|Issue No 39||12 November 1999|
Tony Moore - To Praise Youth or to Bury It?
Edited extract from Labor Essays 1999
A burning question confronting teenagers and young adults today is how as a democratic society we are to move from an industrial to a post-industrial society without sacrificing yet another generation. While the governments of Hawke and Keating managed necessary change during the 1980s and '90s, Labor pushed its reform agenda without fully appreciating how economic restructuring was overturning the career paths of young Australians.
In place of a job - the passport to adult citizenship - many have endured a no-man's-land of unemployment, casualdead-end work, mean-spirited welfare and warehousing in schools and training courses. Now, under the Coalition, the Federal Government is abandoning even its training and welfare commitments, stripping young people of the last vestiges of labour market protection while demanding conformity to an anachronistic 1950s' work ethic.
The centrepiece of John Howard's youth policy, the punitive work-for-the-dole scheme, wantonly disregards the skill demands of the contemporary economy and blames the young victims for their own unemployment at a time when the real causes are well known. Hardest hit by unemployment and its attendant woes of poverty and cultural dispossession have been kids from working-class communities. Yet Labor's 'youth policy' ignored cries from its heartland and was insensitive to differences of class among young Australians. At both the federal and State levels Labor and Coalition governments in the '80s and '90s adopted a crude, monolithic concept of 'youth' - shorn of social diversity, difference and citizenship rights.
The Labor Party's continuing failure to move beyond the platitudes of youth rights and come to terms with the messy reality of post-industrial youth subcultures threatens the loss of a new generation, to both the nation and social democratic politics.In this chapter I examine the failure of both major parties on the key youth issue of their times in government, and suggest a sharper analysis for today.
Roots of the 'youth problem'
Labor is often touted as the party with youth appeal. Certainly since the Whitlam 'It's Time' campaign the party has tended to poll well with younger voters. But have Labor governments returned the favour? When Labor swept into office in early 1983 unemployment was at 10 per cent and the new government embarked on an ambitious expenditure program to create jobs in the private and public sectors. The Hawke Government's admirable ambitions to get the unemployed, and particularly young people, back to work were to run aground against its wider agenda to integrate Australia into the global economy and the Treasury's adherence to the new orthodoxy of neo-liberal market policy.
The problem of youth unemployment refused to go away, despite the creation of a million new jobs and impressive economic growth. As teenagers became more visible on the streets, politicians, media, police, clergy and youth workers began to talk about a 'youth problem' associated with an escalation in disobedience at school, joblessness, homelessness, substance abuse, delinquency and crime.
Paradoxically, the elevation of 'young people' to Hawke's 'Priority One' in 1985 set them up for new reversals. Youth unemployment remained entrenched at a level between 15 and 20 per cent, yet the young suffered heavily under subsequent federal cutbacks to services and benefits and endured declining incomes and job opportunities throughout the '90s. Labor did not come to terms with the fundamentals, eschewing job creation in 1986 for increased retention in schools and short-term programs designed to teach job-search skills and provide basic vocational qualifications.
Good intentions, patronising politics and professionally administered programs filled glossy government reports but failed to address what ABC Television saw as the 'crime of the decade', as school leavers from working-class backgrounds encountered a restructuring labour market that did not need many full-time teenage workers. Many long-term unemployed drifted into aberrant behaviour, delinquency, substance abuse, ill-health and, increasingly, suicide.
Others just became passive welfare recipients or under-employed, never quite living up to their potential - a lost generation.. A 1989 ABC television documentary and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report Our Homeless Children both warned that Australia risked creating a permanent youth underclass extending into the next generation if urgent action was not taken. Sadly this appears to have happened.
On the latest evidence, one-fifth 20-25-year-olds are at risk of falling into long-term unemployment despite improved economic conditions. A recent report, Australia's Young Adults: The Deepening Divide, concluded that over the last two decades young adults up to the age of 24 have actually slipped backwards in job prospects and income levels, stuck in work that is low skilled, part time and casual, largely in small companies offering little training or security.
The Howard Government blames high youth wages, inadequate skills and a poor work ethic, but most commentators now see the 'radical transformation of work' as the prime cause of a structural unemployment among teenagers and young adults.
These changes have eliminated not just the entry-level occupations, but also the career pathways within industries. Unemployment has hit some regions and types of work much harder than others. Skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar employment in manufacturing has declined while the information and service sectors have greatly expanded, offering the extremes of high-skilled, well-paid jobs for some and low-skilled, poorly paid under-employment for others. Well-resourced children from privileged and educated families, together with the smart and the lucky, went to university and had a chance, but the children from Labor's heartland were the casualties of change.
Looking back, the approach of governments to the 'youth problem' was to quarter the redundant in education, training and labour market programs (such as EPYU, Participation and Equity Program, Job Start, New Start, Skill Share), while demonising the troublemakers through moral panics about dole bludgers, graffiti, street kids, Asian crime, drugs and gangs. Campaigns by politicians on both sides have maligned the cultures and curtailed the actual liberty of teenagers and young adults. The rhetoric of the Howard Government suggests that 'youth' is now synonymous with an undeserving welfare category that is resented by taxpayers (including workers under 25), who want the young unemployed to work for their meagre unemployment benefit.
The best and brightest youngsters, patronised as 'Australia's future' for going on two decades now, complain about another 'gangland', a middle-aged power elite who squat comfortably at the centre of political and cultural life. Today the limbo of 'youth' is extending de facto into the early thirties of a so-called 'generation X'. In conferences, seminars, roundtables and stand-alone chapters we are witnessing the ghettoisation of a generation, an afterthought tacked on the end of the 'real' debates about trade, industry policy, taxation, immigration and constitutional reform.
Corporatism and the youth discourse
Today, with the ALP in opposition after ruling for thirteen years, it is important to consider how Labor governed and what aspects of its administrative style undid the best intentions of the party and its leaders. In the lead-up to International Youth Year in 1985, Australian governments followed the UN's lead and defined citizens aged fifteen to 25 as 'young people', a group with unique and urgent needs.
Under federal Labor, 'youth' became a special interest group with its due slice of the disadvantaged orange, along with ethnics, the disabled, Aborigines and women. In a bid to neutralise dissatisfaction with entrenched teenage unemployment and to woo a new generation of voters, bureaucracies were established in a flurry of platitudinous rhetoric. With the best intentions, public servants, in tandem with youth workers, educators and trainers, went about constructing a new age-based segregation that legitimated the 'warehousing' of under-employed citizens until well into adulthood. Younger Australians were cleaved from other citizens as an essentialised 'other'.
This crude categorisation was suited to a corporatist style that identified social groups, co-opted favoured leaders into the bureaucracy and traded reforms for electoral mileage. The idea of 'youth' is a conceptual and public relations disaster, homogenising social reality, blunting policy formulation, absolving attacks from the right, and masking economic redundancy. Artificially divorced from other elements in society - especially class - youth policy during the Labor years did little to shepherd young Australians through the period of accelerated changes to family life, women's roles, education, work, technology, ethnic diversity and the role of the state.
Many in the community sector, the broad left, the social movements, the ALP, the Democrats and the ABC, remembering the student radicalism of the '60s, uncritically applaud 'youth politics' as progressive when in fact three conservative themes dominate the construct: elitism, dependence and homogeneity. Since the discovery of 'adolescence' in the nineteenth century, Western society has seen the elongation of 'youth' and postponement of adulthood in tandem with the removal of children and younger teens from the workforce. Legislation protecting children from industrial exploitation went hand in glove with the new idea that the next generation should be educated and trained for citizenship and work in modern industry.
During the '80s the idea of 'youth' as a special interest was elevated to giddy heights, nursed at the bosom of youth workers, promoted by Hawke corporatism and revered as gospel by a new generation of fashionably left-of-centre 'youth' leaders and bureaucrats. Labor politicians thought they were being radical, tapping the 'voice of youth', but it is important to see how comfortably 'youth participation' dovetailed with the elitism of traditional youth leadership movements, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.
The all-purpose solution to the problems of youth was a fuzzy concept of consultation and participation called 'empowerment', which passed from the United States via the community youth sector into Commonwealth and State governments' Offices of Youth Affairs during International Youth Year.
Occurring within a classless framework, this principle degenerated into the selection and promotion of teenagers sufficiently articulate and confident to negotiate the new youth bureaucracies. Youth was empowered by putting a handful of well-meaning high-flyers on committees, a practice that continues today with the Howard Government's Youth Roundtable and numerous State-based equivalents.Unfortunately, though, it is doubtful whether young workers or the unemployed are even aware that they have acquired a voice.
Less than adult
In order to work for International Youth Year (IYY) it was preferred that you scraped under the magic age of 25. I was lucky enough to land a job as policy officer for IYY in New South Wales and confess that prior to taking the job had never thought of myself as a 'youth'. Growing up in Wollongong I was accustomed to the blue-collar idea that once in work you were an adult who paid board to the family household. My friends at university had also seen themselves as men and women going places, and were eager to take leadership roles in society. Looking back, I still recall the feeling of disempowerment that accompanied the metamorphosis from adult man of 24 to a patronised, token 'young person'.
Australians between eighteen and 25 forfeited citizenship for 'youth rights' and forfeited the sort of real power past generations had enjoyed in times of full employment. Youth is a dubious basis from which to argue for rights, as it conjures associations less-than-adult, such as 'dependency', 'inexperience', 'apprenticeship' - people not quite up to making a proper contribution to society.
It seems that for politicians, 'youth' sets in motion a chain of conservative values that underpin policy prescriptions: young people are vulnerable and belong at home with the family; they are the responsibility of their parents; they are unskilled; they should be supported financially by their parents;
they have fewer commitments, lower living costs and require less income; their parents subsidise them anyway; if young people have higher unemployment it is because they have few skills, poor attitudes and expect too much; youth wages should be lowered to make them more competitive; young people should earn their dole; anyway, kids should be in school or tech and not making a nuisance of themselves in public places.
The income support policies of Labor and Coalition governments share the assumption that young people up to the age of 25 are the responsibility of parents and have lower living costs. The Hawke Government's 'reform of income support', with its age-based tiers, and family means tests (tightened and zealously policed since the Coalition came to power), failed to grasp that unemployment is concentrated in the multi-disadvantaged families least able to support children over 16.
Universalising the experience of better-off youth subsidised by parents, governments incorrectly assume that parents of the unemployed are able and willing to support them. But research shows that many parents of early school leavers not only cannot support them, but regard children over 16 as independent adults who should pay board. Since 1982 the number of 15-24-year-olds dependent on their parents has increased by 12 per cent, reaching 58 per cent in 1996.
The result is increasing family tension The push to dependency flies in the face of reality. Out in the suburbs, over-18s confront the burdens and responsibilities of adult citizenship: paying tax and rents, buying clothes and food at the same price as everyone else. Less than a fifth are students. Some are in unions or are eligible to join. If they commit a crime they go to adult prison. They can join the army and serve overseas. Over-18s can vote. Many young people are married, in de facto relationships and are parents of young children themselves . Many are struggling to buy a home. But you seldom hear about these young adults and their concerns from the professional, tertiary-educated 'youths' anointed by governments, arts bureaucrats and the media.
By defining this age group as less than adult we weaken their access to citizens' rights, such as the right to a living income when working or when searching for work. The ideology of youth legitimates a drive by both Coalition and Labor governments to prolong far into adulthood the juvenile period of dependency and quasi-citizenship. The economically redundant are warehoused well into their mid-twenties within education and training programs, often at their parents' expense. Welfare is privatised within the family.
Policy without class
The issue of class was missing from Labor's youth policy, the ghost at the IYY banquet. Working in the youth sector alongside government officials in the mid '80s I was astonished that the term 'class' was never used, indeed never occurred to technocrats, who spoke about the 'disadvantaged', a condescending code for non-middle-class people who needed correction.
This omission is surprising given that some of the Labor ministers erecting this mandarin-slice view of society were socialists. It came about due to the collusion between Hawke's right-wing consensus view of Australian society and the broad left's naive internationalisation of '60s generational rhetoric. Yet the best minds of the intellectual new left, including sociologist Bob Connell, educationalist John Freeland and political economist Frank Stilwell, had produced ample evidence of the persistence of class division in Australia
The fuzzy idea of 'disadvantage' that was built into some programs identified indicators that impede 'middle-class' expectations, such as coming from a non-English speaking background or being 'rural and isolated', but never came to terms with the unravelling of the working-class way of life. 'Youth unemployment' is a misnomer, obscuring the reality that it is unskilled and semi-skilled jobs traditionally undertaken by early school leavers that have disappeared.
Those who are culturally predisposed and who can afford to remain in education until their early twenties are unaffected by the retraction in working-class jobs, taking the lion's share of part-time and casual work in the service sector while studying and moving into new areas of the expanding information economy after graduating. What we now have is working-class and rural unemployment that lasts well into adulthood and often into the next generation.
This class blindness marred Labor's ambitions for a 'clever country' with increased participation in higher education. Between 1981 and 1987, Year 12 retention rates rose from 34.8 to 53.1 per cent - still low by OECD standards but a revolution for Australia. Persuaded that education, rather than the labour market, was the place for older teenagers, the Hawke Government restricted access to unemployment benefit for 16-18-year-olds, in comparison to a more generous Austudy. However, teenagers from Labor's heartland continued to leave education early and endure unemployment on less money. The stick-and-carrot policy ignores the studies showing the difficulties working-class kids have with the competitive academic curriculum of the senior years of high school.
If things have been awful for the young unemployed, what of the young people who swelled John Dawkins' expanding universities in the 1980s and '90s? Students who matriculated into universities got saddled with fees, then graduated to face loan repayments and an uncertain labour market.In Gangland, Mark Davis documents a network of old boys and girls from the '60s, rusted into positions of control in gatekeeper institutions they helped create, censoring new ideas while jealously excluding the best and brightest of the younger generations. The boomers' new motto - don't trust anyone under 30. In this sense the term 'youth' is used to keep competitors in the margins, to exclude and disempower competition, to hoard resources. That's why Lindsay Tanner and Mark Latham are called 'Young Turks'. Younger academics, artists, media workers and politicians complain with some justification of a cultural myopia, a nation entering the next century with its eyes keenly on the 1960s. Recently, however, Australia has witnessed a spontaneous creative outburst from much younger film-makers, comedians, musicians, web-page designers, publishers, journalists, politicians and agents provocateurs such as Jon Safran.
A breath of fresh air, these new cultural and political guerillas have little respect for their elders and are too busy creating their own public spaces to be concerned with traditional institutions like Aunty ABC or the Sydney Morning Herald. Davis is impressive in documenting the growth of a left-right conservative anti-youth rhetoric by middle-aged commentators pledged to defend civilisation. Just as in the 1960s, today's moral panics target both delinquents (usually working class or 'ethnic') and the 'ratbags' involved in fringe politics, alternative lifestyles and outrageous ideas. While rap music, 'homeboys' and Asian gangs threatened law and order on the street, greenies, postmodernists, deconstructers, cyber-pornographers and 'political correctness' white-ant our universities, schools and the Internet.
All parties and governments need to reconsider their censorious attitude to culture and their paternalistic attitude to young people. In the name of protecting youth, the Coalition seems hell-bent on returning to the censorship regime that operated during the Menzies years. We are seeing an alarming tightening of censorship of media culture under the Coalition Government, an offensive that targets young people as both innocents to shield and perpetrators to fear. But the Hawke and Keating governments, on the other hand, were far too fond of ham-fisted social engineering crudely applied by toady bureaucrats.
The problem with Labor's penchant for policing culture is that working-class people, the young, Aborigines and newly arrived migrants are less able or inclined to police their language or jettison long-held customs in favour of the latest version of middle-class manners. Cultural policing assumes that signs have fixed meanings shared by everyone, that can be measured and seen to have an effect, which is never the case in the real world where young people, especially, experiment with identities and negotiate their differences.
As a no-man's-land between childhood and adulthood, 'youth' is an easy target for law and order campaigns, employers bent on lower wages, and governments looking to cut spending. I advocate a new approach to young people based on citizens' rights.A social democratic government should acknowledge that all Australians 16 years and over share the same human rights as citizens, and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of age, especially with regard to wages and income support.
Australia should bite the bullet and lower the voting age to 16. The advocacy of youth rights is bad politics. Instead, argue for the rights of citizens or for universal human rights. Unfortunately, the federal opposition's populist capitulation to the Coalition's entrenchment of junior wage rates suggests Labor still believes adult rights begin at 21. It is essential to dismantle the barrier that divides the unemployed from workers and youth from adults. It is not helpful for the up-and-coming generations to be corralled in a youth ghetto, whether in training and welfare or TV programming and arts grants. Good communities are made up of people from all ages, helping and learning from each other. Mark Davis is right - Australia has a bad dose of cultural constipation, caused less by boomer intransigence than by the structural and ideological lockout of a generation.
The Howard Government blames the young unemployed for their fate, and pretends that lower youth wages and a bit of industrial discipline via the electorally popular work-for-the-dole scheme will actually remedy the situation. The Dusseldorp Skills Forum argues that neither market deregulation, lower youth wages and less protection from dismissal, nor training and skills acquisition has eased an unemployment level among young adults, which is stuck at around 10 per cent - with a further 8.7 per cent in neither the labour force nor education.
Future governments should treat this figure as a class problem. Economic growth has created jobs, but not too many for unqualified early school leavers.The big challenge for social democrats is to help young people from working-class backgrounds find work in the new expanding areas of the information and service economy.
School reform - the key
A cultural predisposition to manual work instilled in families over generations disadvantages these kids at school, and makes it difficult for boys in particular to find a place in the new working world of service and communication. The fundamental reform of public secondary schooling is a priority, so that education can truly be a bridge from the old society to the new for those least able to make the crossing. State governments embarked on a similar project at the beginning of the twentieth century to shepherd potential workers into the industrial age, and future governments should have the vision to erect an education system for the new age.
Unfortunately, our schools remain organised like factories in an age when there are few factories to go to, imposing industrial-age discipline on young adults who live in a post-industrial age, and a tertiary-orientated curriculum on kids who will not go to university. Hence the 'crisis in public schools' prevails, as working-class kids 'act out' against this babysitting, and middle-class parents desert the local comprehensive for private and boutique selective schools. Governments and employers harp on about schools teaching vocational skills, but specialised workskills will be obsolete in no time, narrowing an employee's options when what is needed is flexibility.
The key goal today should be cultural literacy, by which I mean the acquisition of creativity, knowledge, self-discipline and the skills necessary to prosper in a fluid work environment, develop individual potential, encourage lifelong learning and participate in a democracy. Teachers should be more valued and value-added, which means better educated, frequently re-educated, better paid and encouraged to move in and out of the profession to get a grip on the changing world outside the school.
The market has not delivered lifelong careers in the post-industrial economy that take a teenager from, say, burger-making at McDonald's to restaurant management. This is a problem that starts when people leave education but reverberates throughout a person's life. Government must intervene to create career paths between the mish-mash of temporary, part-time and casual jobs that dominate the lower rungs of the information and service sectors.
Labor's introduction of traineeships in fragmented industries was a good idea, poorly marketed, as opposed to Howard's careful use of the blue-collar-friendly term 'apprenticeships'. The Dusseldorp Skills Forum suggests public incentives for employers to convert casual jobs into traineeships. Any government-created employment opportunities must be enmeshed into the growing areas of the new economy. Offering public subsidy to employers to take on the young unemployed in real jobs in private businesses, the government sector and community organisations is preferable to the dead-end work-for-the dole scheme.
There is cause for optimism. The passing of the industrial era has caused great dislocation, but it is an opportunity for a true liberation of human potential as younger people respond to the increase in information, the loosening of Fordist discipline, the end of fixed lifelong roles and the sharding of mass culture. In the absence of steady careers, more and more young people are finding identity in what they do rather than in what they are paid to do.
What was so good about hierarchical, boring industrial jobs anyway? Why have social democrats become the nostalgic defenders of a postwar Keynesian settlement that the new left originally believed to be pretty dehumanising? Socialism was always a means to an end - an unleashing of our full humanity. In an information-saturated post-industrial economy where we produce value-added information rather than manufactured objects, cultural production will occur in small self-managed units which cater for a diversity of groups that make up the market, with a reduced emphasis on assembly lines, mass markets and vertical control by hierarchies of management. The times favour younger producers open to new ideas and flexible ways of working. The young have never been more skilled.
Evidence suggests a growth in creative recreation and hobbies among the young, a move from passive consumption to active cultural production. From web-page design to short films to comedy to TV, younger people are taking a leaf out of the old punk adage and doing it themselves. In cultural policy, social democrats need to move away from outmoded ideas that progressive culture lies with 'community' or 'avant-garde' practitioners, and engage with the creativity and vitality of popular culture. Today the immersion of young people in digital technology, the Internet, music and identity subcultures suggests a way forward for a postmodern assertion of identity beyond the market. Significantly, unwaged cultural practices that contribute to a community often lead to careers in the new economy.
Kids are building incomes and careers out of their cultural pursuits. Social democratic government should encourage, through community infrastructure, the actual creative, productive activities of the young. There is no going back. At the century's end Australia's middle-aged leaders are locked in a battle for competing nostalgias. Howard's Liberals yearn for a mythical white-bread, picket-fenced 1950s without today's noisy minorities, while too many on the left cling to 1960s radicalism and the Whitlam renaissance as the measure of all progress. But young Australians are creating the future regardless of government plans, and it behoves all parties to embrace their cultural reality. Social democrats need to move beyond generationalism left over from the 1960s, acknowledge the persistence of class, and embrace a politics based on diversity, difference, autonomy and identity.
Labor Essays are published by Pluto Press
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