Two years ago at a middle-class girls’ high school in Sydney, I set the top-level stream of students the task of writing about their attitudes to conscription for Vietnam. Seventy per cent. favoured conscription for boys. They used anachronistic phrases like ‘question of courage’, ‘man’s duty to defend his family’, ‘making the world safe for democracy’. As the mother of a son I was perturbed and interested. After an interval of two months I suggested they write on conscription for girls, conscription to national service which would use them for nursing (perhaps in Vietnam), relief work for two years overseas, and so on. This time less than ten per cent. favoured conscription. Girls, like female spiders, want to have their men and eat them, too. I was appalled by the selfishness of their reactions and wondered if this were merely a by-product of thinking in a Liberal Party voting area.
I cite this incident merely as an introduction to the attitudes of this generation which, despite engaging frankness on matters like sex and drug-taking, still has a hard conservative core. Perhaps they are only hard and conservative when it is a question of unselfishness. Perhaps they are tolerant merely in matters that concern self-indulgence.
In my evening tutorial classes at Macquarie University, I found more liberal discussion standards prevailed, a trait particularly noticeable in the nuns (I speak as one who recalls with some anguish the narrow dogmatism of the Irish teachers of my youth). General reading standards were low-again except for the nuns. This is an interesting point! Writers such as Compton-Burnett, Cheever, Edmund Wilson, Nabokov, Gordimer (even funny men like de Vries) were literally unknown as names. (I clutch a handful at random.) Discussing D.H. Lawrence and the war between men and women, only one in sixty had read Thurber’s The Unicorn in the Garden. Maybe the average of this generation have not the time for reading or perhaps not the interest. They drink much more. (I went through university on four sweet sherries.) And they have more money to do it with. Where my generation enjoyed faculty picnics up the Brisbane River with bottles of lemonade and a lot of earnest conversation, final year students at leading Sydney private schools prefer pub crawls and regard a party where the drink runs out early as a wash-out. I don’t know what this proves. I feel their livers are in more danger than their morals. But I do deplore the jaded attitude that can only get its kicks in a semi-inebriated state.
The generation before mine was probably sour-puss because the Depression made every personal achievement heroic. We still tend to think the young should fend for themselves when, as everyone is aware, nepotism and privilege, the unsubtle play of ‘influence’, are at work all the time. One is sorry life is so easy for the young and, because of this, so difficult.
The permissiveness of our generation to the younger has created the monstrous over-rated importance of youth. Oldies—pregnant, sick, reeling—can tremble vertical upon trains and buses while thick-thighed youngsters cling to their seats. There is no reverence for age as such and while this is understandable and not expected, one longs for a little sympathy such as might be meted out to the under-privileged.
Recently I said to a colleague and his wife after we had been discussing youth, ‘Oh God, sometimes I loathe the young!’ Instantly and together they cried, ‘Yes, so do we!’ But of course they don’t. And I don’t. They adore their children and students as I do mine. It’s only that at times we grow a little fearful of the Frankenstein we have created.
Thea Astley (1925 – 2004) was an Australian novelist and short story writer. She was a prolific writer who was published for over 40 years from 1958.
Image credit: Dietmar Rabich