In 1997, Gangland: cultural elites and the new generationalism dominated Australia’s book scene. Arguing that young people were under-represented in Australia’s mainstream media, subjected to ‘moral panics’ and increasingly demonised by the press, the book painted a picture of youth culture in crisis.
Twenty years on, very little has changed. Young people are still under-represented in Australia’s media, still demonised by the press and still in a state of perpetual crisis. Then, as now, the primary culprits for the problem are Baby Boomers. As Gangland’s author Mark Davis wrote:
Has an older generation of cultural apparatchiks, used to being at the centre and having a strong media presence, more or less systematically set out to discredit young people and their ideas, even progressive opinion generally?
The answer, then and now, is yes. Having wrecked the global economy in 2008, devastated the environment, massively cut university funding, created a housing bubble and started several of the longest wars in history, Baby Boomers are capping it all off by blaming their children for their problems.
Most commonly they do so by calling the young entitled, self-serving and lazy. If houses are too expensive, a Baby Boomer millionaire suggests, then young people should spend less on avocado toast. If jobs are increasingly unstable, a Baby Boomer journalist writes, then young people should have a better work ethic.
The easiest way to avoid responsibility, as the Baby Boomers so frequently do in this manner, is to blame those suffering for the cause of their own suffering. Victim-blaming the poorest and youngest among them, in a manner that passes the buck most eloquently.
In 1997, they were doing the same thing, ignoring the problems of youth with broad generalisations, name-calling and hand-wringing:
Behind the hype and trivialisation that has accompanied the much-loathed moniker ‘Generation X’, young people are suffering. They have the highest suicide rates in the country. They are most likely to be long-term unemployed. The numbers of homeless young people have risen rapidly. They have been among the main losers in cuts to government services.
Mark Davis could be writing the same book today. Despite the moniker ‘millenial’ and its association of entitlement and laziness, young people are suffering. Today, they are dealing with the worst youth unemployment in history. They are paying three to eleven times more for a home. They are earning 20% less than Baby Boomers at the same stage in life. They are working flexible jobs, with far less stability. They are set to retire much later. They are the main losers in cuts to government services.
We would all know this, of course, were it not for the Baby Boomers monopolising the mainstream media, and thereby preventing young voices from speaking out about their suffering. As in 1997, the young today are massively under-represented in the mainstream media, on television and on radio. Instead, they fill backroom positions, as anonymous ghosts working on ‘tech-savvy’ projects like social media management, video editing and sound design.
There are a few notable exceptions, such as the young celebrities who cut through the Boomer ceilings, often by being funny. As I have written before, there is a reason why young comedians are allowed a space on television: they are there literally to not take themselves seriously.
Writing for The Conversation, Jay Thompson argued that young people are represented more than ever before in ‘traditional’ media. He pointed to names like ‘Clementine Ford, Josh Thomas, Nazeem Hussain, Jessica Mauboy, Hunter Page-Lochard and Benjamin Law’. Three of the examples mentioned are comedians. If the list were expanded, most of the ‘millenial celebrities’ would fall into the comedian category.
With a stranglehold on traditional media, it is important for Baby Boomers to limit and discredit any competition – one way to do this is to laugh at anything a young person says. One way to do this is to only hire young comedians.
Another way is to praise ‘new media’ as the voice of the young, while never listening to that voice. Social media, YouTube and other sources are viewed as democratic vehicles by which young people can access a platform. These platforms are portrayed as equal to the established traditional media networks. Malcolm Turnbull has made the argument before that ‘new media’ brings about a diversity of voices and increases who is able to speak.
While true, comments like these are broadly misleading. Traditional mediums like television and newspapers are in some ways ‘fixed’. There are millions of people who watch the nightly news, meaning that anyone who appears on it receives millions of ‘views’. By contrast, the net is a place of warring sources of information, vying for readership, often on a much smaller scale, of the tens or hundreds of thousands.
To say that a young person with access to a blog is equivalent to a Baby Boomer with access to a television network is like saying your neighbour with a home-stitched flag is as powerful as the prime minister.
Major media companies continue to exclude young voices, and increasingly the youth are forced to carve out a niche on the newer, lesser-viewed platforms. Many are turning to YouTube, a platform that can in some ways be described as more ‘democratic’ than traditional media.
Allowing anyone a voice and a chance to publish, YouTube represents a failed vision of what media was meant to be about. On it, the young are showing the kind of talent and intellectual curiosity that Mark Davis described in Gangland. The kind of insightful, informed content that television executives seem to think is impossible to get out of a twenty-something.
Perhaps the final and most persistent myth perpetuated by the Boomer Generation is the idea that all of this – the disadvantage, the suffering, the exclusion from mainstream media – was just as bad for them ‘back in their day’. The failure of Baby Boomers to understand that things change – economics, social structures, political systems – is perhaps key to their blind-spot on the younger generation. Instead of acknowledging the difficulty of the youth today and working with the young to solve critical worldwide problems, they turn their backs. Instead of empowering the young to speak out on traditional media platforms, they create more and more layers of ‘expertise’ requirements, certification requirements and barriers to entry. Increasingly, the young are expected to serve them coffee for less pay, work in the backroom on anonymous projects, and build their brands on social media – to entrench their existing platforms even further.
Writing recently in The Guardian, Julianne Schultz had a moment of Boomer self-realisation, stating that ‘the world we have bequeathed to our children feels darker than the one I knew’. In this rare moment, she can be joined by the insightful commentary of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who had similar insights in his own time. In closing, I will paraphrase his call for his generation to stand up and fight for something more out of their lives: ‘Past generations didn’t struggle so we could have dreams of a better life. They struggled so that for us a better life could be a material reality.’
Image: crop from Voiceworks #61, ‘Playground’