The Generation With No Name

People Stand On The Berlin Wall

This hostorical perspective of a member of Generation X in Australia was offered to a number of publications with a certain confidence, but those who were offered the essay declined to run it, and so here it is.

Politics was in a shambolic state when some of us were born. The Dismissal had just happened, events of such moment they would be marked every year by debates, opinion pieces and re-enactments featuring versions of Sir John Kerr’s eighteenth century composer hairdo. Now that most of the dramatis personae have left us this anniversary doesn’t seem so urgent, but it is still discussed. Respect for the position of Governor General suffered. Politics became a hard game, played to win by a new breed of ruthless younger men intent upon replacing gentlemen legislators of a previous era.

In the 1970s terrorism was cool. Celebrity terrorists had appealing nicknames like Carlos The Jackal and their dreadful work was international. There were the PLO and the IRA and you couldn’t be considered a proper paramilitary organisation without an acronym. Although religion was sometimes a justification for atrocities, the operatives were secular in character. They wore headbands and open necked shirts with far too many buttons undone. They wore aviator shades and they drank and smoked and had girlfriends.

Things changed a bit in the early 1980s, when some of us started school. Labor won power, replacing a government which never really got over its role in the Dismissal. The task of modernising the economy continued under the stewardship of competent salesmen who taught us to understand economic graphs and use the terms they used in our own conversation. The dollar was floated, which modernised the economy a bit more.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led the US and the UK. To a little boy both seemed to be there forever in their quest to lead the free world in the struggle against the Evil Empire. There was excitement when the President revealed his Star Wars nuclear missile defence program, promising some kind of video game on a grand scale to defeat the Soviets,  at a fantastic cost, which somehow made it all the more exciting and likely, for America was huge and powerful and they could do whatever they wanted. We knew that the third and final Star Wars film was on its way, and wondered if there was any connection between the two. But the numbers were absurd and the plan had more showbiz than sense about it.

Meanwhile in both countries the poor were further disempowered as economies were forcibly modernised. Economists called these ideas “neo liberal” and they would soon be emulated by politicians in other parts of the world. Traditional factory jobs in traditional industries disappeared when it was realised that people in less-developed parts of the world could do them for even less money. This process was given the satisfyingly sophisticated name of globalisation, and presented as exciting, new and creative.

Free trade was a good thing, said all the countries which counted. There was no future in artificially propping up traditional industries with tariffs and duties. The market should be free and it should be independent and uninfluenced by governments. The alternative was Communism, which was no alternative at all. At the same time there were nightly reports on the news about what our entrepreneurs were doing. These men were heroes and we followed their hostile takeovers and mergers. Banks propped them up as their deals became riskier. Within fifteen years most of them were in gaol or bankrupt or had fled the country. Without them we would not have won the America’s Cup and Queensland would not have so many resorts.

Soviet news rarely reached us, but when we heard about the reactor malfunction in the town of Chernobyl it emphasised that the world was a dangerous place. Those of us who were about ten already knew that our lives would probably end in a nuclear war. Now we were reminded that it didn’t need to be a war: nuclear things could kill you. Sympathy for the victims was genuine – they didn’t seem like enemies at all.

But the adults didn’t let this worry them too much. They were busy being confident. In this era we focussed on the world, and thought we were good enough to be compared with anyone. This seemed right when the film Crocodile Dundee was a global hit for Paul Hogan. The stock market crashed in 1987, and this should have warned against the over-confident assumption of bottomless prosperity, but doubt was put to the back of our minds in the next year’s Bicentennial celebrations, where tall ships with advertising on their sales re-enacted the arrival of the First Fleet, and a deluge of government money poured into projects, some of which actually warranted it.

Some of us started high school at about this time and at this age thoughts naturally turn to adult things. But it was no longer easy to do the most natural thing in the world. No, AIDS would kill you if you had sex with anybody. The award-winning Grim Reaper advertising campaign emphasised that the disease would strike at random, that nobody was safe. Such were the new anxieties of our generation.

Soon the Berlin Wall came down and this happy occasion liberated the oppressed peoples of Europe, ending the Cold War. Except that now economic conditions were precarious: millions of Eastern workers desired their piece of the Western capitalist dream. China might be more economically open, but it was still an authoritarian regime with nuclear weapons, and many Soviet era warheads were still around.

The overall anxiety level had eased, but now we were anxious about the environment as well, particularly after the discovery of a hole in the Ozone layer and what the experts were calling the Greenhouse Effect. This hadn’t become a debate yet. It was a theory with a lot of evidence and we wrote essays about it in Geography exams.

In the early nineties there was a hot war. Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US led a coalition to stop their evil dictator, who was left in power because his regime was deemed stable enough to look after all the precious oil which the country produced. It was a brief war and some of us spent the last week or so of our Christmas holidays one year watching it like a TV show, which was entertaining enough if there was no cricket on. Australia was involved, as usual.

An economic recession resulted in many job losses and the failure of many businesses. It didn’t sneak up. We focussed on ourselves, laughed at nihilistic comedy, and were introspective as we regrouped and started again.

Interest rates were so high that you could make money just from having something in the bank. This meant that repayments on any kind of debt were crippling. Remedies adopted by politicians aimed to further modernise the economy. Economic rationalism was a phrase so overused as to be almost meaningless. It was the reason for everything. Government assets were sold and functions privatised, public service jobs were slashed and those who formulated these policies told us to trust them and said that if we took our medicine it would be good for us in the long run. An uncertain future called for advice, and the best advice said we should finish school, go to university, and get a good job. So we studied fearfully hard, hoping that things would improve.

At this time they started calling us Generation X, the cohort following the Baby Boomers, a mysterious group without a proper name who were said to be cynical. We had more than enough reason to be cynical in the ‘90s. Most of the certainties of the previous generation had been removed or were threatened. The social safety net had contracted, suicide was a growing problem, and traditional community values rejected kids who weren’t straight.

Within a few years the recession was a memory. Some of us had finished school and started university and saw protest everywhere. Everyone needed to work by this time, so marching had to be fitted in around holding down a regular job. But there were a lot of things to protest about and the number of things grew when the Coalition returned to office after many years in opposition. Government programs were cut and it was said that the user should pay.

At this time we turned on each other and pointed fingers at those who didn’t measure up to our Australian values. Comfortable members of the community begrudged assistance given those without their advantages. Once again, the economy needed to be modernised, this time with all stick and no carrot. And all in the name of achieving a budget surplus, the concept which enjoyed exalted significance as the only measure of financial responsibility everybody could understand.

Economic rationalism was pervasive. Efficiency dictated major restructuring in our winter sports, and after talks and mergers a few clubs disappeared altogether when experts tried to understand the world of culture and tribal allegiance in financial terms.

It was at about this time that some of us started losing touch with the fragmenting popular culture. Hollywood was dominated by special effects films with no plot and it became impossible to maintain contact with new music untainted by commercialism, so some of us decided not to bother any more.

We felt safer when strict gun laws were introduced, although it required the massacre of several tourists at Port Arthur by a mentally ill man with a semi-automatic rifle in order to bring about this reform.

As the 1990s drew to a close many parents bought big screen TVs, the newest status symbol, using government money designed to assist with new-baby expenses. It wasn’t the first appeal to parents. When government-owned bank and telecommunications companies were privatised “mum and dad investors” were encouraged to buy shares. The share market would keep going up forever, said braces-wearing experts on TV, sitting at their desks with Times Square in the background. Everyone was too eager to invest to consider that this wasn’t logical.

Aspiration was good and people were encouraged to improve their position by buying and selling. When this idea was applied to housing homes became regarded as a commodity rather than a place to shelter. We were told the value of real estate would never fall, and that this could only be a good thing.

Certain words took on a new importance: words like mateship and un-Australian and political correctness. When these words were used the message was about excluding people and disapproving of behaviour. Only a few years before the words had been Asia and reconciliation and republic, but some people grew tired of hearing those words and those people feared a multicultural future.

Words and symbols were important enough to be contested, and a disagreement of this type resulted in a failed constitutional referendum, which meant that Great Britain’s monarch remained our head-of-state.

It was a self-absorbed way to end the 1990s, but before long the Olympic Games were here and we revelled in being at the centre of the world. A lot of money was spent in anticipation of the festival and we congratulated ourselves that if we could do this well we could do anything. But the euphoria didn’t last. In the years following, economic confidence flagged in the Olympic city, as it does in all host cities after the games have ended.

We were a small demographic group, outnumbered by our seniors and soon to be overwhelmed by those reaching adulthood in the twenty-first century.  Some of us were working full-time by now, and had our heads down. Experience had taught us to take nothing at face value, especially if the story seemed too good to be true, and this meant we trusted politicians less.

Within a year a boatload of refugees bound for Australia had been picked up by a Norwegian vessel and promptly refused asylum when the rescuing captain attempted to have them accepted here. This event encouraged those who didn’t like the idea that anyone might be given special treatment, especially if they were from countries which did not share our values. The concept of queue jumping was used to buffer prejudiced views, but within a few weeks terrorist attacks on famous buildings in New York and Washington meant that you didn’t need to hide racist assumptions any more. Most arguments could now be reduced to us versus them.

Until this point the US president, the son of another US president, had been a figure of fun. Afterwards he was still considered a buffoon by everyone except the sizeable number of Americans who believed that domestic security could be strengthened by reducing civil rights and interfering militarily in Iraq. These people voted for him again four years later. World leaders who should have known better were complicit in his rather naive plan to bring peace to the Persian Gulf and gain control of its oilfields, and they joined in. Australia helped, as we always do.

The War on Terror was underway and we were told it would be a more successful enterprise than the War on Drugs, which had been attempting to destroy the international narcotics trade for decades.

At about this time, some of us decided that we needed to carry all of the music we had ever owned with us at all times, and luckily Apple made a sophisticated device for that. Personal entertainment had come a long way since Space Invaders and PacMan in the ‘80s, but strangely it was just that type of crude arcade game that we played on even more sophisticated devices – when we weren’t looking at pictures of cats or food or our friends’ over-achieving offspring – and you could make phone calls with them too.

Politics changed when the long-serving government was defeated and there was bold talk about the environment for the first time in a while. It didn’t last though. An apology to indigenous people was derided as both potentially dangerous and a hollow symbolic gesture, while the notion that a government might attempt to address the connection between pollution and climate change was ridiculed. Some of us had a serious girlfriend at this time, and our focus was on other things, but it was clear that politicians were less constructive than ever.

Citizens had lost faith in the system to the extent that elected representatives were no longer allowed time to learn their jobs. Just as voters turned on their politicians so politicians turned on each other, replacing elected leaders in the hope of improving opinion polling numbers, and this whole process did nothing to improve the quality of governing. Somehow in this period of instability Australia was affected only slightly by the Global Financial Crisis. The reasons for this are disputed, but may have had something to do with massive amounts of wasted money or prudent management of the economy.

Terrorism proliferated. The names of the organisations changed but the grievances and methods of dealing with them were the same. Religious zealots with a hatred of our society proved a formidable foe, yet we still refused to understand them.

We were living in bigger houses and talking less to our neighbours and had never been as incurious. We doubted medical advice about having our children vaccinated and gave them bizarre first names. And whenever asylum seekers arrived by boat they were treated as if they had done something illegal.

The future we had hoped for seemed unlikely to eventuate and the political present had turned very strange. Amid plots and feuding the Queen’s husband was given a knighthood. Some of us still rented the house we lived in, with no prospect of buying our own, and our more successful friends were doing obscure jobs in finance which were really about making rich older clients richer. Some of us got married to our sweethearts as an argument broke out between Baby Boomers, our predecessors, and Millenials, the cohort after us – a misunderstood group, as we had been, said to be disengaged, but at least with their own name. The two groups traded insults while we looked on.

And the kids who didn’t study hard and go to university but instead left school early and ignored the knowledge economy found themselves as tradesmen and women with golden economic prospects. Their response to the modernising economy was shown to be the right one. It made a few of the rest of us who had followed the sensible path wonder if we had wasted our time.

Those of us who were about forty might have had very little to believe in, but at least we had our heroes – until a huge number of them were swept away in the cultural holocaust of 2016. Then the Brexit and Trump election results showed us what a future shaped by traditional values might look like.

Sorting human beings into groups is necessary in order to understand our society, and our society has changed a good deal since some of us were born in the mid-1970s. The Millenial influence grows as they mature but ageing Boomers continue to shape our culture while they hold on to their positions of power.

Younger people, more than the rest of us, are deeply offended by prejudice and feel strongly about same sex marriage. We can only hope that their view prevails on this and many other issues1, for their commitment to social justice is genuine and this country would benefit from a little more generosity now.

For them to change the world they must not follow their elders, as we did, but assert themselves and create new Australian values for a more decent Australia.

 

1 In the postal survey on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry Yes prevailed with 61.6% of the vote.