All young Australians are materialistic, apolitical and just a little clueless. Or so Adele Horin writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, apropos of a new report commissioned by the Dusseldorp Skills Forum called Fearless and Flexible: Views of Gen Y.

Horin found the report “fascinating” for claiming that 15-24 year olds are focused on their own welfare, selfishly aiming for the trifecta of having their own car, house and kids. They want reasonable employment but have no desire for a job for life.

More eye-popping is the unquestioning reportage of the research which asserted that Generation Yers uphold Howard-styled conservative values and are ignorant about the issue of globalisation, as some interviewees couldn’t define what it means. Readers of Horin’s article could be forgiven for assuming the anti-globalisation rallies at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne and the World Trade Organisation in Sydney were attended solely by retirees.

While Horin was eager to share this report with the Herald readership, she didn’t query the value of a research sample comprised of only 70 people across eight focus groups.

That might appear a little unrepresentative to be making broadbrush claims about an entire generation. Neither did she ponder the results that might have been gleaned about the materialistic focus or political nous of an equally random sample of 45-54 year olds.

What is revealing is that despite clear findings that the interviewees were all concerned about the changes to industrial relations, this was not seen as “political” – merely self-serving.

Their dislike of John Howard and anger about the Iraq war was not interpreted as political either. Their lack of interest in a job for life was seen as a fear of imprisonment, rather than a rational assessment of an employment market dominated by casualisation and uncertainty.

It’s another example of the persistent rash of reports, articles and opinion columns about the apolitical nature of Generation Y. But these stories are driven by a fundamental misunderstanding. “Being political” is too narrowly defined as party membership, making contributions to campaigns and taking an interest in official political debates.

These activities are falling in all age groups, not just the young. All the other colours of the political spectrum – be it cultural politics, single-issue politics, writing an issues-based blog, creating political art and music – are ignored. The problem isn’t youth apathy, but researchers and journalists missing the emerging modes of criticism and participation.

Yet again, we see generational stereotypes being brought into life on the basis of limited research and reported with a lack of scepticism. Unfortunately the Fearless and Flexible report tells us little about the diversity of 15-24 year olds and much more about the media trade in tired, age-based clichés.

Crawford is the author of Adult Themes: Rewriting the Rules of Adulthood (Pan Macmillan, 2006).

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