young people

Contempt for Gen Y and Z is everywhere in the Coalition’s agenda this election. Nowhere was this better on show than today when Michael McCormack described the record number of youth enrolment as one of the “biggest problems” in this election. Young people, he said, “don’t know how good they’ve had it”. 

The embattled Nats leader was somehow not joking when he made that comment at a local branch meeting, presumably stacked with older blokes in checked short sleeve shirts, so it’s worth taking a minute to pull these remarks apart.

For starters, McCormack got one thing right, young people could change the shape of this election dramatically. The youth enrolment rate is at the highest level ever with an estimated 88.8% of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds enrolled to vote, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.

In the weeks before the books closed 70,000 people between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled. “This is a significant youth enrolment number and is unheard of all across the world,” AEC media spokesman Evan Ekin-Smyth told Crikey last week. 

What all these young people do with their vote is yet to be seen but it probably won’t have much to do with superannuation or franking credits — which is all the major party leaders seem to be able to talk about.

What we do know is that the marriage equality postal vote, which happened halfway between federal elections, made young people deeply aware of how toxic our political “debate” can be and got plenty of them on the electoral books.

Another thing we know is protest and political engagement is up. More people aged 18-24 took part in a protest in 2016 than in any election year in the previous three decades according to the ANU’s Australian Election Study. Also, 22% of that age group said they shared unofficial political content online that year — up from just 6% in 2010. 

But instead of meeting young people on the issues they feel concerned and powerless about, politicians chide them for skipping school. When thousands of students went on strike demanding action on climate change, a man-made phenomenon which threatens the existence of the planet as we know it, another senior member of the Nats, Matt Canavan said:

The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue. Because that’s what your future life will look like, up in a line asking for a handout, not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job.

Parents and students alike will have taken note of Canavan’s vile comments, and those teens have decades of voting ahead of them. 

No matter which way it runs, generational warfare is so often lazy and reactionary, which is why it’s so frustrating when politicians like McCormack resort to claiming young people “don’t know how good they’ve got it”. It’s true, there’s hasn’t been a recession in more than a quarter of a century. That’s not the whole picture though, is it?

Young people bear the brunt of paying for a rigged private health system, lower wages and vastly higher home prices as well as decades of full-time work to pay off HECS debts that many baby boomers have never seen. Real estate pressure force more workers (including the young) to live far away from their jobs, commuting more, fighting for penalty rates while worrying about whether they’ll ever be able to afford children or what climate change will mean for them. Regional young people, Indigenous young people and other minorities have it worse on top of all of that. 

While the Coalition openly roll their eyes at the youth vote, Labor aren’t much better. Electric cars and wages make it on their agenda but by refusing to make a call on Adani and constantly reassuring older people about franking credits, Labor aren’t pitching themselves as a party of the youth. With the average politician in this country being 51 year old white male, that’s probably not a surprise.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey