. If you want to hang out with your friends but you don't have the money to spend at the mall or the movies and home is a less than safe or comfortable environment to socialise, then the local park or the streets are the only options. There you are highly visible, easily policed and considered by older generations to be a nuisance or a down right menace.

This seems ironic if we consider our currently child obsessed culture, where the Treasurer is actively encouraging women my age to have 3 children a piece, where the windows of four wheel drives in my neighbourhood proudly display signs stating 'Baby on Board'. We just can't get enough of kids, dressing up our babies like mini-mes in designer clothes yet we believe teenagers and young adults should be tucked away out of public sight, neither seen nor heard. What do these people think their precious babies are going to grow into, if not teenagers? No one is driving around with a sign that says 'Adolescent On Board', that's for sure.

Just to conclude today, I wanted to offer some observations about current public discussion around the generations and generational conflict. The last one of these I recall occurred in the early 1990s in relation to young women and the legacy of feminism. I remember being particularly cheesed off, as a committed feminist myself, about being told that I was either too strident in my feminism (thanks Helen Garner) or not strident enough (thanks Anne Summers).

I also recall, as a fairly optimistic and political engaged person in my teens and early 20s, being generally irritated by the term Generation X and how is was defined by the media at the time. According to them, I was part of a depressed, apathetic, pessimistic, slacker generation of sneering layabouts, too busy smoking pot and listening to The Cure to attend protest marches and the like. And so when I started the process of writing this book, I had to revisit some of that material on Generation X, particularly the book by Canadian author Douglas Coupland that gave us the very term. What I found extraordinary, and surprising, was how much that material resonated with me, albeit retrospectively. Whilst Generation X is a work of fiction, in the page margins of Coupland's novel there are definitions for a whole bunch of terms, Couplandisms if you will, that are both hilarious and prescient. I just want to share a few with you now:

McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.

Clique maintenance: The need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: 'Kids today do nothing. They're so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do it shop and complain'.

Safety Net-ism: The belief that there will always be a financial and emotional safety net to buffer life's hurts. Usually parents. (Acknowledge Mum if she is there.)

Black Holes: An X generation subgroup best known for their possession of almost entirely black wardrobes. (I particularly identified with that one as my wardrobe during the 80s and 90s resembled that of a Sicilian widow.)

And possibly my favourite:

Options paralysis: The tendency, when give unlimited choices, to make none.

And I could go on, but I can only borrow so much of Coupland's genius for this event. Reading that book made me realise that there might be something to this generational stuff after all. And it also made me realise that as much as things change, there are some constants, namely the capacity for older people to despair about the young and the resistance amongst the young to the notion that they can be characterised in generational terms.

I wrote this book with perhaps a naïve optimism that in my attempt to describe the world according to Generation Y, I might convince Boomers and Gen Xers there is nothing to fear or scorn. But instead I believe the general perception of this debate is that of a gladiatorial contest between generations for social and economic goodies, cultural power and column space in our newspapers.

If you believe you can write about social change in terms of generations at all, you are left with questions. How do you write about young people without appearing condescending, setting up an 'us and them' arrangement that exacerbates the already over-hyped conflict between the generations? How do you honour differences whilst recognising patterns and offering strong conclusions? In writing this book, I wanted to extricate myself from the ermine-lined straight jacket of contemporary academia and write something accessible and unafraid in its findings. There is a constant and difficult balance to be struck between the general and the specific, the common and the different in social research that seeks an audience beyond the realm of academics and market researchers. And how do you write about a generation of 'new adults' who are still changing in a changing world? These are the challenges you face if you want to write thoughtful and responsible social commentary, challenges I will continue to grapple with as a writer and researcher.

Rebecca Huntley is a Gen Xer, has a PhD in gender studies, has worked as an academic and a political staffer, and is now a freelance writer living in Sydney. This is the text of her addess to the Sydney Writers Festival in May 2006. Rebecca's new book, World According to Y: Inside the new adult generation, is published by Allen & Unwin ($24.95). You can buy your copy online.