Features Australia

The silly culture war on Gen Y

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

A scan of recent news would lead one to think that Generation Y invented the closed fist. Add to that bullying, narcissism, solipsism and drunkenness and you’ve completed the bingo card. The hysteria of the Boomer gerontocracy has reached the point where they have, quite literally, spiked the coward punch. And it appears the generations either side, the Silents and the Xers, are drinking from the same cup.

The charges against Gen Y lie somewhere between the spurious and the comical. Rap culture is ruining our generation’s perception of money! Social media is disconnecting us from society! Our backsides are hanging out of our jeans! We have eroded language through insidious txt spk! The scourge of caffeinated beverages! Yes, we desperately need to excise ‘like’ from our lexicon, and will one day have to deal with the aesthetics of tattoo culture on diminishing skin elasticity, but is the endless flagellation really necessary?

Kick any rock and you’ll find another manifestation of the war on Gen Y: from Elizabeth Farrelly’s Fairfax article arguing that Gen Y blokes are sporting beards before they have earned the right, to Tony Abbott’s ironic take on conscription, where young people on the dole will be enlisted to join a ‘green army’ — ripping up weeds and planting trees — presumably as revenge for the youthful inclination toward environmentalism.

We are the same ‘entitlement generation’ who work unpaid internships and accepted a reduction in working hours during the GFC to keep the jobs at companies to which we’re apparently not loyal. We are increasingly priced out of a housing market artificially inflated by negative gearing, of which we are the least likely to receive benefit. We are simultaneously paying for our education, retirement and other people’s investment properties, yet we are told it can all be fixed if only we did not buy our daily latte. We are told that the stereotypical characteristics of Gen Y — individualism and ambition — are undesirable.


Sydney’s media and politicians manufactured the ultimate moral panic earlier this year with the ‘coward punch epidemic’ that wasn’t. Occasional instances of non-domestic alcohol-induced violence, which have remained steady over time (and actually decreased in recent years to be at their lowest level since 2002) suddenly required legislation: the young people, they had decided, were out of control.

A month after the lockout laws came into effect, we were told last week that assaults had reduced by 30 per cent — but trade in the affected areas had also reduced by 30 per cent. In addition to being ineffectual, the laws represent a paternalistic form of bastardisation: socialise the punishment for the as yet uncommitted crimes of a very small minority. Without evidence, they have successfully equated hedonism to criminality.

The extent to which our brains are more educated, our enquiry more sceptical, our women less discriminated, our gays mostly uncloseted is probably unprecedented in history, yet we face the tyranny our elders attached to the time-honoured tradition of regulating that which cannot be comprehended or controlled, as though culture somehow can or ought to remain stagnant.

The advent of the internet coincided with our coming of age, but its role as a social conduit is something older generations continue to struggle with. They seek to sanitise risk, as though it does not exist offline — one only needs to look at the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to understand that sexual depravity is pervasive, and not a digital invention. So too bullying: at some point in the last decade we seem to have cast aside the golden rule — which has worked rather well as a guiding principle for millennia — and reduced ourselves to the binary that people are either bullies or anti-bullying, and that the amorphous concept of the internet is to blame. Those who grew up with the internet appreciate its organic and anarchic nature, but it seems inevitable that the next round of intergenerational warfare will involve filtering the internet for the purposes of moral hygiene.

An unscientific poll of Twitter acquaintances of older generations confirmed that intergenerational tension about haircuts, music and loose morality seems to be the constant. A brief stroll through cultural history offers us a wealth of intergenerational warfare. An Egyptian tomb estimated to have been built in around 4000bc contains an inscription saying: ‘We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.’ Shakespeare gave us endless intergenerational conflict: the shrew was eventually tamed, Juliet implores her Romeo to ‘Deny thy father and refuse thy name’, and King Lear’s Edmund ominously notes ‘The younger rises when the old doth fall.’ J.M. Barrie wrote sardonically ‘I’m not young enough to know everything.’ Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert despairs that ‘modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved’ Lolita. Bob Dylan had youthful Boomers singing:

And don’t criticise
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

Even The Simpsons offers the classic line ‘We need another Vietnam to thin out their ranks a little.’

The sociologist Frank Furedi has noted that the increasing prevelance of culture wars ‘reflects today’s powerful tendency to politicise the minutiae of lifestyle and individual behaviour.’ Choice and identity have become political issues; the question of generational change is both industrialised and pathologised.

Not only is its repetition of history incredibly boring, but the war on Generation Y is entirely unreasonable. What makes the conservatism of old age more virtuous than the exuberance of youth? The value of experience is the value contained in having the experience; it is not something which can simply be dictated. Thankfully, we will be too busy to wage silly culture wars on the generations who succeed us: when we are in charge, we’ll have Boomer pensions to slash.

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Show comments
  • Jer

    Wow. Sounds to me like you need to form a Facebook group.

  • CB

    what the hell is such a rational and well argued piece like this doing in the Spectator!?!!
    :O

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