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Adult Themes - both X and Y-rated

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Thursday, 2 November 2006

Be it a Treasury intergenerational report providing the basis for a Costello agenda, or a business pages quickie about “how to manage Gen Y”, youth and generationalism seem to be endless sources for cultural commentary and media beat-ups. Depending on the pundit you listen to, Gen Y are either “South Park Conservatives”, keen to adopt traditional values, or a dangerously immature generation of attention-challenged technophiles who refuse to become properly adult.

Sometimes - notably in the work of Miranda Devine, the same columnist can alternately damn and praise Gen Y, seemingly unable to integrate these two competing narratives from popular sociology.

One thing which is usually completely missing from generation talk is any actual evidence. Most “research” on the topic of generations comes either from marketing surveys or the imaginations of op-ed columnists, whose research appears to consist simply of quoting each other.


Until now. With the publication of Adult Themes: Rewriting the Rules of Adulthood, Sydney University academic Kate Crawford has done anyone interested in the changes in cultural and social trends a great service. Crawford turns a practiced media critic’s eye on the ways in which generations have been framed in popular discourse, subjecting the claims made about Gen X and Gen Y to the test of, well, actual sociological evidence.

There is no doubt that intergenerational differences exist. However - and this is a point I’ve made in my previous writing on the subject - often generations are simply too broad a category to generalise about. Crawford captures this well. She writes ironically of the checklists that have appeared (even in such supposedly august publications as the Sydney Morning Herald) from which interested readers can discern whether they are in fact “kidults” or “adultescents”. Do you read Harry Potter? Own an iPod? Watch Big Brother?

Crawford asks: “Are the social attitudes of a 20-year-old Muslim girl in a Lebanese family of Sydney’s southwest the same as a white 17-year-old private schoolboy in Brisbane’s east? Both are nominally Generation Y, but do they share the same values? Which is typical of a generation? What about the unemployed 25-year-old daughter of a wheat farmer in West Wyalong?”

Because factors such as class and gender often shape attitudes and behaviours more strongly than age, generational analysis is more likely to elide differences than provide a useful analytic. Too many stories told about generations are in fact stories about educated middle class kids.

Crawford looks at a series of issues where rapid social change has been evident. Her overall thesis is that cultural and social shifts have been out in advance of the norms of how to do being an adult. The result? Factors which are actually influencing our whole society are blamed - wrongly - on the irresponsibility and immaturity of Gen X and Gen Y.

Her analysis is particularly sharp when it comes to the workplace. Building on a range of sources, including Andrew Ross’ excellent 2003 book No-Collar: the Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs, and press reports about the exploitation of young workers under the WorkChoices regime, Crawford argues the story has been told the wrong way round.


The transition from education to a full time job and a career has been central to the narrative of adulthood in our culture. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald at the height of the boom, Crawford noticed the contradictory coverage of Gen X tech heads, as either daring innovators or self-interested, flighty slackers unable to commit to one job.

Not much has changed in the intervening few years, she suggests. Much of the popular business literature on “managing Gen Y” suggests organisations need to adapt tasks to the needs of young workers, who are supposedly able to constantly multi-task and will work only if they can see an instant payoff.

When this is translated into actual management strategies, what we get, according to Crawford, is work intensification and a blurring of work and leisure supposedly in the name of “fun”.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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