The power of the young

Election time is looming yet again.  Vote-hungry politicians have girded their loins – technologically speaking – and are frantically tweeting, liking, following and web-conferencing as they vie for the youth vote.  The desperate pollies know it, but do young Australians yet realise the political power they possess?

In the United States the President makes promises to permit young migrants to remain in the United States, publicly supports gay marriage (allegedly adding  $1 million to his campaign coffers in just 90 minutes) and looks to prevent interest rates on federal student loans from doubling.  The Republican’s Karl Rove has launched Crossroads Generation, a new super PAC targeting the “Millennials”, in an attempt to capitalise on Obama’s dwindling youth vote since the 2008 election.

“Change you can believe in” didn’t deliver to US 18-25 year olds a future beyond political brands.  Hope wasn’t supposed to mean more conflict, financial and corporate greed, less government accountability or fewer civil liberties. So while the campaign election war-chest helps the donors buy access and influence, it doesn’t buy authenticity or help the donor win trust. The widespread individual outpourings of anger, cynicism and despair prompted by the Occupy Wall Street protests show just how many young people are acutely aware of the machinations of power.

Young Australians are no different. They see Labor and the Coalition as two faces of the same coin, particularly in the area of foreign policy, and they sneer disinterestedly at, and quickly turn away from, the petty bickering and introspection that pre-empt any truly engaging political debate.

It’s unfortunate that disengagement is such an easy and understandably attractive option to young people, many of whom think they just don’t count.  But just as Obama mobilised the young to get over the line in 2008, if young Australians want to change an election result they can.  They represent some 30 percent of the electorate. The Australian youth market is reportedly worth an estimated $62 billion a year, so if they want to boycott commercial products and services they can. If they want to spearhead or support a political movement that represents an alternative to existing parties and movements they can.  Social media is integrated into the lives of young people and they already have all of the necessary tools  (including free iPhone apps like Protest4) and skills to mobilise outside of schools or universities or State control about issues of concern to them. And they do.  In fact there’s ready guidance from organisations like the Albert Einstein Institution, which provides 198 methods of non-violent action young people can adapt to their specific campaigns with creativity and imagination. It’s not surprising that ASIO has had its recent “perturbation in the underpants”, although it’s a pity the powers that be can’t focus on what causes rebellions instead of how the discontent spreads.

Dr Ron Brooker’s 2011 ‘Youth Federal Election Voting Intentions’ report concluded that ‘young people are civically engaged but their political engagement tends to be in the informal ‘everyday’ politics.  They are strongly values driven and their attachment is to issues rather than traditional political organisations.  They are alienated from formal politics and the political organisations that dominate them.’

Younger voters being more open-minded and progressively inclined does offer a partial explanation for the collapse in the Labor vote in favour of the Greens. And if Julian Assange stands for the Senate you can bet he will carve out a hefty slice of the young “unpoliticised” progressive vote.

The Government’s 2009 ‘Effective Communication with Young People’ report (and I assume little has changed) reveals that ‘those aged 18-24 years, adopted a defensive attitude towards the possibility of the media being an influence.’  They often saw the media as an untrustworthy and unreliable source of information, and as manipulative and biased in the way they conveyed information.

The same report confirms that ‘young people believe government is not interested in young people and, in turn, they are not interested in government.’  A youth resurrection, if not a youth insurrection, is sorely needed: these same young Australians will soon be expected to carry the can for the selfishness and short-sightedness of the generation presently empowered. Forget condescending headlines like “Generation IOU”– Monty Python’s  Four Yorkshiremen respond suitably to self congratulatory griping of that sort – and look instead at what we should be doing now to ensure these “adult children” and their successors will be able to lead productive and enjoyable lives and at the same time pay the piper.

But one need only look at the grim youth unemployment statistics in the recent Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency ‘Future Focus: Australia’s skills and workforce development needs’ report to appreciate why so many young people may feel that way: ‘In the year to January 2012, more than a quarter (26.8%) of teenagers of working age (15-19) were neither working nor engaging in full time learning.   School learners who are not engaged in either full time study or work are at risk of economic marginalisation and social exclusion.’

We know that on any given night in Australia, 105 000 people are homeless; we need to remember that nearly half of these people are under the age of 25.

We also know that an estimated 481,600 Australians aged 18-24 are currently living with an affective anxiety or substance abuse disorder. That’s about 26.5% – more than one in four – of our young people in this age group. Exactly what are our leaders doing to encourage, and foster an environment conducive to, healthy living and healthy thinking?

With statistics like these – and unfortunately, there are plenty more – portraying a reality in such sharp contradistinction to the rainbow-hued puffery that belches forth from Canberra and Macquarie Street, it’s easy to understand the distrust and disillusionment young people feel about our lacklustre political leadership.  They see the long hard climb ahead, and feel they’re sliding backwards before they even start.  But statistics like this can be changed, and a realistic vision of an optimistic but achievable future realised, if young Australians will only see that they are not powerless. .

Unfortunately many young people internalise systemic failings of our economic and social structures, and pay a harrowing personal price for their feelings of exclusion and powerlessness. How long will it be before they recognise that they are the victims of economic and social externalities, recognise that their anger and frustration should be directed at the factors that cause it rather than themselves, and categorically refuse to accept the conditions that they find intolerable?  The underhanded integration of our political and economic systems has been directed towards centralising power well outside the reach of the common people, and everything that operates within those systems is geared towards achieving that result.  Why else do Western leaders guilty of war crimes escape accountability? Why else would the TransPacific Partnership Agreement be dealt with in total secrecy? Why else do important Freedom of Information requests meet with resistance? A social system and economic order based on principles of transparency, honesty and fairness operating between generations as well as between people would obviate the need for young people to have to deal with problems not of their making.

Our future – the future of all of us – lies in the hands of these young Australians.   If their common self interest isn’t enough to stir them into action now, their need for self preservation eventually will.  Perhaps it would do all of us well to encourage them to speak out, to stand up and be counted; to emphasise to them that together they represent a powerful political force in this country, and to remind them that politicians and political parties who ignore them can be made to lose elections.

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