Friday, September 07, 2007

End of the broken years - Is Australia at the next change point?

My last post expressed my confusion in struggling with some of my daughters' studies. That post and the discussion it created have crystallised a key issue in my mind - is Australia at the next change point?

Legal Eagle wrote an interesting post on the increasing tendency of women to use their husband's name, a trend causing acute distress among high water mark feminists. They interpret it as a rise in conservatism, a return to outmoded values. I see it in a different way, a symbol of something new.

Here I must state two qualifications up front. The remarks that follow are based on a narrow sample. Further, they are not an argument for or against changes, simply observations about changes.

Australia has been through a fundamental social revolution. Today's young people are the outcome of that revolution. They have accepted, internalised, some elements of that revolution, rejected others.

Today's young are the most educated generation in Australia's history. The proportion going to year twelve, to university, is the highest on record. Whatever the weaknesses of our education system, this is the most educated and articulate generation Australia has ever known.

This is also a generation that has internalised three key social changes.

The first is gender equality. The battle fought by the feminists and by their Australian bodies such as the Women's Electoral Lobby has been won, even if the outcomes have been not quite what was expected.

The second is sexual tolerance. This generation does not suffer the angst about sex and sexual proclivities that marked previous generations. The battle fought by those seeking tolerance for different sexual orientations has been won.

The third is the end of sectarian divides. This generation has little time for the religious divides that used to mark Australian life.

But while these social changes have been internalised, these are also the children of what I call the broken years.

Broken, first, because of the rise in the Australian divorce rate after the introduction of the Family Law Act. Everyone in this generation has either experienced or knows someone who has experienced the turmoil of family break-up. Experienced not as individuals fighting with their partners, but as the victims of family collapse.

Broken, second, because of the changes in the Australian workplace. This generation has seen parents, or parents of friends, go through all the changes associated with workplace change.

This experience with the broken years has had a number of effects.

The first is that this group has absolutely no expectation that their relationship with any employer will be long term. Jobs are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

The second is the creation of an intensely tribal or group culture. If you cannot rely on your employer, your family, you have to rely on your friends. Perhaps paradoxically, where functioning families exist, these kids are very pro-family, wishing to retain close links long after previous generations would have gone their own ways.

The third is that this group has very little respect for authority. Respect has to be earned and re-earned on an individual basis, not awarded because of position.

Again paradoxically, this can be a conservative generation. Conservative does not mean voting for Mr Howard. This generation does not fit easily into traditional moulds. Rather, conservative means building stability into your own world. In this sense, I suspect that this is the most conservative generation in Australia's history.

This is also a technology generation. However, technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself, something to be used.

Technology is the underpinning of everything this group does. Mobile technology in particular is central. It links the tribal group across time and space.

This group actually thinks in terms of friends for life, something very alien to their parents, but far closer to the village life of the past. Now, however, you can remain in touch no matter how far you move. The village is an electronic village.

I do not know how these things will play out. I do know that it will be interesting to watch.

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