Both major political parties propagate myths about young people. These myths - "young people are apathetic community members", "young people are deviant and do not conform with social norms of behaviour", and "young people depend too much on technology" - all label young people as a community problem that needs to be fixed.
The myths are generalisations that cannot be substantiated but politicians regularly invoke them when diagnosing deficiencies in Australian society. The myths are dragged out during public debate on the supposed decline of social cohesion, the increasing crime rate, and the increasing impermanence of relationships. The cures politicians propose for these problems invariably involve stronger communities underpinned by a universally shared - that is, adult-led - value system. The distorted way young people are seen and understood is related to this adult-centred idea of "community".
"Community" is a term in politics and policy-making used during periods of alleged social fragmentation. Politicians use the term when aspiring to closer social bonds, or harking back to the "good old days" of how the world ought to be. Academic writers typically use the term "community" to refer either to a group of people in a geographic location or to a group of people bound together by a set of common interests, or a common identity.
Although politicians invoke the idea of community as an overwhelmingly positive ideal, communities based on shared location and/or shared values are not always forces for the good. Community can be coercive when a dominant set of values unites members and maintains group cohesion by excluding challengers to these dominant values. When prescriptions for strengthening community ties deny internal community differences - differences of class, gender, race and ethnicity, religious affiliation, or generation - there will be winners and losers.
Several federal politicians have engaged in the public discussion on the need to create community based on a shared value system. They include Federal Treasurer Peter Costello, Leader of the Federal ALP Mark Latham, Shadow Minister for Communications and recently anointed shadow Minister for Community Relationships Lindsay Tanner, and Member for Parramatta Ross Cameron. Their vision demonstrates that they believe the myths about young people's behaviour.
Costello, Latham, Tanner, and Cameron have all spoken extensively in public forums about community cohesion, family relationships, and the values of volunteering. All assume that we have lost a sense of community and that we need to reclaim it. They all exclude the experiences of young people as community members on their own terms.
Peter Costello argued in 2001 that Australians ought to volunteer more to reclaim a better sense of shared community:
Going outside our homes to share an experience with the volunteer organisations of society is a big part of building community. We could revive the volunteer spirit in Australia if each of us were to spend one hour a week as a volunteer.
Costello lists volunteering options - but the only ones for young people are the traditional Guides, Scouts, and Young Farmers' Associations.
Mark Latham has similar views on the need for participation and the creation of community through the organisations of civil society. In contrast to Costello, Latham focuses more on the needs of young people by suggesting that there is an interventionist role for government in service provision. However, although Latham does "include" young people, he constructs them as a social problem that needs fixing. The young people he discusses are boys suffering from inadequate male role models, or girls with eating disorders, or those who are homeless or drug-dependent.
This is not to suggest that young people don't face real inequities and difficulties - they do, and it is government's responsibility to deal with them appropriately and sensitively. However, it seems politicians only consider young people when they present a problem, and young people tend to be talked about rather than talked with. Their own perspectives and experiences are rarely included in public debate.
Take the debate that the Prime Minister initiated in January 2004: public versus private schooling and the values instilled in young people. Argument was heated but I didn't hear young people's voices in the media's relaying of the political debate. If we had heard young people, we would have heard their diverse experiences and views. We would also have heard that young people are often capable of speaking for themselves, and don't always need to be spoken for.
Dr Ariadne Vromen is a lecturer in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research and teaching interests in the field of political sociology include: political participation, community development and young people and politics.