Young people certainly have not asked for cold analysis of their screen media by a cranky old bint. But, as disagreeable weather has put paid to this bint’s plans for patio bowling, this is what they’re now going to get. Do try not to curse my slow metabolism too quickly, here; this quarrel is not with the morality of an entire generation. Rather, it is with a particular, and now fairly ancient, form of “youth affairs” presentation, typified by the screen iteration of ABC’s news-ish program Hack Live (a TV version of Triple J’s long-running radio show, Hack).
In its series return last week, the hour-long show sought to report from The War on Young People. Hack had made promotional vow to examine economic policy and trade and their impact on young Australians. So it was not, I promise, just with an urge to shout at the cloud that I watched on iView. It was, in fact, with some excitement. Here was an instant that dared to address the dirty topic of money. For longer than the show’s intended under-30 audience has been alive, that question has been very rarely raised on television outside of market reports.
I’m hardly the first to spot this conversational recklessness. That public talk, for all demographics, has shifted from a focus on economic class to one largely of cultural identity has been recognised for decades. As Mark Davis writes in his good and much-discussed Meanjin essay, this cultural turn has been sharply exploited by neoliberal policymakers who have deluded many that the conditions of the material world are entirely determined by the culture and morality. What Davis doesn’t explore with so much rigour is the very broad complicity well outside neoliberal thinking with this view. But, here I am railing against post-material leftism again, which is what I tend to do when my bowls morning is called off.
The point is, Hack promised material analysis, much of the type that has been recently received so well by young supporters of Bernie Sanders in the US. Sanders has found success with young voters not by making culturally sensitive overtures. Sanders doesn’t, for example, bother to recite the letters of “LGBT” in the agreed-upon order, unlike Clinton who has newly become a very fluent ally. Bernie just says “gay”. His oldster turn of phrase here and elsewhere has not deterred young voters, even “gay” ones, so brutally lodged in the material, they no longer have the luxury of saying “it’s all about the culture”. Young Sanders supporters, of which there are millions, see their lot less as determined by cultural and moral discrimination—and it is this cultural and moral understanding expressed as racism that has allowed the ascension of Trump—but more by a deregulated market.
It’s not just Hack’s set that is one bong short of a share house nor is it host Tom Tilley’s very skinny jeans that constrict the terms of debate.
In fairness and with gratitude to Hack, economic analysis was what producers strove to advance. This was made clear by their invitation to (the normally measured) economist Stephen Koukoulas and his young social media foe Osman Faruqi. If you’re not familiar with their long argument—and I cannot myself pretend to care about its entire intimate history—here’s my short and biased version: Kouk left his impartial, and even his policy, interest behind some months ago by making the repeated claim that young people didn’t have anything to complain about. Faruqi told him to stop moralising and read the numbers. Why in the name of God Maynard Keynes Kouk ever argued with Faruqi, with whom he appears to share an identical revulsion for property tax concessions, is anybody’s guess. We can only suppose it has something to do with the way social media tends to bind many, especially older folk, to something unwise they said six months ago.
The Kouk-Faruqi cage match wasn’t an ideal way to illustrate the difference between “youth” as a culture and as an economic class. I mean, both guys were fighting for the prize of market regulation. Faruqi punches well for material reform and I’d rather have seen him give it to someone with whom he disagreed about something more substantial than “young people are just no damn good”. The central aim of this program was to outrun the idea of young people as a cultural group and see them instead as a class. Kouk has a very bad and specific case of the culture when it comes only to the young, so Faruqi’s good economic case was wasted on him.
Still. You get what you can in electronic media, and sometimes, that’s just two blokes separated less by their economic understanding than by an old Twitter argument and obsolete reference to “soy lattes”. We can’t blame Hack for the overwhelmingly cultural focus of current debate.
But, even as I can commend producers for giving this “new” economic conversation a shot, I have the shits with a style that belongs to the past, and one that locates youth debate very firmly in its cultural place.
As a former “youth” broadcaster, I have seen a presentation form that imposes its limits on content for under-30s for some time. There’s nothing new about whacking too many people with personal stories and fashionable trousers onto a “casual” set, and there has rarely been anything successful produced by it. I remember in the early ‘90s a program called (yes, really) Attitude. Although they were my age-mates, the presenters seemed to inhabit a “youth” theme-park as imagined by a septuagenarian—actually, I was so unconvinced by these wholesome cosplay kids, I convinced the lady in ratings to give me the viewer breakdown and she told me that it skewed, as was often the case with ABC “youth” programming, to over-55s.
It’d be nice if the media devised for these voters permitted intelligent young people to speak, as they quite naturally do, about the economic structures they inhabit.
These days, of course, I’m insufficiently familiar with “youth” to judge Hack’s authenticity. Still, I would say that its structured informality is as transparent to young viewers of the present as similar posturing was Back in My Day. A decade before Attitude aired, the hopelessness of “youth” TV form had been parodied on the actually good “youth” program, The Young Ones. Rick, the household’s most suggestible and deluded occupant, tells the empty front room to “shoosh SHOOSH” as he settles in to watch a program “about YOUNG ADULTS made by YOUNG ADULTS”. In my ancient view, the targets for this mock show, Nozin’ Aroun’, have not yet been demolished. There are still “youth” presenters pushed into acts of false iconoclasm and there are still “youth” issues that are diminished as a result.
It’s not just a set that is one bong short of a share house nor is it host Tom Tilley’s very skinny jeans that constrict the terms of debate. You could put them all in Mao suits behind a party desk and there would still be the diminishing divide that eclipses “youth” in favour of “experts”, one that serves to echo and enlarge the domination of the material by the cultural . Here, older policymakers and advocates like Jan Owen, Alan Tudge, Sam Dastyari and Kouk were permitted to describe social structures. The “youth” were asked only how it felt to live inside them.
Panellists Faruqi and Clem Bastow have both previously written about these structures, resisting the temptation to write only from within them. Presumably, Bastow was invited to comment not as a representative of Her Generation, but as the author of a fairly unambiguous piece that says “Characterising this schism simply as cultural attitudes…is a pointless exercise”.
But, this pointless exercise is the only possible movement in an old form that separates “youth” from people qualified to comment on it. That we have people who are demonstrably qualified to talk about structural inequality as well as their experience of it rarely seems to matter in this very orthodox youth format. You’re either affected by something or you’re impartial. You’re never both.
Of course, people are often competent to do both and that the two of them on this panel were required largely to recite their “lived experience” in favour of their impartial expertise as journalists is pants. But, it’s the kind of pants we see when the troubles besetting any particular class of persons are discussed on TV. You either represent or you analyse, and you are very rarely permitted to do both. (Unless you are “celebrity chef” Colin Fassnidge whose term at My Kitchen Rules apparently qualifies him to say whatever tedious shit about whomever he wishes.)
I know personal questions aimed at “youth” are intended to imply friendliness, just as the invitation to the too-large number of guests routinely extended on such programs is meant to imply inclusivity. But, these moves never, in my view, really make much more than a mess.
There is, as I understand it, an election at some point in the proximate future. According to the AEC’s website, the “youth” are still permitted to cast their votes for what is, and will always largely be, a plan of economic management. It’d be nice if the media devised for these voters could move toward a more genuinely impartial style of presentation which permitted intelligent young people to speak, as they quite naturally do, about the economic structures they inhabit. And not only from within them. Because as Kouk and Fassindge prove, talking largely about your own biases is not an exclusively youthful pursuit.