Nearly 20% of Australia’s population is between the ages of 10 and 24, yet their social and political voices are almost unheard. In our effort to amplify these voices, The Ethics Centre will be hosting a series of workshops where young people can help us better understand the challenges they face and the best ways for us to help. We’re listening.

You’re sitting at the dinner table at a big family gathering. Conversation starts to die down and suddenly your uncle says: “Have you seen that Greta girl on the news? I understand that climate change is a big deal, but the kids these days are so angry and loud. They’d get more done if they showed some respect.”

Many people under 25 have been in this position and had to make a choice about how to respond. This decision is often more difficult than it seems because there doesn’t seem to be a preferable option. Philosopher and feminist theorist Marilyn Frye gave a name to this kind of situation: a double-bind. In her essay Oppression, she defines the double-bind as a “situation in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, or deprivation.” 

Frye originally used the double-bind to talk about how women often found themselves in situations where they were going to be criticised equally for engaging with or ignoring gender stereotypes. The double-bind can be used to explain the difficult positions that anyone who experiences a negative stereotype finds themselves in and provides insight into why people with important perspectives often feel the need to censor themselves. 

Let’s say we do choose to speak up. We can justify our anger. There are so many huge issues that impact the world – climate change, the pandemic, rampant inequality, and so on – and it feels like things are changing far too slowly. 

Young people especially should be allowed to be angry, because this is the world we will inherit.

Unfortunately, it’s a common experience for younger generations to feel that their voices aren’t listened to or respected. Even though these reasons should more than justify the anger and frustration of young people, emotion can often (unjustly) obfuscate the reality of what we say. 

So, let’s try the other way. We choose to not engage and instead let the comment slide. However, then we’re at risk of being seen as the “apathetic teen,” a narrative that has been perpetuated ad nauseam claiming that young people don’t really care about anything (which we know isn’t true). 

Young people care about a lot, and have a lot to care about. Not only do they care, they act. A recent survey of 7,000 young people found that two-thirds of respondents seek out ways to get involved in issues they care about, and 64% believe that it is their personal responsibility to get involved in important issues. So, it’s not always easy to just let your uncle’s tone-policing go when you feel passionate about a topic, especially when staying silent can be as damaging as speaking up.

Here we see the double-bind in action: neither of the most obvious responses to the situation are favourable or even preferable. Because of a build-up of social and cultural assumptions and expectations, we’re often placed in a position where we seem to lose in some way no matter what we decide to do. 

The Australian youth experience

Unfortunately, age discrimination towards young people doesn’t end at the dinner table. A 2022 survey conducted by Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John found that “overwhelmingly, young people are feeling ignored and overlooked”. Gen Z (people born between 1995 and 2010) are more likely to be viewed as “entitled, coddled, inexperienced and lazy,” which is having negative effects on young people’s confidence in the workplace. It doesn’t help that young people are hugely underrepresented in the Australian government and positions of power in the private sector. 

Young people should not have to convince everyone that their voices are worth listening to. The combination of endless global issues and lack of representation in positions of power, which is compounded by a culture that doesn’t give appropriate weight to their contributions, creates a climate that leaves young people feeling frustrated and disempowered. 

So, what can we do? As with most social issues, there isn’t one simple fix to the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of youth because it stems from a few different things that are ingrained in our society and culture. We can question our assumptions and those of others by recognising that “youth” as a social or cultural category isn’t really coherent anymore. There has been an enormous rise in the number of subcultures that are increasingly interconnected thanks to mass media and the internet, meaning that “young people” are more diverse than ever before.

Most importantly, we can bring young people together and into spaces where their voices will be heard by people who are in a position to make change. 

As part of our mission to do just that, The Ethics Centre is developing a growing number of youth initiatives, like the Youth Advisory Council and the Young Writer’s Competition.

Through these initiatives, we are starting an ongoing conversation with young people about the areas in their lives and futures that they think ethics is needed the most.