First published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 2006

The World According to Y

By Rebecca Huntley

Allen & Unwin, 218pp, $24.95

After the gloom of the ’80s, the next generation arises optimistic and confident.

A TYPICAL MEMBER of generation Y has started up one or two businesses by age 21, wears Playboy bunny T-shirts (the girls) or bum cleavage (the boys), downloads tracks from the web by a band that formed yesterday, and is always texting 15 best buddies with blow-by-blow accounts of each day. Right?

Well, yes, and no. In The World According to Y, Rebecca Huntley says Yers, aged 18 to 24, are a contradictory lot. They are sexualised earlier than previous generations, but have fewer teenage pregnancies than the older generation X. They are filling pews at Hillsong, but are tolerant of gay and alternative lifestyles.

They are promiscuous consumers, but attend rallies supporting exploited garment workers, clutching Naomi Klein’s No Logo. They live at home for longer, but friends are the centre of their lives. They are obsessed with mobility and freedom yet worry about home ownership earlier than generation X did.

It’s almost compulsory for each generation to trash the next one (a gen X friend calls gen Y “generation whine”). But Huntley – who interviewed more than 50 subjects for her book – is a much more sympathetic and thoughtful commentator than that. She argues gen Y’s defining characteristics are optimism and confidence, particularly when compared with gen X. The deeply pessimistic gen X (to which she belongs) grew up fearing nuclear annihilation, unemployment and AIDS.

Yers, Huntley’s argument goes, were mostly planned children born to older parents in smaller families. They felt special and wanted. Born into a world of constant change, they deal with uncertainty with far less self-pity and anger than Xers, who remember the promise of a secure life. Where gen X felt abandoned, gen Y feels treasured and protected.

Is an entire generation of optimists really possible? Huntley persuasively backs up her claim with interviews, as well as national health and wellbeing studies. Events such as September 11, 2001, have apparently done little to shake gen Y’s confidence. Most dramatically, she notes youth suicide levels have fallen after peaking in 1997.

While the angsty actress Winona Ryder in Reality Bites defined a generation of slackers and stoners, perky Reese Witherspoon as the pink-clad Elle in Legally Blonde seems to be the emblematic gen Y character. I was less convinced by Huntley’s extension of this argument: where gen X culture supposedly celebrated being an outsider, gen Y films and TV shows celebrate being popular and an insider. Where does this put Mean Girls, featuring gen Y starlet Lindsay Lohan, which portrays the viciousness of the in-crowd?

Huntley’s related argument, that Yers are largely conformist, seems at odds with the diversity of her interviewees (young mums, a consultant, a political staffer, gay and straight, and so on).

Despite the diversity, I still missed a sense of complexity in individual gen Y lives. Most interviewees appear simply as a first name (sometimes their occupation is given) followed by a short quote to reinforce a general point. But the PhD-wielding Huntley deserves much praise for her accessible style; she wears her considerable research lightly.

Her chapter on brands is particularly interesting. Apparently, Yers (who have been intensely scrutinised by marketers since birth) really do believe the consumer is king. Ever-confident gen Y believes its tastes will dictate what products succeed and fail. Yers know that their status as voters or workers, homeowners or parents, amounts to little when compared with their power as consumers.

A chapter on body image also convincingly argues Yers really are a new species. For girls, cosmetic surgery is so, like, whatever. For Y boys, a great body is no longer a happy by-product of sporting achievement, it is an end in itself and achieved through diet and exercise.

Huntley was moved to write about Y when, after a decade of teaching, she suddenly noticed her students were no longer just like her only younger. I was similarly struck when a gen Y student in a university class I tutored nominated having a commercial image as an essential quality for a journalist. This understanding of the importance of image, along with awareness that they, too, are brands they will need to market in the new economy, is something gen Y seems to intuitively understand.

Huntley says her book is an early call on how gen Y will shape, and be shaped by, the future. As she notes, they are yet to face the challenges of mortgages, marriages, careers and families. As teens and young adults, gen X traversed the fluorescent, effervescent pop of Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go in 1984 to the flannelette-clad ennui marked by Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Let’s hope the Yers’ optimism keeps them downloading happier soundtracks than that.

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