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A new switched-on and cynical generation

By Peter West - posted Monday, 12 December 2005


We are looking at a new generation of young Australians. Born after 1985, they are a computer generation. They can’t imagine the lives we had. We used to communicate by letter or call people on a telephone. Our address book was a little black book that we kept on the desk. For us, games were something you played out on the playing field. Today’s children communicate first up by SMS. Then it’s the mobile. Their address books are on their laptops. Games they play are limitless. Life is about X box, iPods, Foxtel … it’s a switched-on generation.

They are far more technically competent than their school, TAFE and uni teachers. Sometimes they come to school bleary-eyed after sitting up half the night on chat lines. They want to say what they want on websites, but can bully or tease others - who become hugely upset. They get angry when the websites are shut down by authority figures at school or university.

This is a Simpsons Generation in a very real sense. Colleagues tell me that they say to children in primary school, “Let’s talk about an Australian family. What will we call them?” They answer almost invariably "the Simpsons". "The Simpsons" represent many things about today’s children. They are American. The show depicts a world of hypocrisy which children challenge through Bart’s cynicism and Lisa’s idealism. Humour is the weapon that exposes the bullshit. Children today know about global warming, pollution and corruption at City Hall. It’s all there on The Simpsons.

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This bunch of chilfren has been Americanised. Some Maori or Samoan kids in Sydney and Melbourne want to identify with black culture and take on what they see as a cool identity. There is little real understanding of all the complex social and historical factors which are at work in black America. Once again, Australian children tend to know what they get from TV, websites and popular music.

What about gender differences? Young males have their own particular masculinity. We baby boomers all got married: it was what people did. Men went to work, got married, had children. Sex was something that happened somehow and it wasn’t much spoken of. Or priests hissed between clenched teeth, "There's too much emphasis on sex these days".

Today’s children are well aware that in one country after another, too many priests and teachers have pretended to be pious while abusing their trust. It’s part of the reason why they are so critical of bullshit.

Sex is more upfront these days and it seems to be on children's minds. Being able to satisfy a partner might be the core of it. Young males today grow up worrying about how to get a job, how to get a career and being acceptably male. There has been much media chattering about SNAGS (a few years back) and more recently metrosexuals. Most of this is just journalists talking about things they have heard from other journalists.

Young men may be more concerned about being well-groomed, but they still want respect, and this usually means being male in fairly traditional ways: going to work and playing sport. Probably today this includes soccer, beach volleyball and swimming. (Their female friends worry about how to stay slim and attractive AND manage a career while having relationships and a family.)

Feminism? Most blokes don't understand it and don't give a toss about it, though they probably say they want their girlfriend to be free to choose the life she wants.

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Gay men? Most straight guys say, "Gays are OK, as long as they don't bother me". Young men want to be their own man; they want to wear an earring if they feel like it, or hug their mates. They are more able to be male in the way they choose, without the old terror about being called “poofy”. There is still a guardedness about out-and-out gay men and a fear of HIV and AIDS. And probably confusion between having sex that keeps you free of HIV-AIDS, and sex that stops a girl getting pregnant.

People of both sexes want to know how it is. They dislike bullshit, fake idealism and pious talk of the public interest. When you scratch it, it turns out to be someone’s self-interest. In Sydney the Cross City tunnel has been revealed as a cosy deal between private entrepreneurs and government, while the mug motorist gets slugged. Issues like this will develop children's cynicism. So will the continuing saga of bloodshed, deceit and chicanery in Iraq, masked by hollow rhetoric about “defending democracy”.

Schooling has been changing for some time. Baby boomers were subject to the cane, bullying, and 11 times tables. In the 1970s progressive educators loosened many restrictions. Today’s 20-year-olds have gone to schools in which there were many matters that teachers tiptoed around. Discussion of women, ethnic people and Aborigines has been treated very carefully because teachers have been warned not to offend anyone. I feel that 20-year-olds have a desire to sound all these issues out for themselves. They want to dig beneath the conventional ideas and find out for themselves.

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Peter West acknowledges the ideas he received from Adam Longmuir and Ryan Barclay at UWS and Ali at JJJ. All responsibility remains his alone.



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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