In the current public debate, the future has been reduced to a tainted product that is impossible to sell. This would seem to be one lesson of the recent fiasco connected to the government’s notorious 2015 Intergenerational Report. Its chief salesman, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, has renounced his involvement. He admitted he had not read the full report before commencing filming for the publicly-funded ad campaign. Dr Karl’s confession is a relatively trivial stumble, but it is symbolic of the broader incompetence of the Abbott government in its near-terminal state. When introducing the report, Treasurer Joe Hockey told us that it was a ‘social compact between the generations’. But as its contents suggest, it was really just another shallow political stunt, reflecting the needs and interests of the government’s present, rather than being an accurate or objective depiction of our future challenges. Dr Karl’s realisation that the entire document contained no discussion of climate change is ample evidence of that.
The latest discussion around the intergenerational report has far greater implications than just another laughably incompetent government fail. This is because it is symbolic of an unbreachable separation between those who make the decisions, and the world they are confining us to live in. Is it surprising that in these conditions cynicism is on the rise? Nearly half a million young people didn’t even bother to enrol to vote for the last election. Last year a poll discovered that a significant proportion of young people just don’t see the point in democracy. This is not a uniquely Australian phenomenon. Internationally, there has been a similar growth of political cynicism. It seems people have switched off from organised politics. Clearly, there are broader forces at work. A large part of the problem is the dilution of meaning that the very concept of the future holds for swathes of young people.
One interesting example of the draining of expectation for the future arose in March when Hockey proposed that younger Australians should be able to borrow against their superannuation fund to either pay for their education, or to buy into their first mortgage. This ‘thought bubble’ was almost immediately popped amid the general swell of criticism, and Hockey’s decision to float the prospect may have inadvertently had the positive effect of spurring a separate discussion on superannuation concessions and their role in allowing the wealthy to avoid tax.
But amongst the condemnation something interesting happened. An Essential Report poll found that amongst those aged 18 – 34, 45 per cent supported the proposal to access superannuation to buy a home. Just over a third believed it should be preserved for retirement. A worrying 19 per cent in this age group responded that they ‘Don’t know’. In contrast, 62 per cent of those polled over the age of 55 believed that superannuation should be preserved. Even more worrying was the general attitudes expressed in the responses to other questions that concerned aging and attitudes towards the future. Respondents to the poll were asked to state if they thought various age groups were likely to be better or worse off over the next forty years. Not a single age group received a higher response for better off. 42 per cent believed that children will be worse off; just 24 per cent better. For both the categories of young adults and families with school aged children, 52 per cent stated they would be worse off. Just 18 per cent felt that young adults would be better off. Only 14 per cent felt the same about young families.
The blunt reality is this: we have a generation, or more precisely, several generations, who can only imagine life getting more difficult. Job security is lower, competition for employment is greater, education is getting ever more expensive. There are generations for whom buying a home is a remote to non-existent dream. The only affordable housing options are in high-growth areas that have nowhere near the public infrastructure required for their growing populations.
When faced with the prospect of struggling to make it through the next decade of their lives, who can afford to be worried about retirement? Who, apart from the scions of the wealthy, can count on stable employment and plan that far ahead?
The past neoliberal generation has seen the unleashing of processes of economic and social atomisation, engendering a strong sense of alienation between the world of formal political engagement and the vast bulk of people who can’t see the point. In an era of defeats, why even try to influence the decision-makers of the political class who seem to be ever more distant to the demands of the electorate’s lived realities? Some may celebrate this political dissipation, but there is very little indication so far that this disengagement with traditional political processes has translated into any sustained political contribution through other means. More often than not, this has bred passivity as well as cynicism.
For all the talk of new ways of doing things, younger people’s cynicism derives from the failure of the political system to deliver on basic, even traditional, values. The reduction of inequality, the provision of services, the containment of corporations, and action on climate change are hardly revolutionary desires.
Internationally though, younger people are gradually coming to political life. The mass student movements for free education in Chile are one such example. Britain was clearly shaken up in the wake of the referendum for Scottish independence. That had the impact of drawing many thousands into the political debate, discussing the kind of nation that they wanted to see.
When Gough Whitlam died late last year, the public mourning had a notable quality of genuine sadness. There was, too, a sense of nostalgia – the feeling that with Whitlam’s death an entire way of understanding society and practicing politics had also passed. He represented a pivotal moment when the forces of the future pushed irrevocably through the barriers of the past. He ensured that life would change in a drastic way, permanently. The current political moment requires a similar sentiment, one that pushes beyond the limitations of the past political period to actively construct a better future. If these younger generations are not going to be abandoned to cynicism, reaction, and fear, it is up to the left to find a way to relate to them. This will require imagining the kind of future that we can all believe in, and being prepared to fight the battles today that will help us get there.