In research I've done on young people I found that, in general, adversarial, party-based politics has little appeal. But this is the same for all Australians, not just young people. However, group-based, both community-oriented and activist groups, attract more young people - and now significantly more young women than young men choose these types of political involvement (Vromen 2003).
This progressive potential has also been found in Clive Bean's study of research on voting patterns in the last federal election, where 18-30 year old women were significantly more likely to vote for ALP and/or The Greens, and young men significantly more likely to vote Liberal (ABC News online 2005).
Young women are being found more socially progressive than young men on a range of social issues, including supporting gay marriage, and opposing the War in Iraq.
Some youth studies researchers, though, have argued that gender doesn't shape our lives in the same way anymore, as young people have reached a point of androgyny, traditional gender roles are out of date and thus young men and women now think the same about their roles in both paid and caring work.
There is some evidence that attitudes towards gendered parenting roles have become more gender neutral, though actual parenting practice clearly has not. This androgyny emphasis has also been contradicted recently by Chilla Bulbeck's (2004) study with Australian young people that found young women expect future equality with men in the distribution of paid work and caring work but young men expect traditional gender roles to prevail, where they go to work and have a wife and kids at home.
In my own research, I asked young people how often they spoke about a broad range of political issues including federal and local politics, environmental issues, workplaces and unions.
The issue spoken about most often was that of equality between men and women, with a third of the sample speaking about this every week and another quarter at least once a month - however, this issue was talked about significantly more by women than by men.
Thus the existing research is suggesting that young women and men have different attitudes and different participatory experiences. But what difference does it make to participation when people have children?
"Young women are being found more socially progressive than young men on a range of social issues, including supporting gay marriage, and opposing the War in Iraq."
In my research I found that becoming a parent does not decrease, or change, levels of participation for young people aged 18-34.
Despite this, the perception of time constraints and participation reveals more about the traditional, gendered nature of public and private life. That is, when I asked people what constrained them from participating, more female parents were much more likely to talk about family responsibilities, while male parents were much more likely to mention work responsibilities.
This significant difference in describing time constraints and responsibility, unsurprisingly, does not exist when comparing childless men and women.
But we need to focus on the diversity of experiences among young people, rather than come up with the market research-like rules that apply to all and predict future behaviour. We also need to focus more on the context for young people's participation.
'Youth' is the lens through which we can see and understand social change. Australian youth sociologists Johanna Wyn and Rob White (1997) suggest that 'being young' is a relational concept; it's socially constructed; and, more often than not, historically and culturally specific.
Thus, being young today is not the same as being young 30 years ago because society itself has changed. This is despite similar stereotypes often being used, then and today, to argue about the inability of young people to conform to social norms.
To understand young people's lives today we need to look at change in society and how this constrains or enables young people.
In the neo-liberal times we live in there has been a decline or disappearance of employment security, the welfare state, and traditional community links. The individual is now supreme - negotiating the opportunities and the dangers of risk society. The stories we are told, especially about young people, argue that the individual must rely on themselves to survive the changed social and economic circumstances.
Young people, and specifically female young people, are often shown as most capable of coping with this changed world.
Anita Harris (2004) has written extensively about how young women are constructed under neo-liberalism. She has written about two main stereotypes of young women: the 'can-do' girl and the 'at-risk' girl.
The 'can-do' girl is the ideal, the success story of the economic and gender order: flexible, self-motivated, a good consumer, a serious and ambitious worker, delaying motherhood until just the right time in the career path. She is the perfect flexible worker, the apolitical daughter of feminism, and the one whose image now proliferates throughout culture.
Her sister, the 'at-risk' girl, is the failure of the family: she is discernible by over consumption, early pregnancy, less 'interest' in a carefully planned education and career trajectory, lack of self-discipline, incorrect choices, or poor family circumstances.
Her failure to be the 'can-do' girl is personalised, it's individualised - all about the choices she should have made - rather than being seen as a result of ongoing structural inequality.
Furthermore, negotiations between work and family may be a BBQ stopper issue for the prime minister, but the 'can do' girl will find that the negotiation remains gendered, with women forced to often make false choices.
These 'choices', or realistic options for negotiation about these commitments, are profoundly shaped by socio-economic status, particularly that relating to class and education.
While opportunities for career-based employment have increased for well educated young women, there is simultaneously a growing tendency for childlessness in this group. Belinda Probert and Fiona MacDonald (1999) argue 'that young women may feel that they still have to choose between work and career in a way that is unknown to most young men'.
Less educated women in less well paid or secure jobs do not have the luxury of this false notion of choice - many working in the private sector have no paid maternity leave, are reliant on extended family for childcare as commercial providers have made it unaffordable, and this generation of parents need to return to work out of necessity as they are now 'breadwinners'.
Conclusion: Thus we can see the continuing importance of intersecting major structural forces, such as class and education, shaping young people's lives and reinforcing gender divisions.
Young people do and can fight the dominant ethos of individualism under neo-liberalism, and they do this by focusing on politics of everyday life through the issues that really matter in people's lives.
These issues rarely lead them to look to parliamentarians and political parties for all the answers. And this is something political parties need to learn how to deal with:
· how to properly engage young people (and this means actually talking to them and not expecting them to join in and be swallowed by the party machine),
· how to recognise that young people do not all think or act in the same way,
· and how to understand the major effects of social and structural change on young people.
Dr Ariadne Vromen is a lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her main research interest is political participation and she has undertaken research on young people, community development, gender and the Australian Greens. Her co-authored book, Powerscape: Contemporary Australian Political Practice, was published earlier this year. This is the text of her address to the Evatt Sunset Seminar on "Young People & Politics", presented at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts on 6 September 2005.
ABC New Online (2005) 'Electoral survey finds young voters switching sides' available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200509/s1455576.htm.
Bulbeck, Chilla (2004) 'Gender issues and the women's movement' available at: http://www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/socialsciences/people/gls/gender_issues.pdf.
Harris, Anita (2004) Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century, New York: Routledge.
Probert, Belinda & Fiona McDonald. (1999) 'Young women: poles of experience in work and parenting' in Dusseldorp Skills Forum. Ed. Australia's Young Adults: The Deepening Divide, Sydney: Dusseldorp Skills Forum, pp. 135-158.
Vromen, Ariadne (2003) ''People try to put us down': Participatory citizenship of 'Generation X'' Australian Journal of Political Science, 38(1): 78-99.
Wyn, Johanna and Rob White (1997) Rethinking Youth, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.