Writer André Dao, businesswoman and young entrepreneur Holly Ransom, historian Frank Bongiorno, author Dr Jennifer Rayner and Yuin and Ngarigo woman Tamika Townsend with ABC RN presenter Paul Barclay, 26 July 2017
JONATHAN LINEEN: Hello everybody and welcome. My name’s Jono Lineen, I’m the lead curator on the Defining Moments in Australian History project and I’d like to welcome you all here today for this panel on millennials and Australian history. First of all I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians of the land that we are meeting on today and pay respect to their elders both past and present. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today. I’d like to acknowledge our partners of course, ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] Radio National, the Big Ideas program and Paul Barclay.
Thank you very much as usual, and the Griffith Review whose latest publication, Millennials Strike Back inspired the panel that we have here tonight. I should also mention that it’s on sale down in the lobby if you’re interested. A little introduction on the Defining Moments in Australian History project – this series of panels with Radio National’s Big Ideas program was part of the Defining Moments in Australian History project here at the Museum. Through Defining Moments, what the Museum is endeavouring to do is generate a program that engages the public in a discussion about key events, themes and changes in Australian history.
Our aim there is to encourage different opinions and discussions around those views, and through that demonstrate that Australian history is not simple or one sided but a complex nuanced debatable narrative that we should all have a say in. I have no doubt that the panel here tonight will forward that objective. Really with that, I’d like to hand it over to Paul for some more formal introductions and again, thanks everybody for coming tonight.
PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks Jon. Can I just say one or two things before I begin the actual recording? Mobile phones on silent please, but there’s no need for you to be quiet. A little bit of audience noise is good. What I’m doing tonight with this panel discussion is that I’m recording a radio program for my show Big Ideas on RN [Radio National]. For the purposes of recording, I’m going to treat this discussion that I’m about to have with our guests as if it’s going live to air right now so that I don’t need to edit it later on. If I do make references, as I will throughout the program to ABC RN and Big Ideas, if that sounds odd, that’s the reason why I’m doing it.
The radio component will last about 55 minutes. At the end I’ll wrap up with the guests and if you could applaud at the end that would be great. Then after you’ve finished applauding, don’t get up because we do have some time for audience questions. Hope all of that makes sense to you. I hope you enjoy the discussion. What I’d really like to kick off with is a huge round of applause to get us started, so I wonder if on the count of three, before I kick off the introduction, if I could get you to make some noise that would be brilliant. One, two, three.
This is Big Ideas, I’m Paul Barclay here at the National Museum of Australia. How have younger Australians through the generations helped to define Australia’s culture and identity, and how are the millennials forging the future? RN and the National Museum of Australia have been shining a light on some of the defining moments and themes of Australian history. We’ve talked about postwar immigration, our obsession with sport, about individual moments like the 67 referendum, the Mabo ruling, the [National] Apology, the gold rushes, the arrival of the contraceptive pill. It’s clear that it’s not just old white men who have shaped our history.
It is the young who have fought the wars in Gallipoli, in Vietnam, in Iraq, and protested against those wars. The young who’ve typified our anti-authoritarian streak. Ned Kelly was 26 when he was hung. Young migrants and the children of migrants have altered the social mix. Activist movements, feminism, LGBTI rights, anti-censorship all had youth at the helm. The generation known as millennials grew up at the last gasp of the 20th century and early 21st century. They’ve not known the world without the internet or a world without HECS [Higher Education Contribution Scheme] either. They’re the best educated, the most connected generation but how do they see their future and how will they shape it? Tonight the perspective of millennials, it’s a great pleasure to be joined at the Museum by five guests.
We have on my immediate left Jen [Jennifer] Rayner, political advisor and author of Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young. Next to Jen, André Dao, writer and human rights advocate. Next to André we have Tamika Townsend, a Ngarigo and Djiringanj woman who works in Indigenous Affairs. Next to Tamika, we have Frank Bongiorno, cultural historian and author of The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia; and at the end of the panel, we have Holly Ransom, chief executive of Emergent consultancy and intergenerational commentator. Frank, you’re not a millennial, so like myself you were born in the 60s. The upside of this is that we do have a historical vantage point that we can look back on that’s on our side [laughter]. Do you think it’s true that young people have been the drivers of much of the social change throughout Australian history?
FRANK BONGIORNO: They often have. One thinks back to earlier generations, the Cornstalks, the first generation of Australian born children of convicts. There was all sorts of puzzling … would they inherit the supposedly criminal traits of their parents? The gold rush generation was young, these were often people in their twenties in the 1850s, and they in turn gave rise to a really dynamic generation in the 1880s. Their children, if you like, led to this kind of demographic bubble. Then of course, closer to the recent past, the baby boomers and right through to the millennials. Look in many cases young people have been a really dynamic element in Australian history, and it’s something that I guess historians often underestimate.
We’re not good at generations in some ways. We’re better at things like class, ethnicity and gender. We sometimes struggle with generations because it’s kind of a complex idea. Generation means nothing unless it’s about shared experience I think.
PAUL BARCLAY: How useful are those labels like gen [generation] Y, gen [generation] X, baby boomer, millennial? Historians, do they provide much that’s useful?
FRANK BONGIORNO: A little bit I think. It’s interesting, when I was doing the 1980s book it struck me that the dominant political class in the 80s interestingly wasn’t baby boomer. It was a slightly older generation that didn’t have a name. It was those who were kind of in their twenties in the 1950s, people like Bob Hawke for instance, born in 1929. It struck me that they had a particular generational experience that was different from baby boomers, but which I had to come to terms with if I wanted to understand that period.
They’d been, if you like, young people during the Cold War of the 1950s. I often thought about that but I still suspect that as a historian, I probably underestimated it. I just think we do tend to emphasise a lot of other identities at the expense of generations, and in some ways that’s a pity.
PAUL BARCLAY: What about millennials themselves as a group? How do they compare with other generations? What do you think it is that’s distinctive about millennials?
FRANK BONGIORNO: I think the association especially of communications technology is something. Even technology in general is something that we haven’t seen before. We don’t define baby boomers primarily by relationship to technology. Obviously it was the age of television but we think of baby boomers more in relation of politics, don’t we? The Vietnam War, perhaps the student radicalism of the 1960s. From my 1980s youth, a term that was used back in the 80s was the MTV generation, referring to consumer culture but not really to a technology. I think that association with Facebook, with Twitter, with the digital world generally is powerful.
I think increasingly now in Australia too, we have two forms of disadvantage and that is home ownership. Very much so, the difficulties of breaking into the property market and casual work; the insecurity of jobs basically, for that generation. I think they’re increasingly emerging as kind of defining experiences. It’s kind of post-GFC [global financial crisis] experience actually.
PAUL BARCLAY: We’ve been talking about the defining moments of history throughout this series. Interestingly after one of the earlier discussions, some young people came up and said, ‘Look, all of this stuff that you’re talking about, it just doesn’t resonate with me at all.’ I thought before we go any further, I’ll bring the millennials in and get a sense of what the defining moments on Australian history are to you. Tamika, I was talking to you earlier and you were telling me that the ‘67 referendum still really speaks to you.
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: Yes, definitely.
PAUL BARCLAY: Tell us about that and perhaps some other moments that resonate with you.
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: The ‘67 referendum comes straight to mind because I had the privilege of meeting some of the campaigners earlier this year. It just made me realise we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants, as a young Indigenous person and other young Indigenous people who are coming through and sort of passionate about making change. I think when it comes to the ‘67 referendum and not only that but the Freedom Rides, I think that Indigenous Australians have been at the forefront of the fight for their rights in their own country, and I guess the ‘67 referendum is an example of that. My mum is Indigenous, my dad’s non-Indigenous, and my non-Indigenous grandmother speaks about … she was walking over that bridge, she was a part of that. When I think of the referendum, it makes me believe in Australia because I think about 98 per cent of the country, like most referendums, fail. I think that the fact that that went through shows that –
PAUL BARCLAY: That we came together as a nation?
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: We came together as a nation, it was the first time in our history that we did that. It shows that there is hope of that. We see so much negative stuff in the media and wherever else. I think that that was a real milestone, it gave us the right to vote, the right to be a citizen essentially. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for the ‘67 referendum. I think it was important.
PAUL BARCLAY: Holly? Defining moments?
HOLLY RAMSON: I think probably building on that definitely the Apology was a really significant moment. It was long overdue but seeing our Prime Minster get up and apologise for what had been done to Indigenous Australians, I think was a really significant milestone in the road to reconciliation. I think probably another moment, irrespective of your side of politics, particularly as a young woman, seeing the first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard come to power and shatter the glass ceiling in that aspect of society was a really significant moment. I think there’s a lot that’s said around, ‘You can only be what you can see,’ and I think about the significance of what that will mean generationally for young women who, for a period of time had a governor-general, had a number of premiers of states and a prime minister who were all female.
The ripple effect that will have on the way they aspire and the way they think about what they’re capable of achieving, I think that was a really significant moment as well.
PAUL BARCLAY: André?
ANDRÉ DAO: I think something that was quite defining for me and my childhood was the Tampa crisis, twinned with the September 11 attacks which came pretty much exactly the same time. I think my memory of the years after those two events are very taken up with the rhetoric around both boat people generally, which came home to me because my parents were Vietnamese, but people in the 80s. As a child taking on that rhetoric and thinking about what my place in Australia was. Then obviously, the changes to anti-terror laws and so on after September 11. I think we’re still grappling with both of those events and the consequences from them.
PAUL BARCLAY: Absolutely. They shape the society, the Australia we live in now still very much don’t they? Jen?
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think there are two, and one of them for me is also the Tampa crisis but for reasons that it bookended another event in our history which I think was also very significant, which was the Snowy Hydro Scheme [Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme]. That sort of really marked Australia embracing the world in a way that we had never previously done up until that point. We had been very fearful and very suspicious and very concerned about people coming from overseas, and with Snowy Hydro, we basically embraced the potential of what immigration could be, or we started to. That led to a whole range of other changes right through to the acceptance of asylum seekers and refugees in the 70s and 80s, and a much more open and cosmopolitan view of what Australia could be like.
For me then, the Tampa kind of bookends that as really the end of that era and the start of the turn back to being quite a fearful and closed society in a lot of ways. Where you get to the point now where you have echoes of sort of very early colonial protectionist, anti-globalist rhetoric in our political debate.
PAUL BARCLAY: Let’s talk about your generation. Holly, what do you think it is that defines the millennial generation in a nutshell?
HOLLY RAMSON: One of the words that would definitely come to mind for me when I think about what it is that I think is a defining trait, the generation, definitely taking the optimistic slant on things, is purpose. When you look at studies that are done around millennials and when we look at what they’re looking for in work, we see purpose and their ability to connect in to something that’s bigger than themselves as really significant. We hear anecdotally all the time … and I think that’s the encouragement of a baby boomer generation of parents, to pursue what you love and do what you’re passionate about, that being the language we heard from a very young age.
I think that want to make an impact, to do something that matters, to be able to say, ‘I was here and I made a difference because of that,’ is a really significant thing. I agree with Frank’s comments around technology when we think about what will probably define this period, the term ‘digital natives’ is the one that we often use and throw around. I think that’s an interesting one because you can take a variety of different angles on that particular part of the nutshell. There’s a lot of positives to that level of connectedness, the way that that level of technological understanding and capability is enabling solutions to all sorts of problems; the creation of businesses at a fraction of a cost of what we’ve seen before.
I think there’s also challenges of what that means for, say ‘slacktivism’, with regards to social activism. The concerns I have when I have conversations with neurologists around what they believe is happening to empathy, because of the percentage of our conversations and interactions that are now taking place by digital device instead of person to person, eye contact and the like; and what that means for mental health, community and belonging. I think they would be the two things, purpose for me and certainly the relationship with technology which are very significant. Obviously both of those things as well have an impact on the way they interact with the world of work and what they do with life.
JENNIFER RAYNER: If I could add one more as well, I think change is the other thing that really defines millennials more so than other generations. The pace of change that we have seen in our lives whether technological, political, economic, but then also our attitude to that change. Older generations tend to have the approach that things are the way that they have been and should stay the way that they have been whereas millennials, partly I think because we have seen so much change have a much more ‘suck it and see’ kind of attitude, a much more ‘roll with it and see where things end up. It could be good, it could be bad, but we’ll deal with that when we get there’ sort of approach.
PAUL BARCLAY: Even though that change is not necessarily been all that great –
JENNIFER RAYNER: No.
PAUL BARCLAY: – for millennials, because you say that one of the defining characteristics of millennials is they’re the first generation since the Great Depression who are in fact worse off than their parents. How so? How are millennials worse off?
JENNIFER RAYNER: Any indicator that you would choose to look at unfortunately and we probably haven’t got time to run through all of them tonight. A few quick stats: young people are working casually more than ever before and that’s not just people who are at university. It’s people who would otherwise have been in stable and secure work in their late teens and early twenties. Personal wealth is going backwards, home ownership is lower than it’s ever been. Wage growth is slower for people in their early twenties than any other aspect of the distribution. In terms of our mental health and wellbeing we express worse outcomes in terms of, as Holly sort of flags, some of those social empathetic connectedness elements. We’re worse off.
My focus as an economic policy advisor is obviously on the economics of it, and that’s really where you see it, in the world of work, in the world of people’s personal finances and of course in terms of home ownership and opportunity to get ahead.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. André, insecure employment, HECS debt, unaffordable housing. With all of these kind of pressing financial and money worries, where does that leave social justice and social concerns? Do millennials care about those issues as much as their predecessors in previous generations, or are they simply too concerned in finding out whether they can get the money to rent a house, let alone buy one?
ANDRÉ DAO: I think young people are absolutely concerned with those issues of social justice. The question that these material conditions raises, is whether or not young people have the space to have the broad thinking that’s required to really address the larger underlying problem. I think the danger of this current moment, particularly if you’re looking at populous politics and the concerns post GFC, really is that we can fall into a defensive position of –
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. You were talking about the fact that there are pressing financial imperatives, but the social justice and social concerns still matter. Is it true, because you do hear it said that millennials are not as politically engaged as, say, the baby boomers were?
HOLLY RAMSON: Can you blame them? [laughter].
ANDRÉ DAO: I think the politics are different. I was at a conference in Canberra a couple of years ago that was themed around the Youth Game Changers. Almost all the people that got up on stage and spoke really forcefully about visions for their future or people in the tech sector, their politics were very optimistic, but they were also quite libertarian. The solutions were based around the market, they had a faith in the market and in deregulation essentially, as a kind of, ‘Government get out of our way and we’ll invent the solutions to the problems.’ A really striking moment for me when at the end of the first pitch session, the conference convener said, ‘We’ve had so many great ideas here but no one’s addressed one of the big issues in Australia [which] is asylum seekers. Does anyone want to get up here and pitch?’
After all of these kind of tech-based solutions, as someone who works in refugee advocacy, [I] felt that it was very difficult to stand up and say, ‘Look there’s going to be a technological solution to this. It’s got to be a political solution.’ I think that’s the danger. A lot of young people in the tech sector, they’re the ones that are the thought leaders, and the ones who are getting up and presenting a vision of the future. The young people who are more interested in social justice and progressive ideals are perhaps too nervous to stand up and say, ‘How do we create a truly egalitarian society?’
PAUL BARCLAY: What’s your take Holly?
HOLLY RAMSON: Can I just butt in on that? I think one of the other interesting elements about the political system goes to the lack of trust that broadly we’ve got in institutions right now, all around the world. The way that that’s showing up in election result after election result; I mean, the Edelman Trust Barometer this year was pretty extraordinary when you looked at decline in every country they measured in trust, in general in institutions. When you look at the periods that it’s been done, looking generationally at trust, millennials have the lowest trust in institutions of any generation by double digits. I think in part, you look at the world, and André, you alluded to some of this earlier, like the global financial crisis. Really since then, things like full-time work haven’t recovered. For every job in Australia right now that’s going full time, there’s five Australians that want it
To a degree, I think there’s a number of times – and this isn’t just to the government system, this is also a little bit to the corporate world – you look at the government landscape and you go, ‘Okay, there’s kind of a social contract.’ If you went and did your learning, you were meant to get to go do your earning. That’s broken down quite fundamentally when we look at the rates of youth unemployment, and youth underemployment in particular was mentioned by Jennifer. I think from a corporate standpoint, we did things like put a Heart Foundation tick on a Big Mac. I mean, what happened? Are we surprised we’ve lost trust, right?
I think part of it is people looking at the system and going, ‘I’m actually not convinced that that’s a problem solver. I’m not actually convinced that I can get in there and be a voice for change, and this is the vehicle capable of doing something different.’ I think there will need to be, and I think there will be, an emergence of new institutions and a dramatic changing of the existing ones in order to ensure we can keep meeting the need that they need to serve in society.
I think that’s part of the breakdown right now, young people looking at increasingly complex problems, because that’s the state of the world that we’re in right now, that are typically now cross-country problems. Things like climate change, where it’s not necessarily just one country’s role to solve it, it’s a collective international effort that needs to be lead. At the same time, they’re looking at systems that seem to not be working and going, ‘How do I actually play a meaningful role in contributing to a solution here? I’m not quite sure how it works in this current context.’
PAUL BARCLAY: Frank, what’s your take on it historically? Do you think that the lack of faith in political institutions such as government that we’re seeing today is unique, or is this something that we’ve seen throughout history?
FRANK BONGIORNO: I think the depth of the distrust now is quite unique actually. I think the stats bear that out as far as we have statistics on these things. Australians are traditionally at different points been distrustful of politicians, cynical when politicians vote themselves pay rises and these sorts of things. No, look at the ways, the inability of the major political parties now to corral votes. A growing number of votes are going to independents, to minor parties and that is one measure that I think of the difficulties that the political system is having in absorbing the current shocks of economic, social, political change.
PAUL BARCLAY: The inability to resolve issues that clearly the public wants resolved.
FRANK BONGIORNO: Absolutely.
PAUL BARCLAY: I was talking to a millennial the other day about the issue of same sex marriage, an issue that millennials feel strongly about, and they said to me they cannot think of another issue where government insists on a plebiscite being taken of the public opinion before a decision is made. They see that as just completely cynical, all sorts of trust and faith evaporates as a result.
FRANK BONGIORNO: With very good reason. I mean, that’s one where a fairly consistent public polling majority seems not to be able to translate into a public policy solution. Yet we look across the other side of the globe and a country with a legacy like Ireland, of conservatism is able to resolve these issues satisfactorily. Admittedly in that case, via plebiscite nonetheless, it doesn’t place Australia in a very flattering light. The other one, which I’ve already mentioned, is housing. The contrast between the political order of, say, the late 1940s with both political parties saw that they had a responsibility to deal with what was then a very pressing problem.
The fact that very little housing had been built during the depression and during the war, there was a massive shortage. Of course, the beginnings of the baby boom in 1944, 45, 46. Shortage of housing, couples living with their parents in all sorts of stressful situations. The difference then is there was a sense on both sides of politics that government had a central role to play. It was a very simple solution: we build houses. They disagreed about what to do with that, so on the Liberal side we’ll sell them off. On the Labor side we’ll rent them out.
It was broad agreement that this was something that government should do, and I think if people are distrustful of politicians today, it’s perhaps something to do with the narrowing of scope of their politics, the sense that …
JENNIFER RAYNER: This is one of the things in the book Generation Less that I am reasonably firm with my peers on, which is that it is actually up to us to get involved in the processes that make those decisions. I think that André is right and Holly as well, that there’s a tendency in millennials to think that there is a technology hack for everything, and the solution to everything is to break it all down and start again. I don’t believe that that’s always the case. You can’t hack your way to a new form of democracy within a very established system. The most effective thing that you could do is actually go out and get involved in the system that we’ve got, and young Australians are doing that less and less.
We know that electoral enrolment is very, very low among people who are in their late teens, early twenties and then that has a tendency to flow through to their later life. Similarly, to actually get involved with political parties like mainstream ones and stand for election. Now, there may be institutional things that prevent them from wanting to do that, particularly some of the structures of the parties, but if you’re not at the table, you don’t generally get a say in what’s decided around it, and young people need to be there in order to have that say.
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: Yes, I agree with that.
PAUL BARCLAY: Tamika, I was going to ask how included in Australian society do young Indigenous millennials feel today? Do you feel that you’re better off than your parents and grandparents were?
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: Yes, definitely. I was just down in Bega on the weekend actually, and my auntie was telling stories of how they used to sit on opposite sides of the cinema. Sorry . You know, that doesn’t happen today, and I think she’s only like, 60. I also just met up with my nan’s sister, [who] was taken away when she was very young. I’ve actually just reconnected with her daughter this week. She’s 39, her mum was stolen away, lost her connection with culture, knows none of us even though they’ve grown up in Yass and we’ve just been in Bega and got relatives all over Canberra. Yes, I think that when you look at not so long [ago], we’ve come a hell of a long way in only 25, 30 years, so that just shows that change does come.
I just wanted to come back to your point, I think I really agree with what you said as well, we can only be the change that we see. We need to be on the inside, and then when we start to change that cycle, we can see real change on the inside. We need to be a part of it but young people also feel disconnected from it. How do you be a part of something when you’re more likely to be homeless? A young Indigenous person is more likely to go to jail than to finish school. How do you be a part of something when it’s so distant and disconnected from you? [This] is a challenge as well. We do need to be in there, young people, no matter what colour you are, we need to be a part of it and break the cycle.
PAUL BARCLAY: Millennials do cop a bit of a bad rap from some of the older generations, from the baby boomers and gen Xers. It’s said that millennials are a bit self-obsessed, that they tend to overrate their own abilities when it comes to the workforce, that they’re just not prepared to do the hard yards and put in the hard work. Any truth in this?
FRANK BONGIORNO: Too much smashed avocado [laughter].
PAUL BARCLAY: I’m going to come to the smashed avocado.
JENNIFER RAYNER: There’s an interesting statistic actually. One of the biggest clichés about millennials workers is that we hop around too much, and we’re not prepared to stay with any one employer for any period of time, and that sort of distinguishes us in the work force. The data doesn’t completely bear that out. Younger people have always had shorter work tenures. The duration of having a job for younger people has always been somewhere between two and three years. What’s actually happened is that older Australians have started staying in work for shorter periods. The average used to be ten years, now it’s down to seven. That actually reflects a whole bunch of changes in the economy about how easy it is to keep secure work, how long companies are actually having people work for them.
There is definitely a change going on in people hopping around work but it’s not young people who are doing it. It’s actually the baby boomers and the older people.
PAUL BARCLAY: Holly, what do you think about your generation? You’ve got a ferocious work ethic, do you think that millennials generally share that inclination to roll up their sleeves and get into it?
HOLLY RAMSON: This is the difficult thing, when you’re trying to paint an entire generation with a broad sweeping brush. I am so privileged to get to work right around this country with young people across every state and territory, and I’m blown away by the innovation and the work ethic and the ideas and ingenuity of so many of them. I think there is some truth to some of the piece around – and this comes from being a generation that have grown up with technology at our fingertips and in many ways is almost the default parent – because of the instantaneity of your engagement, the fact that you can type something into Google and press search and within a fraction of a second you get a result, it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve moved to a shorter term decision making cycle and expectation around input and output.
I think that is a real challenge that’s playing out in the workplace. I was reading a statistic the other day that was, to use a parallel, the average American male. The fact that by age 18, the average American male will have spent 10,000 hours gaming, which is the equivalent number of hours they will have spent at school in that period of their life. You think about that, you think about the notion of how ‘gamifying’ life then applies. The expectation, every time you demonstrate a competency in a game, you get to level up. You get a new role, a new position or a new capability within the game.
In many ways I think there’s a projection of some of these sorts of digital phenomena onto the world that we interact with, just because of the degree to which the way that we’ve interacted with the world has been informed and kind of guided by that. I definitely believe millennials have a great work ethic. I think one of the challenges that workplaces have is that millennials want different things from work. I think that’s a healthy thing.
When we look at the Gallup data around engagement of Australians in the workforce, it suggests only about 24 per cent of us are actually engaged in our jobs. The fact that we’re pushing for work to be something that’s a bit more fulfilling, where we can bring more of ourselves to work every day, where we feel we’ve got the capability to show up and give the best of ourselves I think is probably a really healthy thing.
PAUL BARCLAY: Perhaps that’s because you’re the most educated generation and you’ve been told that that is possible. I think with previous generations there was a large proportion of people in the workforce who never really expected to like their work very much, and never really expected it would have a great deal of meaning. Perhaps with millennials that is a different feature.
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think that also explains the quality that millennials have that older people I know find particularly objectionable, which is our capacity and willingness to say, ‘Yes but why?’ Something is that way but why is it that way? Why couldn’t it be this way instead? Why wouldn’t we try that? It’s because educated people are empowered people. If you’ve been to university, you are taught at university to question things and to think laterally, and to think differently about how you might solve problems. There has been no other generation that has as many people who have actually had that experience, as ours.
FRANK BONGIORNO: That came with HECS. You mentioned HECS before, but the other thing that accompanied that was a massive expansion of tertiary education, which has been underestimated. We forget just how large it was. The other thing I’m struck by is the richness of the experience of my own students at university now compared to us in the late 1980s. I remember at Melbourne University in the late 80s there was a young woman, Rita. Rita went to Paris during the semester and we thought this was the most glamorous thing imaginable. I had my first passport at 28. I have one student in this break who’s covered for Australian newspapers and two major overseas sporting events. Now he’s just going to come back and continue his studies at the beginning of semester.
It’s a different world. Now, not everyone shares in that world, but if you compare roughly similar cohorts of university students in the late 80s to now, they are two very different worlds.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think that touches on another feature actually, and that is tendency for millennials to be more global in outlook. Do you think, André? I was thinking about, for example, the debate in the United Kingdom over the European Union: remain or exit. It was overwhelming where the young people who saw the world as a bigger place, who wanted to remain in Europe and it was the older people who were like, ‘No, let’s go back to little Britain.’ Is there something in that, do you think, that millennials generally do see the borders as less important and see the world as a global entity?
ANDRÉ DAO: I guess millennials, at least in Australia, are more likely to have parents who are born overseas. That’s already a moment of global connection. Then everyone else has talked about the element of communication. If I might say something about the work ethic, which we get slated for a little bit, one thing that I find interesting is you go back and read someone like John Maynard Keynes, and he said that we would be working about 15 hours a week by now. My question there is, what happened to that future? We talk about automation and robots taking away jobs. I think the social justice but futuristic way of looking at that would say, ‘What’s the problem with that if we create a society where that’s not an issue?’
Where you have something like a universal basic income or similar programs that mean that automation doesn’t mean that people are destitute, that we don’t have a system where you have to find work or you starve. That’s to me, an interesting question about the future.
PAUL BARCLAY: But it also requires, does it not, addressing some of the structural extreme inequality that we’re seeing in countries like Australia and western countries around the world?
ANDRÉ DAO: Yes absolutely, and that ties in with your question about our global connectedness. Something I found growing up as well is we felt so connected to the rest of the world through television and through the internet. That’s true as well of disasters and of people suffering overseas. There’s this strange disconnect where we’re both connected and we see the vision, but I think, Holly, you raised that in terms of what our empathy and how our brains connect to people that we see on screens. There’s a similar open question as to whether or not seeing suffering on a TV screen will lead to actually doing something about it, or if you just have that moment where you feel a bit of sympathy and then you move on?
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. Well, let’s come to smashed avocados, this notorious claim that millennials spend too much time in cafes eating smashed avocado on toast and it’s this attitude that explains why housing is unaffordable to them [laughter]. Apart from trivialising housing prices, it suggests that the aspirations of millennials are different to previous generations; that in a sense they would prefer to go to a cafe and have something nice to eat and drink than be tied to a job that they don’t like, just so they can simply buy a home. Holly, what do you make of that? Do millennials have the same aspirations to own their own home for example?
HOLLY RAMSON: It’s an interesting one, I’ll be intrigued for Jennifer’s views on this too. I think we’re an inflexion point on this to be perfectly honest, but I think that the data that we’ve seen up to this point is still overwhelmingly strong for the aspiration for young Australians to want to own a home. I think that idea of owning a home is such a quintessential component of the Australian dream, and there was a want to kind of follow in the footsteps, and in many ways it was a socialised expectation that was passed on from grandparents to parents to now you.
I think the reason we’re in an inflexion point though is naturally you reach a point where you go, ‘I don’t want to aspire to something that I don’t believe is attainable because I’m setting myself up for a life of misery.’ I think what we see when we read things like the Mission Australia survey, which catches a pretty good snapshot of the kind of mental wellbeing and views of young Australians is there’s a very high presentation of anxiety. There’s a very high level of stress and worry and concern. If a lot of it’s related to my ability to one day own the home, and the ability to one day have a job or find a job that can provide for me the life that I want, that’s where we start to see the emerging conversation around, does that need to be? What it all is about?
In fact why don’t I just enjoy life here in this moment? If I want to catch up with friends and go out for breakfast, if I want to go travel and explore the world, why don’t I do that? To suspend life and the enjoyment of the now in pursuit of something that may never be mine seems futile. I guess the thing I would say, because I think a lot of people critique millennials for having that viewpoint some of the time, the overwhelming anecdotal conversations that I have with baby boomers, parents of millennials is they 100 per cent expect they’re going to have to help their children into the housing market. That will be an intergenerational effort to ensure their children own property in Australia.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. Tamika, do you think about owning a home? Is that one of those things that you aspire to or would aspire to if it was affordable to you?
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: I think we’d all love to own a home but I think that I agree. I’d rather just be happy than to try and get to something that may not ever happen. When you just said it’s an intergenerational thing, I just think to myself, what hope do my mob have then? We’re trying to break out of this. It’s a bit of a worry as well.
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think the important thing is that young people today may or may not want those things, and there is a discussion to have about whether or not what we want is actually changing as our lives become more global, all that sort of thing. The fundamental point really is, should we be able to if we wanted to? I think everyone would agree that the answer to that is yes, but the situation currently is that that is not the case. Even if you wanted to, generally young people can’t and that’s really the important question. This whole narrative about, do young people want it any more, is in some ways a post factor justification for the fact that we actually couldn’t even if we did. I’d also point out that I called Bernard Salt to syndicate abhor in the book long before he wrote that article [inaudible].
HOLLY RAMSON: I think your point is really key there when we compare it generationally, the amount it would now cost the younger generation to break into the housing market is substantially different to previous generations.
JENNIFER RAYNER: Seven times average income for people our age, as opposed to three times average income when my parents were looking for a home. That’s a significant difference, that matters.
HOLLY RAMSON: I think sometimes the argument’s thrown back, ‘They’re not prepared to sacrifice, they’re not prepared to start.’ Now you look at how far you would have to go outside of a CBD in Australia to be able to break into anything that’s under even the $800,000 mark, to be perfectly honest. That’s again, setting the bar for first time quite high and you’re going an incredibly long way out, which means a substantial commute to work, lost time, productivity and what have you. I think that’s important that we put that generational comparison in there.
JENNIFER RAYNER: I mean, I know numbers are boring generally, but when my parents were looking for their first home, the average mortgage in today’s dollars for a first time buyer was $81,000. Today it’s $365,000. You can see the difference that that actually makes in terms of how attainable it is for someone to get that kind of money together, to have a deposit on a house that they can borrow and then what that flow-on has on their lifestyle. I think that the economics of it does matter a lot.
PAUL BARCLAY: André, how aware are millennials of this intergenerational wealth issue? That, if for example, your parents have some money and want to help you out in buying a home, that puts you at such a huge advantage over others that it’s, in a sense, quite an uneven playing field.
ANDRÉ DAO: It’s as simple as I don’t know anyone who owns a home that didn’t get help from their parents. That’s a sharp difference when you take into account people’s parents’ backgrounds. I think it builds on inequality, and you get sort of that widening gap as opposed to what should be a closing gap of inequality. I think that yes, it does become really clear, particularly in the buying of houses, that that’s probably the area that I see it the most, is where parents are able to help out. Some people don’t have that.
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: I don’t know anyone that owns a home come to think of it.
PAUL BARCLAY: Didn’t the Prime Minister make some comment on this, Frank? The weights were put on him about the rising cost of home ownership, and he said, ‘The parents should kick in and help their kids to buy a home,’ the assumption being that Australia is full of all of these parents with a lazy few hundred thousand dollars lying around that they can give to their kids.
JENNIFER RAYNER: Up there with, ‘Get a good job that pays good money.’
FRANK BONGIORNO: Oh that was Joe Hockey, wasn’t it?
JENNIFER RAYNER: It was, yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: It was Jon Faine in Melbourne, wasn’t it? Jon Faine was interviewing him on Melbourne morning ABC [radio]. Yes, Malcolm Turnbull asked, ‘Well Jon, you’re pretty well off, aren’t you? You could afford to kick in a bit for your kids?’ Jon Faine probably is and I’m sure that Malcolm Turnbull is, but politicians are always at their most interesting in those unguarded moments, and that looked to me when I saw it, as an unguarded moment. It’s when the big mentalities are suddenly exposed and expressed, and the mentality there is we have a kind of patrimonial society as John Quiggin has just called it. In which inheritance once again, as in the 19th century for instance, becomes a critical determiner of people’s opportunities in life, including the opportunity to own your own home, with all of the sort of quality of life issues bound up in that.
HOLLY RAMSON: Watching politicians navigate the policy landscape in the next five to ten years is going to be really interesting, in part because you’re going to see a division of something that for the last generation, we’ve had fused. Right now millennials are the largest generation in our workforce. They’re about the 34, 36 per cent mark depending on what data you’re looking at. The expectation is by 2025 that’ll grow to between two-thirds and three quarters of the Australian workforce. What we’re going to have happen is a retirement of baby boomers, which is the reason such a large percentage of the workforce will be millennial. The baby boomer generation in and of itself is substantially larger than the millennial generation in sheer aggregate numbers.
The lion’s share of your voter base is not going to be the lion’s share of your workforce, and that’s going to be really interesting to see how that plays out on so many of these intergenerational issues. Do you play to the economy and productivity and change that’s going to allow the unleashing of that potential, and the creation of the greatest value? Or do you play to the voter base and perhaps the stability and the security of the now? Traditionally, the reason we keep the now is don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
PAUL BARCLAY: The workplace has changed so dramatically over the past ten years or so, and it’s millennials who are right at the coalface of this change. I just wonder, how much do millennials yearn for the type of stability in the workplace that previous generations had, versus how much are they embracing this new ‘gig economy’ and the opportunities that it provides?
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think the first thing to say about that is –
PAUL BARCLAY: Scoffing at the gig economy, I’ve noticed.
JENNIFER RAYNER: People generally want to make enough money to live comfortably, I think that is kind of a universal value. The idea that millennials embrace an ‘enjoy the gig economy’ – which might see them doing three to five jobs because that’s what it takes to actually keep body and soul together; they’re always on, they’re always working, they’re at the beck and call of an app rather than an employer or a company or a culture – is bullshit, to be honest. Again, it’s a post factor justification for circumstances that have sort of been imposed by how the economy is working now. Nobody wants to really live that way, not by and large. Maybe a very small number of people, people want to make enough money to have a decent life and the gig economy makes that really difficult.
ANDRÉ DAO: People also want to do what they were trained for or what they were educated for and I think that’s a huge factor for millennials. You said it before, hugely educated, but how many people get jobs in the field that they were trained in? I think that’s very disillusioning and that’s been an interesting thing to look at in the Anglosphere at least. You have people who are actually from solidly middle class backgrounds going, ‘I can’t own a home, I’m not able to get a job in the field that I spent a lot of money getting myself educated for.’ Then you do see a turn to the hard left and the hard right.
I think something that gets missed a bit is that the alt-right [alternative right], there’s a large young male contingent behind that as well. I think people may think that it’s older, white people, older blue collar workers. It’s also very young middle class background men who are extremely angry about what they perceive as their relative fallen privilege and status.
JENNIFER RAYNER: If I could go to a point because this touches on the topic of my new book, which is [about] the economic prospects of blue collar workers, which is something I’m working on at the moment. It very much overlaps with male younger workers who are not tertiary educated in particular, and have seen a very significant decline in their relative economic prospects, in their social standing in the community. These are a lot of the people who are embracing these quite extremist politics. It used to be the case that you could get a trade and then a good solid job, and you would work in that job for 20 or 30 years and be quite comfortable and secure. That is completely disappearing.
HOLLY RAMSON: I think that speaks to the reality of this new agile economy that we’re in, where we’re talking to young people who are in high school right now about the fact that they’re going to have 12 careers over the course of their lifetime, most of which have not been invented yet. This very fluid world of work is an incredibly exciting and leverageable opportunity for the highly skilled and highly networked. It’s really scary and unsecure for the people that are not in such a privileged position. That picks up on what André and Tamika have already said, this challenge that we’ve got around the way that we stand poised to compound intergenerational inequality. That’s the real concern about the here and now.
PAUL BARCLAY: Even at the moment, those people who you would think are well equipped for the current economy, who’ve gone to university, who’ve done fairly well at university, come out the other end and there’s just nothing for them except underemployment, maybe driving an Uber, working at the coffee shop. On top of that the debts just keep mounting up. I’m just wondering whether you feel ripped off by this reality.
ANDRÉ DAO: In the legal sector I know that when, say, the Chief Justice of Victoria gives her welcome speech to new graduates when they’re being admitted to the legal profession, one of the things that has made its way into that speech now is, ‘Look, it’s a really difficult job market out there.’ From the get go, you’re told constantly that it’s a difficult job market, but I think that also leaves people more open to being exploited because they go, ‘Maybe this is my only chance to get my foot in the door, is to work for incredibly low wages or to work for someone who treats me really poorly.’
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s because there’s over 40 universities in Australia now and almost all of them offer a law degree. What do you they think is going to happen to all of these law graduates?
HOLLY RAMSON: I’m a recovering law student [laughter], and I can say I walked out with my 60 grand in HECS debt for a legal graduation year in my state of 700, for 200 legal jobs. That’s a great example of how we oversupplied an industry in my year by 500. I think this speaks to a really, really big issue that we’ve got in Australia right now, which is the incredible disconnect between our higher education institutions and universities, research and business. Last time the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] did the rankings across 33 countries, we got the wooden spoon. We got 33 out of 33 for the gap that exists between those two spaces. It doesn’t surprise me unfortunately, that we’re seeing young people walking out with qualifications that aren’t a match for industry or after. I think the challenge that we’ve got is making sure that those two catch up. My worry is certainly the curriculum side of things and the fact we’ve seen not just very little change to the content of the curriculum, but very little change to the pedagogy.
The actual way we go about teaching, given that we’re sending people out and having to apply learning in a really different way in the current work market and job market than they previously had to in other generations. Much more problem solving, much more information, synthesis, those sorts of things. Much more entrepreneurialism. I think that’s a really big challenge and I think how we bring those two closer together is going to be absolutely critical.
PAUL BARCLAY: Tamika, these issues are compounded for Indigenous millennials, aren’t they?
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: Yes. I work on employment policy, and one of the biggest challenges is how do we get people into jobs when the whole economy’s basically gone downhill. It’s almost like you have to look at where the growth market is and aim to be in that, even if it’s not something that you’re passionate about. Yes, it’s a challenge.
PAUL BARCLAY: Is there a sense that millennials just want the 50 and 60 somethings to get out of the way? Vacate the space?
JENNIFER RAYNER: That is actually part of the problem. You talked about the baby boomers will leave the workforce and we will make up a greater share of it. That’s true but it’s still some way off. What we are seeing, I actually crunched some numbers on this for the book, is that the CEOs, departmental secretaries, newspaper editors, these kinds of senior roles in society are now between six and eight years older than they were ten years ago, 15 years ago on average. People are staying in the workforce longer because they’re healthier, they’re up for it. In a lot of cases, the global financial crisis actually wiped out wealth that people had when they were close to retirement, so they need to stay in the workforce.
That’s creating this kind of logjam all the way through the pipeline, where you can’t get the progression that used to be available because people are staying at the top much longer than they used to.
PAUL BARCLAY: Frank, how are historians likely to remember millennials? This is in the realm of speculation [laughter]. After listening to what you’ve listened to and had a bit of the sample of the attitudes and the challenges, in 20, 30 years’ time when we look back on this generation, how are we going to see it?
FRANK BONGIORNO: You can’t take for granted that the millennial as a category will survive. Its predecessor, if I remember rightly, was generation Y which we don’t hear much about now. Whether it will be a meaningful category, I don’t know. I think again the association with digital technology will be powerful. Again, when I look at the 80s the things that people often remember apart from the popular culture and bad haircuts are of course the outmoded technologies, which we look at now and think are really cute. Things like Walkmans and so on. I think that connection association will be important, but I think it may well be thought of as a post GFC generation. I think a lot of what we’ve talked about tonight has really been about how do we deal with that world?
It’s a different world. That’s really the difference between you guys and me, a generation Xer. When I left university as an undergraduate in Melbourne, unemployment in Melbourne itself, Victoria for instance, was about 13 per cent, much higher than today. My prospects didn’t look terribly good either, so of course I went off and did a PhD [laughter]. It was the middle of a recession, it looked pretty ordinary, but the big difference of course is that it was followed by this period of recovery and then of course quite explosive growth. That’s not where we are now, we’re in a very different world now. I think that that –
PAUL BARCLAY: Technological change too, is going to dramatically change the workforce. In fact, you’re the generation that’s going to have to deal with the pointy end of climate change, the massive changes to the workforce that’ll be brought about by artificial intelligence and –
HOLLY RAMSON: Yes, the robots.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, robots. I heard the other day that there are 3-D printers that can print ten houses on a block of land in China in 24 hours.
ANDRÉ DAO: That could be good, right? Because then there’s more houses [laughter].
PAUL BARCLAY: Well that could be good, more housing.
HOLLY RAMSON: There we go, a solution to our problem.
PAUL BARCLAY: Just need human beings to build them though.
FRANK BONGIORNO You can’t print land though unfortunately. HOLLY RAMSON: Hey, we’ve got a lot of that.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, I wonder how you feel about the kind of challenges that you’re up against, and the optimism or otherwise that you have for your generation being able to take on those challenges. André, I think you were sceptical of the ‘techno-utopianism’ that exists at the moment, that technology and innovation provides the solution to everything. Are you optimistic though, and do you retain a sense of utopianism about the future?
ANDRÉ DAO: In terms of optimism – this hasn’t come up as much on this panel as I thought it might have, but in terms of climate change, when you really look at the things that come out of, say … The food and agricultural organisations said that we have about 60 harvests left before our soil is so degraded because of the current farming practices that privilege short-term profits, and they don’t put enough nutrients back into the soil. That to me, is such a sort of impossible thing to think about in terms of how can you feel optimistic about that kind of a future? The flip side to that though is, I think that we absolutely need to have utopian thinking in terms of these things about facing automation and robotics.
The utopian future looks like we could work less and still materially feed ourselves, and house ourselves and clothe ourselves. That’s the utopian future that I would like us to focus on as opposed to the utopian thinking that underpins the current economy; which is this idea of endless resources, which is just as utopian.
PAUL BARCLAY: I wonder whether you have a sense that there are defining moments that are happening now that we will look back on in the years to come as being important junctures. I wonder whether we perhaps would have thought that about the Paris Climate Change Agreement, we managed to get all of the developing countries and China, all of the countries on the page to commit to a treaty. Not a perfect treaty, but nonetheless. Then of course, one of the biggest emitters in the world pulls out of that treaty. Are there things happening now that you think we’ll look back on as being defining moments?
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think Frank as a historian might say that those things are often hard to spot at the time, because it’s only the things that flow from them that make them particularly significant.
FRANK BONGIORNO: We’ll remember the Trump presidency, I’m confident about that [laughter].
JENNIFER RAYNER: Yes, I think that’s true. If I could just go back to pick out something from André’s point there as well, I actually don’t think that what we need is utopian thinking. There are really practical solutions to basically every problem we have in front of us.
PAUL BARCLAY: Spoken like a true political advisor [laughter].
JENNIFER RAYNER: There are policy reforms that could make housing more affordable right now and we know what they are. It’s only the political system that is slowing those down. We know what reforms are needed to start making the transition from a carbon-based economy to a clean economy. We know that we need more TAFE for better educating younger Australians. These are things that there are practical solutions for, we don’t need to burn the whole system down and start again as the utopians would have us do. We need to do the things that are sensible now, I suppose.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay.
HOLLY RAMSON: I think one thing you’ve already touched on that definitely will be a defining moment when we make it happen – and again, it’s an example of the political process stymieing something we’ve touched on already – is the push for same sex marriage. I think that will be a really significant moment in social progress that has in many ways been led by this younger generation.
ANDRÉ DAO: In terms of when I say ‘utopian thinking’, what I’m thinking of I guess is what’s the ideal future that we want? In order to have practical solutions, you need to have that base idea of where are we headed, and what do we want to head to? To me, one thing would be a truly egalitarian society where everyone has equal opportunity to flourish and succeed. That feels utopian at the moment.
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: Also, Australia is such a young country. What we do now is truly … we’re writing our history right now. I believe that.
PAUL BARCLAY: That’s where we have to leave our discussion at the National Museum of Australia. Thanks to the Museum. Thanks to our guests: André Doa, Jen Rayner, Holly Ransom, Frank Bongiorno and Tamika Townsend. Thanks to you and the audience for coming along, you’ve been listening to Big Ideas. I’m Paul Barclay, until next time, bye for now.
Okay thanks very much. We’re going to take some questions from the floor. As is usually the advice I give at moments like this, please refrain from short speeches disguised as questions. Questions are always better than speeches, but we do really want to hear from you, so in the short space of time we have left, let’s get through as many questions as we can.
QUESTION: How do you as people that work with young people – that advise on policy and that interact with lots of people – do it with a fact that there’s a huge gap in the generation millennial? A lot of these experiences you’re talking about, they’re not experiences that I had by the time 9/11 happened and I understood it. It had already been a thing, terrorism was already a word that was well into our vocabularies. How do you cope with that gap, because the things that happened to you were the world as I knew it, but I’m still a millennial?
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think it’s really important to listen as well as talk in that sense. So your life has 100 per cent been shaped by those events, I have absolutely no doubt about that. If you, having the perspective of being, how old was I? Fourteen when September 11 happened? Thereabouts? I can very clearly, and I think Holly’s reflected on that, see how the world was different between those points. It’s useful to have that perspective in order to say, ‘It hasn’t always been this way and it could be different,’ but then to listen to you about how people who are younger in the generation, about how the experience of not knowing it being any different shapes what you think about it. For example, if you thought that the security state that has kind of sprung up around that was completely okay and acceptable, that’s part of the dialogue we would have to come to terms with.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay, yes.
QUESTION: André touched on earlier the often disproportionate claim that technology receives in determining the future of young people. I just wanted to ask Frank, where does the arts lie in shaping the future of Australia’s young people?
FRANK BONGIORNO: The arts, you say? Underestimated I think, as ever, but incredibly important in the sense that when we think about what is this post-robotic world going to look like? It’s clear that a whole range of activities that at the moment, in many cases, are perhaps on the margins of what people are doing are going to become increasingly central. Like the whole area of lifelong education, as we get ageing populations is a good example of that and the arts is surely another. It’s a part of being human, also a part of how a community defines itself is through the arts. It’s clear that that is important, it of course requires … it’s a bit like Jen’s point about TAFE. It also requires investment by government because we need people to be educated to be able to lead that effort, to teach, to actually create that kind of world. I think it’s immensely important.
ANDRÉ DAO: It’s also a feedback loop, I think, between technology and the arts that sometimes goes unacknowledged, but I’m pretty sure everyone in Silicon Valley has watched Star Wars many, many times. You get this kind of … the futures that artists paint or write often feed their way back into the technology we create.
JENNIFER RAYNER: There’s a lot of research going on at the moment on what jobs are most vulnerable to technological displacement. Who’s going to get displaced by a robot? The current working theory is that it’s about cognitive and routine tasks. If a task is highly routine and non-cognitive, then it can easily be done by a robot. If a task is very cognitive then it really essentially can never be done by a robot until we get AI [artificial intelligence.] that’s so freaky it can kind of AI itself [laughter]. Jobs in the arts are probably some of the least vulnerable jobs to technological disruption. The problem is that currently they are also some of the least funded, least available jobs. There’s an interesting tension there.
HOLLY RAMSON: I love the observation that’s implied in your question though, because I think it goes to the heart of what I hope our generation can break down, which is the siloed nature of thinking and the siloed nature of connecting in many ways. It’s always often that there’s arts over here, there’s sport over there, there’s business here and that they shall never meet; and I think it’s so critical that we’re really intentional. When I think about the words ‘diversity inclusion’ I think about how we bring those thinking, those perspectives, people from those sorts of backgrounds together; how we see much more movement between sectors than we do right now. I think that’s really important moving forward and I think the arts has an enormous role to play in every aspect of our lives.
PAUL BARCLAY: It also reminds me of that Winston Churchill quote in the middle of the Second World War when it was put to him in cabinet that they should cut back arts funding to fund the war and Churchill said, ‘Well, why are we fighting the war then?’
HOLLY RAMSON: That’s brilliant. I love that.
QUESTION: Thank you. That was a wonderful discussion of the global. Can I ask you about what millennials are thinking about in terms of the planetary? That is environments, not just climate change and food security, which came in very late, but extinctions? Melting glaciers? Water stress, and on non-human others, not just humans. Thanks.
ANDRÉ DAO: I think it’s a challenge to all of our existing philosophies of what we value and what we count as good things. This hopefully one day will feed into the policy decisions made by politicians, but we’re not actually at a point where we’ve worked out the moral value of forests, of rivers yet. There’s been some movement in legal spheres for environmental objects to have the right to sue on their own behalf, or for people of course, but to sue on the behalf of rivers, of forests. I think it’s a powerful idea. If you could sue on the behalf of the Great Barrier Reef, could that be a better way of preventing something like the Adani coal mine?
I think some of the shenanigans that have gone on with native title really obscures the real debate, whereas if you squarely were able to challenge the Adani coal mine on the basis of its effect on, say, the Reef, that would be a much more straight forward argument.
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think possibly one of the reasons that doesn’t get the attention that maybe it should is that people do sort of think that there will be a solution when the problem really comes. I don’t know that my generation genuinely believes we’re going to have water wars, for example, because we think in the back of our minds that someone will have come up with a solution to water by then, whether it is desalination becoming a cheap and viable technology solution. Then you’ve got all the oceans, so what’s your problem? [laughter]. I do think there is a slightly, possibly misguided optimism about our capacity to just solve problems when they come up, which is leading us to probably not do the planning or the engagement that maybe is required.
HOLLY RAMSON: I think as well with just the amount of information we have swirling around, we have this challenge of the immediacy of it to confront. I was in Auckland this week working with all the local government leaders from across New Zealand. There could not be more of a central focus around water and climate change and community resilience for them, because they are living, breathing, and seeing its consequences every week, every day. Every conversation was about that, all of the strategy, their people are engaged, they’ve got citizens protesting, citizens collaborating, you name it.
Whereas I remember growing up in primary school, we were on tight water restrictions. You got fined if you were using your sprinklers on certain days. Even that seems to have disappeared from the way this is permeating the day to day, and allowing me as an individual to understand how I can play a contributing role to helping on some of the things that you’re talking about. That’s where I think even Craig Reucassel’s program on waste on the ABC’s been really interesting at the moment. The way I’ve watched cafes in my local area get rid of cardboard cups, the way that I’ve watched people start to be more intentional around recycling, purely by him creating a visual and immediate understanding of our, in that instance, pollution footprint daily. I think more of that is really critical to driving that consciousness that we need.
TAMIKA TOWNSEND: I think the interest is there too. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the group called Seed, but they’re a group of young people advocating for climate justice.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your presentation. It’s to no one in particular but I’m wondering how millennials feel about the transition away from the Anglo-American relationships, towards an Asian century? How millennials may feel placed, particularity with the emergence of dealing with such a profound shift with China and the growth of China, and let’s be frank, the increasing aggression of China within our regional space.
ANDRÉ DAO: I’ve done a couple of cultural exchange programs through writer’s residencies and writer’s festivals in Indonesia and Vietnam. One interesting thing about that is we talk about this Asian century, Australia has to make this pivot to Asia. It was fascinating talking to all these writers in those countries, and they said, ‘Do you write books in Australia?’ [laughter] They have no interest in, or awareness of what we produce culturally. This idea that we would deign to turn towards Asia is a little bit high-handed when we might need to get their attention.
JENNIFER RAYNER: I think that’s a really, really good point because I am a [inaudible ] Indonesian speaker and I’ve spent some time living over there, and there is this sense in Australia that when we’re ready, we will kind of turn to Indonesia and we will have this great economic relationship when they’re sufficiently wealthy and middle class, and when it suits us. When we’ve done China and we’ve done India, then we’ll turn to Indonesia and that’s where opportunities are, and they couldn’t give a shit [laughter]. We’ve missed that boat, they have a certain set of views about Australia, which is we’re essentially the colonialists of the region, so we’re trying to get over some history there. They have moved on, we are not important to them. I think that’s a really important point, that we think that we’re making this turn to Asia. Asia doesn’t care.
ANDRÉ DAO: If you go to Vietnam, it’s full of Japanese and Korean construction companies who are humping money, investments –
JENNIFER RAYNER: China as well, China investing in the country. Yes. I also think young people don’t necessarily have that same perspective, that we need to make a pivot to Asia because it’s just been more of our engagement going on. It’s just one of many relationships that we would have. I think that idea of moving from the Anglosphere to the Asia Pacific is probably also an idea that’s relevant to earlier generations.
FRANK BONGIORNO: Absolutely.
PAUL BARCLAY: One more question.
QUESTION: With the trend that’s occurring towards this globalised world and networks, do you think it’s important that we force our leaders to reckon with this idea, rather than lagging behind this decision point?
JENNIFER RAYNER: I would come back to the point that it’s up to us to change things rather than to expect other people to do it for us. One of the best ways that we would get our leaders to be thinking about these issues is to be actually in the space where they are in, having those conversations with them. My work background is in the Australian Federal Parliament for the Labor Party, and I have seen how incredibly effective young parliamentarians like Tim Watts, Clare O’Neil, Sam Dastyari and Jim Chalmers have been in shifting the conversation towards issues that actually matter to younger people. They can’t help but bring those perspectives to the conversations that they have.
When you sit around a table with the shadow cabinet or with political leaders that you’re dealing with, and they say, ‘Here’s an issue about housing affordability,’ the younger people are saying, ‘Yes, but we don’t own a house, here’s why, and here are the things you need to think about with that.’ We can’t make our leaders do things without being part of that process, I guess.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay. That may have to be a wrap for this evening. Thanks for coming along, this program, an edited version of it, will appear on my radio program, Big Ideas via podcast and on RN. We’re on every evening at 8pm, Monday to Thursdays and repeated the next day at 2pm, so look out for it. I think I’ll hand back to the Museum to wrap up the proceedings.
JONATHAN LINEEN: Very well. The Museum would like to thank the panel for being here tonight, this was an absolutely fascinating discussion. I really enjoyed it. Thanks to Paul as always for being here, and thanks to the audience for coming out. Thank you very much. Another thank you to our wine sponsor Capital Wines, and the catering prior. Paul doesn’t have a broadcast date just yet so stay tuned for that. Please keep in mind that the next panel in the Defining Moments series will be, I believe, August 26th in association with the Canberra Writer’s Festival, and it’s going to be about defining women in Australian history. Again, please join me in thanking the panel, thanking Paul for a fantastic discussion.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 08 September 2017