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Generation X: all grown up and nowhere to go

By Natasha Cica - posted Friday, 6 May 2005

Mark Davis' 1997 book Gangland cites Big Boomer author, Helen Garner, lamenting, in 1986, "there I am on the scrap heap and I'm only 42!" Twenty years on, many equally talented and creative Australians are asking a similar question. Except they're under 40 and - unlike Garner, who has since progressed to domestic blockbusters such as The First Stone - they're yet to cut their teeth in the recognised mainstream.

There's a disturbing trend in my well-educated, 30-something cohort. At one end of the spectrum lie those who have been allowed to "grow up" professionally, provided they play the free-market game. They generally work in finance and allied industries, have huge mortgages, high incomes, trophy spouses, nannies and membership of spa retreats. They think they're safe from the scrapheap because they're playing the game smarter than their peers stuck in a series of what Generation X author Douglas Coupland called "McJobs": "A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector and frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never had one."

Writing in 1991, Coupland was talking about flipping burgers. Today the phenomenon has expanded to embrace the so-called career tracks of younger professionals working in universities and other sectors that traditionally furthered the common good and increased the common wealth.


Like the wider public these sectors used to serve, today these Australians are widely treated with something bordering on contempt, as what passes for national wisdom and debate turns into a dumbed-down mishmash of Hobbes and Hayek, based on knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The current mood of “gen Xers” who won't or can't compromise on their expectation that core social democratic promises from their Whitlam and Fraser childhoods will be delivered, and of many who have, is more Crowded House circa 2005 than Joy Division.

Every day I talk to another 30-something Australian who wishes they'd done a Kylie and gone or stayed abroad when they had the chance. They all remained or returned here because they viscerally love this place, its people and its potential, and don't think Britain or anywhere else is home.

Rather, it's about direct comparison with the career trajectories of “gen Xers” of the so-called creative class in many other OECD countries. Here, you should be so lucky as to have a three-year contract as a bottom feeder in an arts faculty, where your load of teaching and bean-counting leaves no paid time for what you need to do to hold your job - a doctorate and refereed publications - never mind anything else.

There, you'd stand a chance of already being an associate professor, senior political adviser, published author or other established opinion former.

As a consequence, more 30-somethings harbour growing resentment of boomers. Downsizing may have sent lots of middle-aged white liberal men (and women) to the scrapheap, but this hasn't opened up a critical mass of space for younger voices who challenge, as Davis puts it, the old monoculture of white patrician liberalism, never mind economic rationalism.


A colleague of mine puts it like this: "Boomers are sucking the blood out of 'Xers'. We work like dogs, pay hideous rents, have no job security, are so exhausted we have no time any more to think, let alone raise questions about the status quo and take action. Boomers aren't interested in us, except as a source of tax revenue for their pensions and looming health-care costs. That's why they're freaked that we're not having babies."

Don't get me wrong - I'm not casting another stone in what's shaping up as gung-ho intergenerational warfare. Some of my best friends are boomers, and beyond. But they tend not to be Big. They're more at the end of the spectrum of their own generation that can't or won't play neocon roulette, and who are paying their own hefty price.

Then again, they can generally afford it; but so can the Big Boomers. For all our sakes, more Big Boomers need to start growing older with more grace and generosity. If they can't surrender tenure, this means using their resources and experience to develop the talent of more challenging 30-somethings, and beyond. To get them into positions where they can stay in this place and be real change agents.

Call that an investment in everyone's future.

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First published in The Age on April 27, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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