You can keep your existential crisis

Alecia Simmonds’ piece in the Age on Saturday was insultingly smug, deftly illogical and typically lacking in evidence. I am no demographer, which may preclude me from contributing to the discussion with expertise (which did not, I note, stop Simmonds), but I am a member of the generation she derides, which at least gives me a certain authenticity that was lacking in the original tirade.

Criticising the next generation for their apparent failings is an eye-wateringly tiresome pursuit, recycled through history. It usually reflects some kind of existential crisis: a moment of jealousy with an overlay of fatigue for radical imaginings. It is underpinned by contempt for a younger generation for failing to do things they are now too lazy or demoralised to do themselves.

I say ‘failing to do things,’ but what I really mean is ‘failing to do things in the way they like’. For if Simmonds had ventured down to City Square in October 2011, she would have no doubt rejoiced to see the streets cordoned off as Melbourne activists, including countless members of Generation Y, took part in bringing the global phenomenon of Occupy to our streets.

The interesting thing about Occupy is that it is the first movement in quite some time to directly challenge the brutal inequality of capitalism. Occupy found new and inspiring ways to talk about the old, but unrelenting problem of inequality – terms like the 99% are now part of our modern political lexicon. Occupy has also spawned movements like Strike Debt, which aims to raise funds to buy debts to forgive them. While such a movement is symbolic, it nonetheless targets the heart of modern capitalism, identifying the entrenched inequality that undercuts the supposed freedom of markets and opportunity.

This, in turn, is fundamentally linked to one of the few concerns of Simmonds that found its origins in evidence: she bemoans the fact that the economy has overtaken the environment as the issue that most concerns young Australia. This is, it is fair to say, understandable given we have just lived through one of the worst financial crises in a century, with devastating human costs. Occupy is the flipside of this – it seeks to come to terms with why so many people find themselves in economically perilous situations in a time of apparent wealth. We should be proud of the activists who brought it to Australia.

There are countless other protests that should be noted. The plight of refugees, the defence of WikiLeaks, opposition to slut shaming through Slutwalk, and the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (particularly in the wake of the Intervention) have all attracted thousands of people to their cause, online and in the streets. But the existence of such campaigns is a mere inconvenience for people like Simmonds, who would no doubt dismiss them in the same manner as she did in respect of the highly popular campaign for gay marriage.

The Melbourne Occupy camp was torn apart by the cops. If we wish to lament the state of activism amongst Generation Y, this should be our starting point. Perhaps Simmonds’ smug rantings grated on me more acutely because I had just finished reading an obituary to Aaron Swartz. Swartz was a man of profound imagination and inspiring principles. If older generations genuinely want the youth of today to build a better world, they should encourage their adventures and defend them from the powerful forces who seek to preserve the status quo.

Aaron Swartz and his ilk do not spend time ‘taking duck-faced photos of themselves on Instagram’. They are fighting to bring the principles of democracy online. They hold cryptoparties so people can empower themselves, all over the world, a trend which started in Australia. They are acutely aware of the importance of this moment in history to concepts of privacy, information control and online freedom of association.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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