The exception rather than the rule ... protesters take to the street to Reclaim the Night in Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Hawkins
In the late '90s, when raving meant dancing and sun-dried tomatoes meant culinary sophistication, I joined a group at university called the Activist Left. It was the obvious choice for someone who had spent her high school years weeping over woodchips. I believed another world was possible but had no faith in parliamentary reform. Revolutionary overthrow sounded infinitely more exciting than gradual change.
So I sailed past the Labor Party at O-Week and headed for the kids with radical politics and whose verdant forests of body hair should have constituted a zoning issue. I exchanged friends for comrades, tampons for moon cups, deodorant for patchouli oil and dinner for beer. They were happy, smelly, tofu-filled days.
In the years that followed I participated in protests against the Jabiluka mine, sexist advertising, how refugees were treated and cuts to university funding. Some of these protests, such as the Jabiluka mine, were successful. Others, such as accidentally spray-painting ''sexist crab'' on a billboard, were just confusing. But victorious or not, the very experience of protest was transformative, empowering and divinely pleasurable.
No more to life than a mortgage? A suburban Gen-Y dream house.
Protest is crucial to democracy. It takes us out of our soft and selfish refuges as we stand up for other people, places and ideas. Public spaces in the CBD devoted to the rabid pursuit of self-interest are transformed into carnivalesque sites of collective revolt. Even if laws don't always change through protest, participants certainly do.
Which is why I cannot help bewail their extinction. When was the last time you saw the CBD cordoned off because 5000 students were complaining about the treatment of refugees? Why did Reclaim the Streets suddenly die? Why was Occupy Sydney mostly populated by Gen-Xers? At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly granny muttering darkly over the state of the youth these days, I have to ask: what's wrong with the youth these days? Why are they so nauseatingly conservative?
A Mission Australia study found the economy has overtaken the environment as the issue that most concerns young Australia. Support for the Greens among young voters has decreased from 22 per cent to 16 per cent in the past two years and Tony Abbott still leads Labor on youth first preferences since the last election by five points. Even worse, they're stinking rich! According to a 2012 Bankwest Financial Fitness Index, Gen Y are ''more conservative with their money than any generation before''. Gen-Xers (born 1965-79), I'm proud to say, are financial train wrecks.
I'll grant that studies have shown young people to be socially progressive on issues such as gay and lesbian rights. But their support rarely extends beyond online petitions, indignant memes or heartfelt status updates. It's also true that Jonathan Moylan's coal hoax and the marches for Jill Meagher were great protests. But they were exceptions to the rule.
My concern is simply that baby Gen-Y appears to be doing nothing except taking duck-faced photos of themselves on Instagram.
Some commentators have blamed social media for the indolence of youth. Mark Bauerlein puts it beautifully: ''The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.''
Criticisms about Google making us dumber intersect with generational critique. The internet, it's argued, has created a frantic world of distraction in which deep thought and empathy (fostered through reading books) is impossible.
I think that this is hogwash. Aristotle argued that books prevented us from reflecting on our souls, T. S. Eliot thought that typewriters would thwart literary eloquence.
The problem does not lie with technology. A glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and Facebooking their way to radical street protest. It seems Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They're more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.
Brittany Ruppert, a Herald intern, attributes her generation's apathy to prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for, except home ownership. It's plausible. But why is a 20-year-old worried about home ownership rather than global poverty, gender discrimination or climate change? The world is more interesting than a mortgage! I'm not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just Howard's children? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?
All I know is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.