Are young people apathetic?



If you believed everything that you read in the corporate media then you would think that all young people are apathetic and that Australian youth are the most apathetic in the world. This is what two recent articles in the Sydney Morning Herald allege.

“Young people nowadays are simply not interested in politics”, argued Ben Heraghty, in an article titled "Youth needs to be seen, heard and inspired, politically", which appeared in the March 13 Sydney Morning Herald. It quoted a recent study from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) which declared that Australian youth are overwhelmingly apathetic and apolitical.

An earlier article, “Our youth lead in world apathy”, appeared in the March 6 Sydney Morning Herald. It maintained that only 40% of 14-year-olds were prepared to participate in a protest march and that Australian students were less likely than students in other countries to support the idea that governments had a social responsibility for the development of industry, the fair redistribution of wealth and the provision of decent living standards for the unemployed.

It’s true: many young people are apathetic — some don’t care about the environment, workers' rights or the quality of education. But those who try to claim that most youth in this country are passive and inactive can’t distinguish the forest for the trees.

Historically, young people have responded the most strongly, radically and quickly to political crises. It is often young people who have led mass movements for social change and who are the most vocal demonstrators for social justice. The massive anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and '70s mobilised young people in their hundreds of thousands worldwide to put an end to the unjust war being waged by the United States — and it succeeded.

Recently in Australia, young people have led struggles against the privatisation of education, against school closures in Sydney's inner city, against the racist US war on the Third World and for refugee rights.

The racist and inhumane treatment of refugees by the Liberal government, along with the exposure of its lies about refugees, has had a similar effect on an important layer of youth. Many young people are outraged at the government's policy of mandatory detention and the conditions in detention centres, and they have mobilised in the streets.

The government’s loss of credibility over their policy of mandatory detention has added to the growing distrust of young people towards the government and politicians. The ACER study found that of all institutions young people had the least trust for the mainstream political parties, and that around a third do not trust the courts or the police force. In an increasing number of cases, this distrust has turned into active opposition to institutions.

And of course the Herald would like to forget the 20,000-strong blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne on September 11-13, 2000, and the M1 blockades of the stock exchanges last May. These demonstrations not only involved thousands of young people — they threw up a challenge to a corporate system of greed and injustice that newspapers like the Herald defend.

Not all youth are apathetic. There has been an increase in youth interest in radical politics, a symbol of many young people's rejection of the notion that politics is just what goes on in parliament or what middle aged men in suits talk about and the Liberal-Labor consensus on most issues. The socialist youth group Resistance, for example, has joined over 650 young people this year.

“Young people in Australia have a very high understanding of politics but choose not to engage in the political process”, says Heraghty in his article. Why is this? He is right, most young people do think politically, but there are massive barriers that stop the majority of young people from taking the next step and becoming politically active.

Most young people are not even given a chance to be political or progressive. Under the current school system, political education is limited and often non-existent. Recently, when trying to organise a forum on my school, Newtown High School of the Performing Arts in Sydney, to engage students in a discussion around the issue of refugees and war, I was told by my school principal that schools are not to be a place for politics and that political organisations are not allowed onto high schools.

But religion is offered in the form of classes and extra-curricula courses, and religious organisations are allowed at school. This approach, apparently, is school policy.

What’s more, schools constantly tell young people to be passive and apolitical, while political activism is condemned. School authorities often repress students who are politically active. This can act as a major deterrent to carrying out political activity, as can the considerable social consequences for politically active young people, for example, the possibility of harassment.

Jessica Griffiths, a student at a conservative Adelaide private school, was threatened with expulsion last October when she tried to bring politics onto her school by taking part in a Resistance-organised high school walkout against the war on Afghanistan and urged her schoolmates to do so too. This is not an isolated occurrence.

It’s young people themselves who are going to break down the obstacles that prevent us from becoming politically active. In fact, this is already happening on a scale that the Sydney Morning Herald journalists fear to admit. Young people will need to take further radical political action in the future, because even though many of us can’t vote, we can still have a voice when we demonstrate on the streets. History proves that young people can play a huge role in the fight against racism and injustice if they are organised and mobilised.

[Lauren Carroll-Harris is a 14-year-old activist in the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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