Shinae Taylor examines low political consciousness among young Australians and considers how we can become more aware.
Words || Shinae Taylor
As I’m sure a lot of you have noticed, it seems like a lot of people our age are disengaged from Australian politics. This is a sentiment echoed at MQU, with many students completely disconnected from campus news despite the number of impactful changes that are currently taking place.
Believe it or not, Macquarie University was once a place of radical activism, most notably between 1970 and 1971, when students organised marches to protest the Vietnam War. Some students even worked together to cover the legal fees of students from La Trobe University when they were charged with protesting offences. While many students did participate in recent marches against MQU’s brutal austerity measures, namely the dissolution of the Faculty of Human Sciences, most of us find it hard to imagine students on campus collectively achieving radical social and political change. At such a critical time of climate change, Sydney’s housing crisis, and widespread wage stagnation, why does it seem that few people our age care about what’s happening?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘consciousness’ when used in relation to social movements and political involvement. At a basic Merriam-Webster Dictionary level, consciousness is defined as “the quality or state of being aware”. In relation to politics, this definition of consciousness could imply that an individual is aware of their social, economic, and political environment. So, how do people become more conscious? Is it simply about being aware of what’s going on? Most scientific and philosophical definitions of consciousness recognise that there are two components, the first being subjective experience, our perceptions, thoughts and sensations, a.k.a. ‘qualia’ in science speak. On the other hand, there’s also our awareness of the world around us, as well as all the physical things and processes that take place in it. In other words, there’s the physical world, a.k.a what’s actually happening, and then there’s how we perceive it.
Unfortunately, achieving consciousness might not be that simple. We have to ask ourselves: why are young people not more politically and socially conscious? Well, it’s likely due to a complex array of social, economic and political factors. To keep it simple, let’s break it down into three elements: work, money and media.
The sad reality is that most of us have two or even three jobs. In 2018, one in three Australians aged 18 to 29 had a side hustle outside their normal job. According to the ABS, union members earned on average $171 a week more than non-members. In 2016, only 4% of employed 15 to 19 year olds were trade union members, while for 20 to 24 years olds the rate still sits at a low 7%.
This might not sound so bad out of context, but considering that 21% of 55 to 59 years are trade union members, you can see how political apathy can prevent young people from getting what they’re rightfully owed. While the extra $171 a week is just an average, it remains clear that collective bargaining power is important for making sure workers get what they deserve.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that young Australians are struggling financially. In the 2018 Triple J survey, over half of 18 to 29 year olds had less than $5000 in savings. Considering that this age group have such limited financial security, it’s then understandable that working, possibly at multiple jobs, becomes the main priority for young people.
Young people not only struggle with having enough savings, but also with the amount they owe. In the same survey, two in three people aged 18 to 29 had a HECS debt, of whom 33% owed $30,000 or more, while a scary 9% of respondents “don’t know” how much debt they’ve accrued. As I’m sure you all understand, having a HECS debt in the tens of thousands introduces extra pressure to work hard and be successful. This financial burden leaves young Australians with less time for self-reflection, activism and collective planning.
On the same note, finances determine the kind of home life that young people can experience. From the previous survey, 42% of people aged 18 to 29 were living with parents, 23% in a share house, and 16% renting with a partner. With property prices soaring, it’s telling that only 15% live alone, either renting or in their own property. Living with family and housemates reduces the ability of young people to access adequate physical and creative space, which is vital to plan, organise and protest societal issues.
So far, the picture being painted is looking pretty grim. Young people are time, money and space poor. We have more debt but less freedom, and more jobs but less wage growth. On top of this, young people are seldom given the opportunity to voice their opinions in the public sphere.
In 2019, a study of 276 news stories on a single day found that even though 34% of the stories were about issues likely to impact young Australians, only a tiny 1% actually quoted a young person. In fact, in the 2% of news stories in which young people were spoken about as a social category, the articles were mostly related to “accidents and social welfare”. In these articles, young people were represented as family members or victims of accidents, and not in relation to important discussion around politics, the environment and the economy. As shown in this study, young people are largely voiceless in the media. This exclusion leads to distrust of mainstream media, and contributes to the disenfranchisement of young people from the political sphere.
This cynicism is captured in a 2019 survey. When asked the question: “How positive are you about the future of Australia?”, only 4% of young people felt “extremely positive,” 37% felt “slightly positive,” 27% felt “unsure,” 29% felt “slightly negative” and 3% felt “extremely negative”. The fact that 32% of young adults, who are commonly stereotyped as being naive or optimistic due to lack of life experience, expressed feeling “slightly” or “extremely” negative about the future of Australia reflects an insidious, growing political nihilism among young people.
It’s not all bad news.
According to Triple J Hack’s 2019 youth survey, 80% of respondents answered “yes” to the question: “Have you changed anything in your life to benefit the environment?”. In the same survey, 60% of young people felt they could “personally make a difference to help the planet”. It seems like young people do care, and do want change. It’s how change comes about that’s difficult. Interestingly, ANU’s Australian Election Study found that 22% of 18 to 24 year olds indicated they had shared unofficial political content online that year. This number, which increased from just 6 per cent in 2010, shows us that young people are increasingly using social media as an outlet for political expression.
So, what does that mean for young people and Australian politics? Dr Ghazarian, a political scientist studying Australian politics, relates engagement to political and economic context: “For previous generations, the effect of government on their lives was very clear — the Depression and the world wars are prominent examples.” According to Dr Ghazarian, it’s hard for current generations to see this connection because “a lot of mechanisms of government are actually hidden.” In other words, young people might not understand how voting and civil participation are tied to funding for infrastructure and vital institutions. This makes it harder to see how social progress and development are fundamentally linked to the act of protest, as evidenced by the success of movements like the union workers’ protests in the 19th century, which led to the establishment of a livable minimum wage in Australia.
If the current economic climate makes it hard for young people to achieve political consciousness, what can be done? Leo Fieldgrass, former CEO of the Youth Affairs Council Victoria suggests that starting a conversation is an important step in increasing engagement. “The more often you have conversations about those issues,” he says, “the more often people feel that they understand them”. He points out that this recognition is an important stepping stone for action, because having these conversations leads people to feel “that they actually have something to say about an issue”.
Talking with your mates doesn’t sound so difficult, but is this strategy effective? Dr Mishti Kashtan believes that personal consciousness is not enough. “Transforming how we make decisions and allocate resources,” she writes, “is exactly what can ensure that changes are not undone and that a culture of collaboration is embedded in all that happens”. Her insight highlights the necessity for consciousness to transcend the individual in order to become part of a collective movement.
The Australian union movement and the MQ anti-war protests are two examples of organised action that stemmed from collective consciousness. As Dr Kashtan points out, individual consciousness is not enough. We need to not only become aware individually, but also learn how to work together in these difficult economic conditions to create a shared consciousness that can be transformed into genuine, impactful social change.