The challenge of connecting with Generation Y

23 December 2009

Written by: Tom Cowie

One generation plants the trees, another gets the shade.

Accordingly, older generations have paved the way for the current younger generations to reap the benefits, leading to unprecedented access to education, technology and secure living standards.

This proverb rings with a certain irony, as we also have to cope with the dark shadows of climate change. To move forward, a generation must have a certain appreciation for the struggles of the past, as well as the opportunities and challenges that this creates for the future.

Growing up, I have had a certain sense of pride at the way my fellow Gen-Yers have taken a deep interest in the world around them and a sense of responsibility that invariably comes with such knowledge.

I have dismissed reports of delinquent and irresponsible youngsters by older media makers as using a minority to scare the majority. Such techniques have been used throughout history as a means of oppression, from the eating of an apple through to modern attempts to curb terrorism.

Einstein once quipped that the more he learnt, the more he realised how little he knew. This has become particularly relevant as I meet more people my own age.

Despite the internet giving us access to an incredible wealth of information; despite an ability to see the wonders of the world like never before; despite the opportunity not only to dream of amazing things but to live those dreams, there is a silent majority who remain ignorant of their own place in history, or even their place in society.

Take, for example, the reporting of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit. This was perhaps the most important meeting of nations on a non-war related issue ever. Who knows? It may yet become war-related.While some media outlets were leading with news of the meeting and almost to-the-minute analysis, other more consumer-based institutions were bombarding us with images of the alleged mistresses of a guy who hits little white balls for a living and lives thousands of kilometres away from us.

There must be choice in what we allow ourselves to be informed about, so this difference is not the worrying thing. What is alarming is the reply I received from a group of young people when Copenhagen came up in the conversation we were having. ‘What is Copenhagen?’ was the telling response.

In much the same way that my recent questions of ‘What is Twilight?’ summed everything up, this not only revealed an ignorance of the topic, but a large indifference to whatever the answer was given. Twilight, though, does not have the potential to destroy the prospects of every human being on the planet.

Einstein would declare I had just discovered how ignorant I am.

The information is there, it just is not getting through to everyone. Furthermore, there are some amazing people doing an incredible job to spread the word about the important issues. Even so, it does not get through. These people are then given any label available – ‘hippie’ and ‘nutjob’ are some current favourites of those trying to bring them down.

Herein lies the problem. The people taking a stand on important issues are brought down by the very people they are aiming their messages at, thus bouncing like a bad cheque. I often wonder how many people have ever been converted by the evangelical methods of Mormons. This is comparable to the uphill battle faced by, say, a climate change activist.

So how can we get the message across if it is not through preaching to the ignorant?

It is definitely not through preaching to the converted. Such behaviour is about as useful as cigar-smoking businessmen in gentlemen’s clubs telling each other how good they are – terrific for self-esteem but not much else.

The solution is about as grassroots as it gets. It involves changing the perceptions of those people who think that being informed about an issue is uncool; that standing up for a belief is for ‘hippies’.

This does not necessarily mean somehow making the evening news more acceptable than a badly written US sex-based sitcom, or making a paper more useful to read than to roll tobacco in.

It might be in something as simple as a musical lyric or by having someone they respect talk about an issue. Whatever it is, the information must be put at a level where it becomes relevant to their everyday life.

Having the masses informed is the only way to pave the way for meaningful change. If someone is informed but disagrees with you, then see it as an opportunity to debate it and gain a greater understanding.

Our own generation is enjoying the shade of our parents and grandparents. If we are to move on, those at the roots of the undergrowth must know what is happening.

It is our responsibility to make sure they can see the light above them.

Sam Drummond is a law student at Monash University and a SYN radio broadcaster.