The War on the Young and Australia Reimagined: A Review

Both John Sutherland and Hugh Mackay were born in 1938. According to my instruments, that makes them old men, and it is as old men – or, if you prefer, ‘elders’ – that they have taken up the urgent task of diagnosing contemporary society’s ills and prescribing an appropriate course of treatment. Sutherland does so in rank-breaking style, suggesting in The War on the Young that issues of inequality and disadvantage have taken on a generational cast, with the young losing out to the middle-aged and the elderly, while Mackay is rather more avuncular, arguing in Australia Reimagined that the social problems afflicting our country can be traced to a basic lack of compassion. I much prefer Sutherland’s analysis to Mackay’s, but it is to the credit of both of these members of the so-called Silent Generation that they decline to stay silent on issues that, whatever their provenance, will soon cease to concern them.

Sutherland is a British academic whose books on English literature for a non-academic readership – Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre be Happy? especially – have won him a sizeable readership in the UK. The War on the Young is his second polemic in Biteback’s Provocations series, the first – The War on the Old – having argued that ‘institutional neglect and universal indifference’ towards the aged has reached lethal levels. The question of whether each book can survive the other’s conclusions necessarily arises, and my answer is that neither can, quite. But The War on the Young is nevertheless a spirited and intelligent broadside on one of the most pressing issues of our time: the increasing concentration of cash and assets in the wrinkled mitts of the Baby Boomers.

Labelling the young ‘the new deprived’ and pushing his organising metaphor beyond the merely metaphorical with the observation that it is in wartime that the young are asked (or ordered) to pay the ultimate price for the failures of the old, Sutherland sets about describing the emerging gerontocracy. The young, he writes, are precariously employed, heavily indebted, and understandably pissed off. The ladders erected for the Baby Boomers have been kicked away by the Boomers themselves, and the result is a ‘chanceless tyranny’ in which only those who stand to inherit a bit of dough from Mum and Dad (or the celebrated Bank thereof) have a chance of security further on up the road. Home ownership is an increasingly unlikely prospect for many, if not most, Millennials, residential property having been assimilated into the parasitic world of speculation through a combination of low supply and cynical political calculation. For Sutherland, this situation is not merely unfair; it is devastating to societal health. As the prospect of home ownership retreats, so too does the prospect of a stable family and, in turn, a stable society.

Though Sutherland never uses the term ‘neoliberalism’, it is clear that the society he is describing is one over which the pinstriped gods of economic ‘rationalism’ preside. Austerity – a necessity in Sutherland’s boyhood – is now an ideological commitment, the state having retreated from its post-war role as the guarantor of employment and security in favour of a (newly liberated) market. The result is an increase in the cost of living, the casualisation and menialisation of work, and the financialisation of life more generally. Some of the statistics Sutherland cites are staggering. In the US in 1984, for example, the average net worth of a US citizen aged sixty-five and over was ten times that of a citizen aged thirty-five and younger. Now the ratio is forty-seven to one! Meanwhile, the higher education sector – charged by politicians of all stripes with the task of propelling our young folk jobwards – has itself become ‘commodified’, especially in Sutherland’s native UK, where students now emerge from university with an average debt of £50,000. Behind the glossy marketing campaigns – the posters depicting eager students tastefully lit by their own bright futures – a lifetime of insecurity beckons.

Sutherland sets these issues out well, but The War on the Young does suffer at times from his tendency to over-apply the generational emphasis. He begins the book with three short profiles – of Donald Trump, Hugh Hefner and Jeremy Corbyn: men he regards as illustrative of the power imbalance between the young and the old. But not only is the characterisation of the Donald’s geopolitical barney with Kim Jong-un as ‘oedipal’ a wilful misreading of events, the case against ‘Jezza’ is self-negating: it is, after all, substantially to the young that the leader of the British Labour Party owes his current popularity. Sutherland writes a number of times that the young are victims of a concerted campaign. But the point, surely, is not that the old are attempting to ‘control’ the young in an effort to shore up their own privilege, but that the policies pursued by successive governments since the end of the 1970s have tended to concentrate wealth in the hands of those already on ‘the ladder’. There have been other victims besides the young, as a glimpse at some of the data collected in The War on the Old makes all too plain.

Like Sutherland, the Australian social researcher and commentator Hugh Mackay declines to regard Millennials as victims of their own profligacy. Referring to Bernard Salt’s suggestion, in the pages of this newspaper, that one of the principal impediments to home-ownership is the young’s penchant for ‘smashed avocado’ breakfasts and comparable hipsterish luxuries, Mackay talks of an ‘entrenched prejudice against millennials’ and notes the ‘uncertainty, instability and unpredictability’ that characterise that generation’s experience. However, he also enjoins the young to ‘please stop bleating about how older generations are holding you up, getting in your way and failing to take you seriously enough’. The young, no less than the old, must resolve to ‘Listen! Learn! Adapt! Accept!’

Australia Reimagined is full of such bromides. Purporting to be an ‘unflinching’ look at the social, economic and cultural health of our sunburnt country girt by sea, it touches barely at all on policies relating to, say, liveable cities, housing affordability and better work and conditions, focusing instead on the need for more ‘empathy’ and recommending a number of ‘strategies’ for dealing with modern anxiety: faith, creativity, reengagement with community. As such, it is a symptom of the problem it describes. Diagnosing individualism as a major cause of societal dysfunction, it then proceeds to propose solutions that are themselves in thrall to that phenomenon, enjoining readers, in effect, to be the change they want to see. Take this passage, for example, from the chapter on community:

We’re all very accomplished at wringing our hands about ‘the state of the nation’ or, more broadly, ‘the state of the world’. It’s not always so easy to acknowledge that the state of the nation actually starts in our street, in the sense that how we choose to live will help determine the kind of neighbourhood ours will become, and the composite character of all our neighbourhoods determines the kind of society we will become.

If that first sentence strikes you as dismissive and impertinent, let me assure you that it is by no means unusual: elsewhere in the book Mackay affects to ventriloquise the average citizen, whom he appears to regard as a rather shallow soul embarked on a ‘quest for the perfect latte’. But the real problem, here, is one of perspective. For the effect of this street-view conception of politics is to convict those who live in dysfunctional communities of failing to make them less so, while also reproducing the language of competitive striving and individual ‘responsibility’ that helped create the dysfunction in the first place. ‘[T]he knowledge that perfection lies beyond our grasp is no reason to give up’ writes Mackay in the same chapter; ‘Olympic athletes will never get from the starting line to the finish in no time, but they keep trying to get there quicker than last time.’ This is condescension cubed.

There’s no doubt Mackay’s heart is in the right place: if he didn’t care deeply about society and its problems, he would have chosen a different career. But an author who can write, apropos of anxiety, ‘If your housing costs are a major source of stress, look at alternatives to the housing you currently own or rent’ is clearly out of touch, and not just with the kids. Certainly he’s a lot closer than he seems to think to social commentary of the ‘smashed avocado’ variety.

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First published in The Weekend Australian.