Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Should Ryan Heath please just F* off?

‘There are better things to do than validate other people’s marketing labels by talking up generational conflict,’ writes Ryan Heath, a 25-year old expatriate living in the UK. It’s a refreshing start to his book, simply because most criticism directed at Heath has argued he is doing precisely that. But that’s the trouble with penning a book about generational warfare isn’t it? You leave yourself open to accusations of lapsing into style at the expense of substance.

To an extent it’s true: Heath stringently avoids turning his work into an ‘academic treatise’, pointedly using words such as ‘inefficient, unfair and dumb’. Think cute, fashionable language with plenty of expletives thrown in.

Similar in gist to Tony Blair’s Fabian pamphlet The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century, this book urges us to harness capitalism to achieve socially just goals. Where the difference arises however, is in its focus. Detailed discussion on why, and how, Baby Boomers should be ‘held to account’ – and pushed aside – forms the core of Heath’s analysis.

The result of Heath’s foray into the genre is that he spends much of Please Just F* Off: It’s Our Turn Now attempting to abide by the unwritten rules of generational warfare, with memorable lines like ‘War is not 24/7 – there’s lots of dead time – but you have to be ready for the action.’ According to Heath, one can’t “allow Australia to believe that its 20-, 30-, or even 40-year olds are just ‘young people’ unworthy of contributing to public life – mired as ‘Generation Next’, stuck in a queue that doesn’t move, living in a generational tent city.”

If you believe Heath then young people are discriminated against in the media. If you believe Heath then droves of young people are fleeing Australia like they would flee a third-world nation that provides few opportunities for its young. Ouch. We’re so mediocre it hurts!

But, if you’re looking for a consistently substantiated argument to go along with that, you may as well look elsewhere. From his bemoaning of ‘property apartheid’ to his criticism of government under-funding of higher education to the adoption of green environmental arguments, Heath’s work is characterised by sweeping generalisations coupled with sporadic references to demographic research.

Where some proponents of change argue for a better lot for everyone, Heath is heavily biased in favour of young people, or to be more specific, towards those whom generational warriors would term Gen Y (people born after 1970). But is Gen Y the ‘most educated, skilled generation yet’ or the most overqualified and selfish?

Disregarding the stereotyping of Boomers, in the chapters where he condemns the shortage of opportunities for career development, he fails to indicate specific examples where one can objectively decide whether a meritocracy is in operation. More common is the usage of nasty anonymous quotes or interview subjects like Holly Lyons, who complains about the ‘ageist’ nature of the Australian television industry and how it was ‘impossible’ for her to get work heading a script department – no less – as a 22-year old.

Heath is, however, at his best when discussing how young people today are different from previous generations.

A lot is demonstrated by way of anecdotes: young people today are more sophisticated; they are flexible and adaptable; they are extremely comfortable with technology; and importantly, they are pro-capitalism. ‘We run web businesses before we’re done with Year 10 and teach ourselves the skills and knowledge to navigate the world.’

His own views on capitalism are not exactly favourable, judging by the denouncement of price signals in a market economy. First, they are driving Australians abroad, which in his polemic is necessarily a bad thing. And second, his disdain of market forces is evident in issues such as property speculation or corporate profit. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in his Omnipotent Government: ‘The market is a democracy in which every penny gives a right to vote and where voting is repeated every day.’ If his version of ‘ethically’ based capitalism is something Gen Y will bring to the table then that is surely not capitalism but something more value laden than capitalism – merely a means of structuring society – could ever be.

Effectively comparing old Boomer techniques with a variety of suggestions ‘for achieving lasting social change’, Heath argues social movements have to adapt to the 21st century with new methods of activism. It is an argument closely tied in with the decline of left-wing political groups in Australia. Whether this is because they have allowed themselves to lose relevance – as he argues in a later chapter – or whether this is a natural result of the right winning the battle of ideas is a matter for interpretation.

Part one of this three part book is an interesting sociological blend of perspectives on young people and is, in sections, very insightful. It is also a rare instance of Heath getting over Boomer bashing to document the areas where Gen Y is deficient. Parts two and three on the other hand, add little to the world’s wealth of knowledge. They pointedly illustrate how the original ideas in part one of the book were not carried over to the other parts.

The author also resorts to criticising Australian fashion:
…on a trip back to Australia in October 2005… I contemplated just how many beautiful people there are in (Sydney and Melbourne). But something was missing. Style. The people I was gawping at had an amazing appearance, but at the end of the day it was shallow. Beyond the great tans and toned limbs was a decisive lack of thought about what their dress sense said to the world.
If, as he claims, Boomers aren’t as smart or adaptable as Gen Y, his own snideness shows they are certainly more mature.

But that assumes his characterisation of ‘my generation’ is legitimate. In fact, Heath is not representative of, or even a representative, of Gen Y. He is an anomaly in the system, just as his narrow usage of interview subjects for the book’s chapter on ‘exiles’ – mostly professionals and those involved in media – are not representative of the wider population. ‘I readily accept the narrow pool of people interviewed in the chapter,’ he writes in response, ‘But the point is they are more important in this debate than people who work in bars – because they create more wealth.’

The numerous typographical errors in Please Just F* Off: It’s Our Turn Now could be seen as indicative of a book that has been carelessly slapped together. But what’s more damning is Heath’s sloppiness with sources. A random check of his assertions on pages 25 and 168 pointed to a UK poll as evidence of Australian youth opinion on unions as well as being indicative of international opinion on the Iraq war when the poll in question was about neither. Instead, the Guardian ICM poll of December 2004 was about voting expectations. Whether there is some legitimate reason for this particular referencing bungle is not as important as what it shows about his loose way with research.

For Heath, the book will have achieved its purpose of propelling generational warfare to centre-stage. I can sense the excitement and intelligence of ‘my generation’ and Heath is right in pointing out it is young people who will shape the future of this country – but hopefully not in the ill-thought out ways he advocates.

Surely throwing around labels isn’t all that’s needed to make Australia a better place?


At August 28, 2006 10:24 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I do think there's something in the argument that 'older generations' (loosely defined) tend to keep the seat warm for their own kind. I disagree with Mark Davis' politics (he of Gangland fame), but do agree that 'sick, wicked yoof' are often a cover for the olds to engage in all sorts of silly moral panics.

And another thing: so many of the boomers are so precious.

At August 29, 2006 11:19 am, Anonymous parkos said...

Hanji !
Sukrit, your hip hop taste in music (50cent and Eminem) is basically anti-Iraq war , anti-capitalist oppression of the American underclass, pro recreational drug use and criminality.. So what the hell talking about when you say the youth of Australia are pro capitalist in its present form? You are clearly not according to your tastes.

At October 06, 2006 9:44 am, Anonymous Ryan Heath said...

Hi Sukrit

That's a thoughtful review - I appreciate it. I think there's quite a lot to your criticisms.

I have defend myself on the references though - you won't find that many in 90% of books and even if a couple are wrong (and I am open to that strong possibility) it at least suggests a transperancy about my work that isn't evident in newspaper writing and a lot of other books.

That said I have moved on from when I wrote the book (23) and have a much clearer sense of how to do a book proeprly second time around.

Thanks for the feedback.

Ryan Heath


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