Canberra Writers Festival, 2017, Day 2, Pt 3: A panel of millennials

Unfortunately – for me, anyhow – this will be my last post on the Festival, as that cold I hoped (unrealistically) to hold at bay would not be held. Consequently, for both my benefit and that of others, I decided to keep my snivelling self at home on Day 3. I’m very disappointed however, as I was very keen to attend a few events, including one titled Re-imagining Christina Stead. It was a rare session on a “classic” Australian writer and I’d love to have supported it (though hopefully, it didn’t need supporting!) And of course, I wanted to hear what the three panelists had to say.

Griffith Review: the Millennials strike back: Yolande Norris, Cameron Muir, Anna Snoekstra, Frances Flanagan, and Michael Newton

Griffith Review 56

Griffith Review 56

Having last year attended a lively session on the plight of the millennials, I was interested to see another session this year on them – and decided, as a baby-boomer, that I could face another beating! Seriously, though, as a parent of millennials, I am interested in their view of the world, and this session, drawing as it did from the excellent Griffith Review, seemed worth attending.

Convenor Cameron Muir introduced the session by saying that the Griffith Review editor, Julianne Shultz, conceived Millennials strike back edition in lead-up to last year’s Federal election. She wanted not to engage in the generation blame game but simply to give millennials (those born from around 1981 to around 2000) a voice. The issue, like all Griffth Reviews, contains a mix of essays, fiction, poetry and memoir pieces. The panelists all had pieces in the issue:

  • Frances Flanagan (Essay) “A consensus for care”
  • Michael Newton (Essay) “Unpaid opportunities”
  • Yolande Norris (Memoir) “Navigating life in art” (in the online edition only)
  • Anna Snoekstra (Short story) “The view from up here”

Muir then noted that a major theme in the panelists’ pieces (and perhaps in the edition as a whole?) is work, and he asked them to comment. Norris, who contributed a memoir to the edition, talked about the challenge of managing her identity as a mother and as a worker, which is an issue, in fact, that many of us baby-boomers also grappled with. It wasn’t easy then, and it still isn’t now – unfortunately. She wondered what you do when you’ve achieved the “template for life”, house and child/ren.

Newton, whose piece was an essay, talked about the broader structural issues concerning how work is changing. Insecurity (precarity) in work, he said, results in pressure and can engender anxiety, which can breed depression. Millennials in this situation worry about whether to look for another job, whether they can earn a living wage. Why, he asked, are the real structural problems being hidden under arguments about smashed avo and kidadulthood? These arguments dismiss policy concerns of Millennials.

Snoekstra, whose piece is a short story, said that she calls herself a writer in social situations, but in fact she also works as a nanny. She talked about her generation’s concern with buying a house: do they buy a house meaning they can’t go on holidays, have to take a job they don’t like, or do they decide they won’t follow that path?

Flanagan, who like Newton contributed an essay, focused more on the longterm, but also looked back into history, drawing on Hannah Arendt’s division of human activity into three categories: labour, work and action. She suggested this might provide a model for how we view work. She wanted, she said, to meditate on how modern capitalism conceals the action of power. There has been insecure work in past, she said, but there were ways to resolve those, including the introduction of award wages. Today, though, she argues, work precarity is individualised and private. (There are no labour lines, today, for example, just people “waiting for a text message that will signal the prospect of work or its absence.”) Society is no longer offering careers but fragmented work. She then moved onto discussing the kind of work we value – and this is where the title of her essay “A consensus for care” makes sense.

She talked about the cyclical nature of work, writing in her essay:

While our current age is not alone in taking the maintenance of our physical and social spaces for granted, we have certainly given it a twenty-first-century neoliberal spin. Many early childhood educators earn so little that they cannot afford to buy a house or have children of their own, despite significant post-secondary qualifications. Aged carers are paid so poorly they risk poverty. People with jobs in the world of work and action who take time away to care for elderly parents or young children are punished for their ‘choice’, not just once through foregone income but twice as a result of a grotesque superannuation system that magnifies wage gaps in retirement. Through neoliberal goggles, labour is not recognised as the essential foundation for civilisation but rather a cost burden on the public purse that should rightly be turned into a profit-making opportunity. Treasurer Scott Morrison, speaking at the ACOSS National Conference in 2016, said, ‘What I am basically saying is that welfare must become a good deal for investors –for private investors. We have to make it a good deal, for the returns to be there.’

(What can you say to that!) Arendt, she said, would not apply the idea of “returns” to this sort of activity, but to “work” that produces – well – products. Flanagan suggests that we need to look at the kind of society and care we want. She pointed to Norway’s collectivist view of responsibility, and argued that we should put care and education at the heart of our society. We need to look at values, rather than costs, and look back for values to the mid-twentieth century and earlier rather than to the last 30 or 40 years. In other words, rather than to the time during which I spent my working life. Oh, how I remember the dispiriting slide into measuring and costing things which cannot and/or should not be costed. Things like, for example, the cultural collections in our museums, archives and libraries. We saw it happening but felt powerless to change it.

And so the discussion continued, teasing out issues regarding mental health (captured chillingly, said Flanagan, in Snoekstra’s story), the separation of public and private life (in that Millennials seem very public, sharing all, but their worries are private), the need to develop support networks for work, the prevalence of toxic attitudes online particularly from disgruntled men.

On this issue of disgruntled men, Newton commented in the past men assumed they would find a partner without too much effort, but that this is not the same for the current generation of young men which can build resentment. He also noted that the hollowing out of work in manufacturing, caused largely by automation, leaves men having to consider care work. However, they don’t value this “feminised work” so, he said, the whole idea of “work” needs to be rethought.

Muir concluded by asking them what they would say to the next generation:

  • Norris said this was tricky because projections are impossible, but developing and maintaining connections is important.
  • Flanagan said that she would argue that technology is just a tool, and that there are still questions about power. She suggested people should learn from mentors and mentor in turn.
  • Newton started, laughingly, by saying he recently had to explain the significance of Princess Di to his younger work colleagues. Seriously, though, he’d want to say that work is not an end in itself, but that they should look at values.
  • Snoekstra said that she was thinking of writing YA books, and was advised to write short books, with action at beginning, due to shortened attention spans, but then discovered that 12-14 year old girls are reading Nancy Drew!


Could unions help? For baby-boomers they facilitated collective bargaining, and gave a sense of empowerment. Flanagan said that Australia has the worst anti-trade union laws in the democratic world. She works for United Voice, a large trade union, and said they need to use social networks to deal with mass desegregation of workforce.

Is the Universal Base Income a workable solution? It was agreed that carers should be remunerated, and the small surveys done to date does not show that it reduces the desire to find other work.

What are the implications of the drive to project yourself, that if it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen, that “it’s not ok to be not ok”. Norris felt that there is some pushback to this now, that people are becoming willing to show cracks. Flanagan said that for us to mature we need to create a caring society.

The commentary about housing focuses on Sydney and Melbourne but what about growing regional areas where housing can be cheaper. Is a trend happening? Our panelists generally thought there was, although some of the “trendy” places are quickly becoming expensive or built out. And, Australia is probably likely to remain a largely urbanised, centralised nation.

And there ended, somewhat over time, an excellent session that did not generation blame but that attempted instead to identify the issues and find solutions.

18 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival, 2017, Day 2, Pt 3: A panel of millennials

  1. A very interesting session, by the sound of it.
    Though I’m still shaking my head in dismay at the millennial I saw on TV the other night in a segment about housing affordability. He couldn’t afford to buy, he said, but took his whole family on a cruise every year. Seriously…
    That’s a shame about Christina Stead, I hope you’re feeling better soon.

  2. A house or a holiday?! Bloody millennials. My father took us on one holiday, to a boarding house in Port Lincoln. As did I with my kids, Rottnest Is. I agree that the neoliberals are winning at the moment and believe that the world would be a better place if we returned to a mixed economy, but bloody millennials expect their starter house to be 4br/2bath, and to take the kids to Disneyland

    • Not all millennials Bill! One of mine has bought a 1BR appt and the other a 2BR duplex. Both one bathroom. It’s such a complex issue I know, and sometimes they can shoot themselves in the foot, but we do need to recognise too, as you say, that current economic/work structures are against them.

  3. I do think it’s odd that the ones we see on TV, the ones we’re supposed to feel sorry for in a segment about housing affordability, seem to have such extravagant lifestyles, compared to ours when we were saving for our home.
    But the ones I actually know, like The Offspring, live frugally, and buy modest houses in suburbs that are definitely not their first choice.
    It’s as if the TV presenters are unwittingly shooting down their own argument…

    • Interesting point, Lisa. After I responded to Bill re my own two, I realised I should have said “and all their friends”. Only one couple that I know has bought the big house but that was after several years of living in a 1BR appt., their first purchase. They work hard and don’t go overseas every year.

      • I think this representation in the media matters, because it’s opinion-forming. If, as I suspect, the journos covering the issue are latte-loving inner city types who have some preconceived aspirational ideas of their own *and because of budget cuts* are pressed for time for their vox pops so they don’t get out into the ordinary suburbs much, then their poorly-researched stories end up being easy targets for objection (like the cruise-loving sad case). What we need to see are a few young couples on ordinary incomes in ordinary houses outside the inner city – who have managed to save up and can tell their stories of how they did it: how long it took, what they did without while saving, if they had help from parents and so on. Because we know it’s hard, and times are different now, but it’s not impossible and it would be good to see how it can be done.

        • Yes true. We acknowledge that it’s hard and that the mortgage to income ratio is way different , but we have all seen young people doing it, often with some parental help, but not always. 0ne panel member did talk about buying a house an hour out of Canberra, and the one who talked about missing holidays was making that point, ie that it’s tough. If you decide you want the house you make sacrifices like holidays and perhaps taking a stable, routine job (she’s a writer!) or you decide you’re happy to rent. The media just doesn’t seem to do the required analysis.

        • Yes, and when we look at the content being produced, it’s not just that it’s not very well done, it’s that time and resources are being spent on topics that are, frankly, inane. I wish the ABC would take a deep breath, decide on what’s important and leave the rest of it to the tabloids, like they used to do.

        • I do too … but the poor old ABC seems to be being attacked from all quarters and my guess is that many people there are not doing what they’d really like to be doing (or believe they should be doing).

  4. Many of my friends are starting to purchase homes now, and very aware of the sacrifices that need to be made to do so. (Not just in terms of cutting costs for the mortgage, but in decisions like where and what to buy.) Those I know that aren’t looking to buy, I believe there’s an element of spending money on immediate things like holidays because they feel that homeowning is utterly out of reach, so why not enjoy life now. The sterotyping of millenials as all selfish and stupid and pleasure-driven is just as silly and harmful as is the stereotyping of baby boomers as selfish and racist etc. Lawdy, if only we could all be more empathetic and less driven by fictional narratives of divison!

  5. A good and lively discussions at these events. Both my children own their homes, and worked bloody hard for them. Both bought what they could afford, not the best house but in good areas and would have no trouble in selling. However, it is all relative, what they sell for they would have to spend and probably more on another house. I hope you soon feel a lot better.

    • Thanks Meg. Your point about buying houses all being relative is very true. The thing is, though, IF you want to own a house it’s best to get into the market, isn’t it. Buy what you can afford.

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