Three political myths about young people

Ariadne Vromen, University of Sydney

Both major political parties propagate myths about young people. These myths—‘young people are apathetic community members’, ‘young people are deviant and do not conform with social norms of behaviour’, and ‘young people depend too much on technology’—all label young people as a community problem that needs to be fixed. The myths are generalisations that cannot be substantiated, but politicians regularly invoke them when diagnosing deficiencies in Australian society. The myths are dragged out during public debate on the supposed decline of social cohesion, the increasing crime rate, and the increasing impermanence of relationships. The cures politicians propose for these problems invariably involve stronger communities underpinned by a universally shared—that is, adult led—value system. The distorted way young people are seen and understood is related to this adult-centred idea of ‘community’.

‘Community’ often becomes a term in popular and policy-making usage during periods of alleged social fragmentation. That is, politicians use the term when aspiring to closer social bonds, or harking back to the ‘good old days’ of how the world ought to be. Academic writers typically use the term ‘community’ to refer either to a group of people in a geographic location or to a group of people bound together by a set of common interests, or a common identity.

Although politicians invoke the idea of community as an overwhelmingly positive ideal, communities based on shared location and/or shared values are not always forces for the good. Community can be coercive when a dominant set of values unites members and maintains group cohesion by excluding individuals or subgroups that challenge these dominant values. Thus, when prescriptions for strengthening community ties deny internal community differences—differences of class, gender, race and ethnicity, religious affiliation, or generation—there will be winners and losers.

Several federal politicians have engaged in the public discussion on the need to create community based on a shared value system. They include Federal Treasurer Peter Costello, Leader of the Federal ALP Mark Latham, Shadow Minister for Communications and recently anointed shadow Minister for Community Relationships Lindsay Tanner, and Member for Parramatta Ross Cameron. Their vision demonstrates that they believe the myths about young people’s behaviour.

Both major parties propagate myths about young people.

Costello, Latham, Tanner, and Cameron have all spoken extensively in public forums about community cohesion, family relationships, and the values of volunteering. All assume that we have lost a sense of community and that we need to reclaim it. They all exclude the experiences of young people as community members on their own terms.

Peter Costello (2001), for example, argues that Australians ought to volunteer more to reclaim a better sense of shared community:

Going outside our homes to share an experience with the volunteer organisations of society is a big part of building community. We could revive the volunteer spirit in Australia—we could revive all these non-government community organisations—if each of us were to spend one hour per week in volunteer activity.

Costello lists activities Australians might participate in, and the only ones that include young people are the traditional organisations of Guides, Scouts, and Young Farmers’ Associations.

Mark Latham has similar views on the need for participation and the creation of community through the organisations of civil society. In contrast to Peter Costello, Latham focuses more on the needs of young people by suggesting that there is an interventionist role for government in service provision. However, although Latham does ‘include’ young people, he constructs them as a social problem that needs fixing. The young people he discusses are boys suffering from inadequate male role models, or girls with eating disorders, or those who are homeless or drug dependent (see Latham 2004).

This is not to suggest that young people don’t face real inequities and difficulties—they do, and it is government’s responsibility to deal with them appropriately and sensitively. However it seems politicians only consider young people when they present a problem, and as a result young people tend to be talked about rather than talked with. That is, young people’s own perspectives and experiences are rarely included in public debate.

Politicians only consider young people when they present a problem.

Take, for example, the debate that the Prime Minister initiated in January 2004 about public versus private schooling, and the values that different kinds of educational institutions instil in young people. Argument was heated but I didn’t hear young people’s voices in the media’s relaying of the political debate. If we had heard young people, we would have heard their diverse experiences and views. We would also have heard that young people are often capable of speaking for themselves, and don’t always need to be spoken for.

So why are young people excluded from active participation in shaping the future of society? Why can’t young people’s own community formations be recognised on their terms?

When society understands community from the frames of reference of those with more power young people are denied the space to create, or even shape, change in society and in politics. They are denied the expression of difference, and young people are homogenised as a group that doesn’t fit in with society’s expectations. This type of political discourse facilitates a conservative view that does not recognise social change. It’s more about prescribing the way community ought to be, like in the ‘good old days’, than interested in explaining and understanding the multifaceted nature of how society is.

Analyses of social power have probably always ignored the differentiated experiences of young people (see Irving et al. 1995); but now that political discourse has returned to the idea of community, we need to re-examine how it portrays young people. We need a new framework of understanding that dispels the myths about young people’s behaviour that are perpetuated in political discourse, academic analyses, and media reporting. We need to counter them with evidence and arguments from young people’s experiences.

Myth 1. Young people are apathetic community members

In his recent book Crowded Lives Lindsay Tanner characterises young people as the individualistic ‘options generation’, arguing that they ‘tend to make selfish choices’ (2003, p. 33). American political scientist Robert Putnam also criticises young people, homogenised as ‘Generation X’, for their lack of political and community involvement. He argues that young people fall short of the ‘yardstick’ set by their parents: ‘unlike boomers, who were once engaged, X-ers have never made the connection to politics, so they emphasise the personal and private over the public and collective’ (Putnam 2000, p. 259).

Political views on young people's levels of participation are not all negative.

However, young people participate in a variety of collective political and social experiences. Why complain about decline in traditional forms of association, like service clubs (see Putnam 2000; Costello 2001), when environmental and human rights groups thrive and the peace movement against the war with Iraq helped to politicise a new generation? My research has found that 93 per cent of young people were very involved in collective activities and had been involved in a group of some kind within the last five years. When community and political groups only were taken into account, and sporting and recreation groups excluded, a still healthy 69 per cent of 18–34 year olds have participated in group activities.

I looked at a range of ways of participating and found four different kinds:

  1. activist participation, which included attending rallies, boycotting products, and being involved with environmental and human rights organisations

  2. communitarian participation, which included being involved in a youth club or a church group and volunteering time

  3. individualist participation, which included donating money, volunteering time, and being a member of a sporting group

  4. party-oriented participation, which included being a party member, being a union member, and contacting an MP (Vromen 2003).

The existence of these four types of participation contradicts the myth that young people are apathetic and not community-minded. The one area of participation that remains low for young people, and indeed for most Australians, is membership of political parties. Rather than labelling party membership decline as indicating young people’s apathy, we ought to see this as indicating how unappealing political parties have become. And it is up to parties to change to involve a new generation. Involvement may not take the form of formal membership; instead parties might actively consult with young people on issues relevant to their lives.

One heartening note is that political views on young people’s levels of participation are not all negative. Ross Cameron, Liberal MP for Parramatta, acknowledges that young people participate in different ways:

Younger Australians tend not to join community organisations in the same numbers as their parents and grandparents did. At the same time, I find a great willingness among young people to participate in community building activity. My suspicion is that we need to find new forms of participation, possibly based on individual projects rather than attendance at weekly meetings (2003).

It is possible that through deliberations with locally active politicians such as Cameron distorted stereotypes of young people can change. This could happen simultaneously with attempts at re-shaping existing institutional forms so they engage with young people on their terms.

Myth 2. Young people are deviant

Neo-liberal economics and structural change affect different young people differently.

I watched Australian Idol over its last few nights, and the two finalists, Guy Sebastian and Shannon Noll—two young men from very different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds—were shown being interviewed on radio by John Laws. Laws concluded the interview by saying ‘well if all young people are like you two then we don’t have anything to worry about in this country’ (Channel Ten 16 November 2003). I cringed, as yet again young people were presented as potential troublemakers who their elders need to control and/or fear.

Violent protest, promiscuous sexuality, and rampant drug use, are all routinely used to portray young people as deviating from community standards and expectations (see, for example, Tanner 2003, p. 33). The media reporting of the February 2004 ‘riots’ in Redfern tended to focus on young people as violent participants, and as always antagonising those in power, in this case the police. No alternative stories were provided from young people who had been active participants in non-violent, social change actions in Redfern.

There is very little evidence that social change has led to an increase in individualistic behaviour and then to an increase in crime. There is ample evidence to show that neo-liberal economics and structural change affects different young people differently. While some have benefited from increased access to university, others have faced a contracting labour market that offers casual, short term paid work in industries where there is not a strong union presence. There is still significant youth unemployment. Young, well educated women are less likely to have children because, unsurprisingly, they have found that it is difficult to combine family and careers. Maybe these problems should be of greater concern to society, rather than concern about young peoples’ deviance.

Myth 3. Young people are technology dependent

Australians now have broad access to sophisticated information and communication technologies. Many assume that young people primarily benefit from and have become dependent on these technologies. In this myth young people are portrayed as weakening community connections, rather than failing to conform to community expectations. On this view, young people have become atomised individuals, distant from society and community building as a direct result of their internet usage.

Maybe we should see technology as liberating for young people.

Social research shows that young people use the internet more often than their elders and for a broader range of reasons (Lloyd & Bill 2004). The media has taken this evidence and constructed an ‘us and them’, often a ‘parents versus children’, competition. For example, this newspaper quote has young people living in a different world, enabled by new technologies:

The overwhelming message to teenagers today is that authorities, parents and lawmakers, are impotent in the online world. Increasingly, teenagers are living in two different worlds: the traditional, pre-Internet world, where the old ways still apply, and the new online world, where they do not. And from the vantage point of cyberspace, teenagers are witnessing, for the first time in history, adults failing to retain their authority (Higgins 2001, p. 12).

What only a few people recognise is that some young people do use the internet a lot, but nearly 40 per cent of 18–34 year olds use the net rarely, if ever (Vromen 2004). The gap between those who do and those who don’t use the net has been called ‘the digital divide’ (Norris 2001). The idea of the digital divide is usually applied to different age groups, that is, a divide between parents and their children. But here we can see that the concept can be applied within an age group, and that factors other than generation divide young people into frequent or rare net users. What this implies is that we should worry more about unevenness of access and class-based differences because there is a digital divide between the information rich and the information poor within a generation. People living in cities, those who are highly educated, those who earn more money, and those who work in white collar work are more likely to use both email and the internet frequently. Further, when we look at frequency of internet usage alone, men are more likely than women to use the net every day, as are people from a non-English speaking background more than those from an English speaking background. Young people differ little on what they use email and the internet for—it is generally for work, for study and to keep in touch with people (Vromen forthcoming).

And anyway, maybe we should see technology as liberating for young people—why shouldn’t they be able to do something their parents can’t, or find difficult to regulate? Technology is an important indicator of social change and progress, and we should worry more about whether differential access to the internet, to mobile phones, or to computers in general, indicates a growing class divide within this generation that will shape future economic opportunities.

Conclusions: Young People and Community

It is time now to let go of these myths about young people. We need to recognise that young people have a broad range of economic, social, and political experiences. Harking back to perceptions of a cohesive community of a bygone era is a political exercise that only serves to exclude people who do not conform to the status quo. Instead, we need to create inclusive forms of governance that recognise and build upon different ways of making communities. Those in power need to listen to young people more, young people’s diverse views and experiences need to be articulated in the media, and intellectual focus should be on structural change rather than individual blame.

REFERENCES

Cameron, R. 2003, A conservative reflection on family, the state and social capital, [Online], Available: http://www.rosscameron.com/article.phtml?article_id=4.

Channel Ten 2003, Australian Idol, November 16.

Costello, P. 2001, The Spirit Of The Volunteer, transcript of the Inaugural Sir Henry Bolte Lecture, August 15 [Online], Available: http://www.treasurer.gov.au/tsr/content/speeches/2001/005.asp.

Higgins, D. 2001, ‘We/are/in/control.org’, The Sydney Morning Herald June 19, p. 12.

Irving, T., Maunders, D., Sherington G., & Sorby, J. 1995, Youth in Australia: policy, Administration and Politics: A History Since World War II, Macmillan, Melbourne.

Latham, M. 2004, Work, family and community: A modern Australian agenda, transcript of speech to the National Press Club, February 18 [Online], Available: http://www.alp.org.au/media/0204/20006891.html.

Lloyd, R. & Bill, A. 2004, Australia Online: How Australians are using Computers and the Internet, ABS Cat No. 2056, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Norris, P. 2001, Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Putnam, R. 2000, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Tanner, L. 2003, Crowded Lives, Pluto Press, Sydney.

Vromen, A. 2003, ‘“People try to put us down”: Participatory citizenship of “Generation X”’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 78–99.

Vromen, A. forthcoming, ‘“Generation X” retrieving net-based information: political participation in practice?’ Refereed paper presented at the Australian Electronic Governance Conference, Melbourne, 14–15 April.

Ariadne Vromen is Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Ariadne’s book, Powerscape: Contemporary Australian Political Practice, co-authored with Katharine Gelber will be published later in 2004.

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