Yesterday in Australia, the sun turned up for morning coffee and left in time for dinner. And then, the nation saw display of another reliable comfort: older people and younger people tend to have slightly different social attitudes. Well, call the Neolithic Times and give them this newsy news. Us readers were bound to drop our beakers!

Commissioned by a seniors’ insurance provider, the CoreData market survey report Modern Australian Manners gained big headlines for a relatively small section of its inquiry. A news release headed “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS HAS GONE MAD” CLAIM AUSSIE SENIORS was just the sort of majuscule designed to get organisations like the ABC or News Corp, which shape their news for an older demographic, excited.  

This reporting then made its way to social media, an organism that tends to shape the outrage of the relatively young. So, ‘round about lunch time, thousands of Australians were publicly exaggerating the predictable findings of the survey: older people and younger people tend to have slightly different social attitudes.

If you can be bothered reading the part of the survey that caused the outsize fuss, you’ll find the attitude difference is not extreme. When faced with the proposition, “People are getting too politically correct these days”, respondents in both the 50-plus range agreed at 89.1% and Millennials 77.1%. When asked if they avoided being “politically correct just for the sake of it”, Millennials came in at 46.9%, beating their parents narrowly who scored 45.3%.

[Razer: tragedy tourism is older than selfies, so quit your outrage]

There is very little disagreement between the two age groups about the real-life efforts of seniors’ adjustment to emerging forms of etiquette, where both sit close to 50%. There is very little surprise in the great difference between age groups asked if seniors should make the effort to adapt to young people’s etiquette standards. In a move just as unprecedented as that morning sun, kids think grownups should try to understand them, and grownups believe that they already do.

Despite what your cut-rate neuroscientist or pop socio-biologist might claim, there remain few human social responses we can predict. Those things some hold as universal human truths — the natural ambition of men, the natural compassion of women, the naturalness of a surplus driven economy — cannot be determined as true. The “nature v nurture” debate is, despite its ongoing popularity, largely a pointless exercise that dismisses the lessons of our dynamic human history. But, heck. When it comes to older folks being annoyed by younger folks within a social context, and vice versa, we can probably retain some timeless and universal views. I’m sure that during the Neolithic Revolution, I would have found myself a bit perplexed by any agricultural advancement made by a kid. I know that as I age in the present, I will fail to truly grasp the pace of cultural changes and advancements. As I move toward death and away from regular social participation, I will lose my patience for the young.

I haven’t lost it yet, though. I am not nearly as impatient with young people as I am with moralising and false media depictions of their character. While it is almost certainly true that Millennials have a different understanding of what constitutes good manners, it is not true that anyone much bothers to investigate what “politically correct” truly means.

Every generation in every modern nation-state will come up with some sort of wide etiquette consensus. Every modern ruling institution will impose a more formalised set of rules. Every population, especially during times of economic crisis, will find conflict between how they wish to behave and how their behaviour is actively governed.

[Helen Razer will not be silenced]

To claim that “political correctness” is always an institutional imposition, and never a more genuinely democratic move by persons who would prefer not to be treated by institutions by crap, is to fail to define the thing. There’s the obfuscating and “politically correct” understatements produced by elite institutions to preserve power — a particularly deceitful example would be the re-branding of torture as “enhanced interrogation”. Then, there’s genuine community requests not to be called horrid names. They are different things, understood in this report and far more generally as identical, and as identically elite.

“Political correctness” has begun to signify very little. It can now mean almost any cultural change to which one objects. As tedious as is the certainty, especially from powerful institutions, that cultural changes are the root of all social changes, and rarely the other way ‘round, even more tedious is the empty fixation on “political correctness” itself. It means almost nothing, but the convenient creation of argument between generations. Which itself is nothing new.

What is new is a wide media focus on saying as little as possible about the social or the cultural while leveraging outrage.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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