With the Rudds, Gillards, Abbotts and Turnbulls all struggling to lead, let alone connect, with the tribes of contemporary Australia, is it time the once-mighty baby boomer demographic admitted we don’t have the answers?
And make way for our babies — the millennials — the approximately 5 million Australians, born in the last two decades of the 20th century, who are now surging into the workforce and leaderships roles.“The formality of government and the old school deadening processes of approval and ridiculous rewriting are enough to conspire to scare away any intelligent postgrad.”
This may be the year these millennials officially become the largest population group in Australia, finally overtaking the baby boomers. Since the 60s the post-war boomers have dwarfed all other cohorts and through sheer political and economic weight have dominated public policy for several decades.
Voters count and over the decades the boomers have extracted much from the system: free milk, subsidised private school education, free universities, uncapped tax perks for investment properties. And in perhaps the last celebration of boomer political power, the extraordinary superannuation perks, boomers are now resisting giving up.
The boomer ruling elite can rightly point to over a quarter of a century of consistent economic growth. But the obvious struggle the current batch of corporate and governmental leaders are having coming to grips with the hyper connected, polyglot world of empowered citizens, suggests it is time to let go.
Mastery of the connected world
Take but one significant area where many boomer leaders are essentially clueless: the internet. If the future belongs to those who understand the cognitive era — powerful self-learning algorithms driving large-scale automation from the massive amounts of data generated by billions of internet connected devices — then I would rather bank on the digital natives of the millennial era than the lawyers and economists of the current ruling class.
A quick look at the parliament and its camp followers (eg the press gallery) reveals just how much grey hair still dominates and with it a patent lack of technical literacy required to transform government and restore its lost relevance.
In the public sector this gap is even more apparent. Millennials make up around a fifth of the population, but only about a tenth of the Australian Public Service that runs the federal government. Perhaps more pertinently, at a time where millennials are beginning to flex their economic and political muscle, the proportion of ongoing APS employees aged 50 years and over has actually grown significantly in recent years. In 2002 this group represented 21% of ongoing APS employees, increasing to 32% last year. This contrasts with the economy wide statistics, where millennials are predicted to be 75 % of the work force by 2025.
Millennials are voting with their feet and resisting public sector employment in their droves. Just when the national government desperately needs the insights, innovation, energy and ambition of this dynamically connected, worldly and super educated group, millennials are avoiding government like the plague.
Some of this seems environmental. Government is famously locked down, formal and hierarchical.
For a generation that has grown up connected and willing to share like none other, the typical government desktop must seem like the old green screen DEC machines. With major collaboration platforms like say Google’s G suite still bizarrely locked out of central government because of security concerns, agencies offer nothing but a world of pain for any digital native wanting to make a public difference.
The formality of government and the old school deadening processes of multiple approvals and ridiculous rewriting are enough to conspire to scare away any intelligent postgrad. This is especially so when there are exciting and innovative opportunities to make a difference in the start-up world.
Throw in the inability of the ruling political and bureaucratic class to describe and organise around a compelling, contemporary and effective public policy narrative, then the reasons for millennials staying away from government are clear.
The impact of this eschewing of formal government is quite profound. The millennials were the group who wanted the UK to remain in Europe. If they had voted in the same proportion as their parents, Britain would not be closing its doors on Europe. Had only millennials voted in the recent US presidential election, the most powerful baby boomer of them all, Donald Trump (circa 1946) would have won 32 electoral votes — and Clinton 473.
And while some will moan about millennial indifference being another indicator of the “me” generation, the reality is the biggest, most diverse and soon to be the most important demographic of our era is effectively outside the government tent.