2018 What Matters? Patron's Address
Delivered by What Matters? Patron Lisa Wilkinson AM
Tuesday, 4 September 2018
Check against delivery.
Thank you Uncle Greg for your Welcome to Country.
I also wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands, the Darug People of the Darug Nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
Good afternoon to Deputy Chancellor of Western Sydney University, Elizabeth Dibbs; Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Academic) Professor Denise Kirkpatrick; My friends Nicholas and Judy Whitlam, and other members of the Whitlam family with us today; Members of the Whitlam Institute Board; The Director of the Institute, Leanne Smith and Academics from Western Sydney University, Program Sponsors, Parents, Supporters, Friends…
I am delighted to be back at the Whitlam Institute in my second year as Patron of the What Matters? writing competition.
I took up this mantle from eminent social researcher and author Hugh Mackay, who had held that role for more than a decade.
I wholly agree with his description of this competition as “much more than a writing contest.” He said “it’s actually a catalyst for young thinkers and young writers to develop a perspective, a point of view, on where we’re heading as a society.”
And what a point of view.
This year’s essays are thoroughly engaged in our world, it’s many opportunities and challenges. They demonstrate a deep sense of self and personal identity. They are also courageously optimistic.
What lessons can we draw?
When we consider these boys and girls, we are looking at a generation that has been dubbed by some researchers and commentators as Generation Z.
It’s something of a curious name - perhaps social researchers are running out of inspiration?!
So who is Gen Z? Born between 1995 and 2009, they are today’s children and teenagers.
It is estimated that there are over 4 million of them in Australia and in 10 years’ time they will comprise 12% of the workforce.
And in the way of such commentary and research, common characteristics have been assigned to them.
What we do know is that most of them have only known a world with mobile technology; in the developed world at least, their familiarity with wireless internet is innate.
How this has effected them, we cannot know for sure. We can observe that they read and consume text in different ways.
The internet is their library and their encyclopaedia, so their ability to discern the credibility of an information source will be essential for an informed, meaningful level of participation in our democracy.
They are demanding enormous change from an education system that was designed for an earlier age. We can see that schools and universities are seeking to accommodate this generation’s expectations of learning and education but in some ways this is akin to turning the Titanic.
Gen Z have grown up in a world where the terrorism threat level is reported as often, and with the same visual cues, as the bushfire threat – a colour coded scale. This sense of impending conflict has inevitably seeped into their worldview, but it seems in some cases to have had a liberating effect.
If we look to the United States, we see them galvanised through political activism in the face of political inaction on gun control. We admire those young people’s courage, conviction and ability to use technology to achieve their purpose.
The students from Parkland in Florida who survived the school shooting of February threw themselves into a campaign that received worldwide coverage. They were not afraid to tell powerful stories and they aimed for vast audiences.
It seems they are driven not so much by confidence as by compulsion; they find certain circumstances in their world unacceptable, and taking action is the only response.
Generation Z and the prior generation, the Millennials, carry one very unwelcome title – they are said to be the first generations who will be less wealthy than their parents.
They will enter a new labour market; of jobs being Uberised and reworked by AI and robotics. They will make their careers through new models of work, joining the record numbers of casual and contract employees.
In the face of dramatic decline in housing affordability, many of them will be long-term renters or occupants of share housing, and never own their own home.
Growing up in the wake of the GFC, their economy will ask them to offer up new skills and new levels of entrepreneurialism. Some commentators are observing a change in values around material possessions, and a new type of consumerism that features fractional ownership, with renting and on-selling of possessions as a natural inclination.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, this year’s What Matters? finalists are so much more than a label, whether its Gen Z or something else.
Like all teenagers, many of the finalists’ essays show an acute consciousness about how the author is perceived by others. But what we see in these essays is a more complex and informed awareness of self-identity - and how those identities can be employed to achieve social good.
Whether it is self-identity as a woman and a feminist, or as an indigenous person, destined to grow into the role of elder in their clan.
Identity as a person with autism or ADHD, making a passionate case for neurodiversity; or as a person struggling to build bridges with others, in the face of anxiety or depression. Identity as a sister, friend, grandchildren or aunt, with all the love and responsibility those roles bring to our lives.
The students are using their unique lens on their world to draw our attention to ‘what matters’. These are perspectives we won’t get in any other way. What a gift.
In a world of memes and Youtube, What Matters? is a writing competition. This is important.
We read essays here that proclaim a love of words, and a recognition of their power. It won’t surprise you to learn that after a career in journalism and publishing, I share this deep passion and respect for words.
Facts and truth, as expressed in words, are as important - and as slippery - as they have ever been. We can only hope that Generation Z knows this, and is able to navigate through it.
Some of the commentary about this generation offers up hand-wringing about the skills that have been lost – cursive handwriting for one – but we should also turn our minds to what will be gained.
Many of you in this room will be familiar with the ‘three great aims’ Gough Whitlam pronounced in his famous 1972 election speech. For the benefit of those who are not, I will share them now:
· to promote equality;
· to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land; and
· to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.
It is fitting that the Whitlam Institute delivers this unique writing competition. It evokes all these goals, but perhaps the third one most strongly.
I’m sure all of us in this room share a strong wish and deep hope that this generation’s horizons are uplifted and their talents liberated.
I suspect that the horizons of this generation will be very different to what has come before, but perhaps these essays remind us that ‘what matters’ is what has always mattered.
With that in mind, I want to close with a line from one of the finalist’s essays from this year:
‘Find someone and say, ‘Tell me. I’ll help you. I love you.’
 Research Agency McCrindle published a special feature on Gen Z in 2016: http://generationz.com.au/