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Insights 23: 29 June 2018
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Millennial ignorance
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
“One of the uses of history is to free us of a falsely imagined past”, the late American legal scholar Robert Bork once wrote. One might add that another use is the prevention of repeat mistakes.

But a new paper from our colleagues at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney suggests the younger generation is bound to make wrong choices because they know little history anymore.

In Millennials and Socialism, Tom Switzer and Charles Jacobs document the attitudes of Australians born between 1980 and 1996. It is a generation who would not remember the Cold War, the Soviet Union or China before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. It is also a fortunate generation since Australia’s last recession dates to 1991.

As these young Australians grew up in a well-performing liberal economy, one might think that they would hold favourable attitudes towards capitalism and view socialism with suspicion.

Yet the opposite is the case. A large majority of Australian millennials find socialism attractive. And they believe that capitalism has failed.

Such views are grounded in ignorance. Australian millennials think that ordinary people are worse off now than 40 years ago (when, in fact, disposable income has gone up for all Australians over that period). They believe that spending on education had fallen in the last decade (when it has increased by about a third, even adjusted for inflation).

The lack of historical knowledge is astonishing, especially regarding historical figures. Large numbers of Australian millennials have never heard of Mao (51 percent), Lenin (42 percent) or even Stalin (32 percent).

Interestingly, only 5 percent did not know Hitler. Perhaps that is because of the endless documentaries on the Nazi leader. Or is it because the education system focuses on the evils of fascism while neglecting the equivalent evils at the other extreme of the political spectrum?

From a New Zealand perspective, there is no reason for smugness about our Australian friends’ lack of history knowledge. Had a similar opinion poll been conducted among Kiwi millennials, the results would have been similar – or worse.

Many Kiwi millennials, perhaps including the Prime Minister, believe that Rogernomics had not saved but destroyed that New Zealand. A look at the actual economic record suggests otherwise.

Historical knowledge is not a nice-to-have. It is essential if we want to understand the present and shape our future.

Less is more
Martine Udahemuka | Research Fellow |
In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too much choice can hinder rather than support our decision making.

That the validity of this theory has been challenged is beside the point.

What I do know is that if I were a student right now deciding my next steps after school, I would likely feel more apprehensive than I do when I am confronted with a 100-item menu in a Chinese restaurant.

The path to university is simple to understand and is pursued by a third of school leavers in New Zealand.

But the alternative is laden with many confusing options. It is the one Education Minister Chris Hipkins urged needs to be better understood in his address to the Industry Training Federation’s Skills in a Changing World conference this week.

And it became quickly clear that even the adults in positions to influence and support young people’s decisions are as perplexed.

Tales from several speakers and attendees were telling:

‘If a young person came to me wanting an apprenticeship, I wouldn’t know where to start,’ said one employer.

A current apprentice explained that ‘When I was in school, I never really understood all these options.’

An executive from the Tertiary Education Commission agreed that ‘fragmentation of the careers guidance approach unnecessarily impedes progress.’

And Hon. Paula Bennett spoke of her daughter likely heading for trades who is ‘spoilt for choice, but the poor kid is confused about which pathway to take next.’

Bennett likened current post-school-transition initiatives as a ‘spray and walk away’ and ‘see what sticks’ approach.

But ask a typical Swiss or German student what options they have if they are not immediately heading to university and they will give you one simple, nationally-understood answer: At age 15 they will begin an apprenticeship that formally combines learning at work and learning in a dedicated vocational school.

Meanwhile in our land of plenty of options, roughly forty percent go straight into a low-skilled job or on a benefit, three percent go into an apprenticeship, and one in five at university drop out in their first year.

From the European case, less is indeed more. A student either goes into a 3-year apprenticeship at 15-years-old or stays in school for three years to prepare for university. Roughly sixty percent choose the former.

Paternalism is a lot less annoying when you get to be the paternalist
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
Paternalism is a lot less annoying when you get to be the paternalist – at home with the kids, as pater- or materfamilias.

Let’s begin by acknowledging two basic facts.

First up, most things that parents do to try to improve their kids’ long-term fortunes do not work.

Meeting a minimal basic standard of loving parenting and not dropping the kids on their heads too often – that matters. Otherwise, it’s hard to find environmental interventions that really work. It looks like the most important thing anyone can do for their kids is being careful in choosing the kids’ other parent.

So whatever dreams you might have had of paternalistically shaping your kids … they’re probably a waste of time and a recipe for mutual frustration.

But that brings us to our second basic fact. Paternalism, as usually practiced but never admitted, is not really about making the object of paternalism better off as that person sees it. It’s about making the paternalist better off.

We hear a lot more about soda taxes than we do about taxes on expensive sweet coffee drinks, and a lot more about taxes on fat in burgers than in finely marbled steaks. Paternalists are trying to shape the world to make it more enjoyable for them, and they do not enjoy seeing other people enjoying things that they do not like.

And so let’s go back to the home, and think about the paternalisms that can make your life better as parent.

When other parents complain of long car rides listening to the Wiggles, I’m puzzled why those kids even know that the Wiggles exist. Let the kids choose anything they want, among things that you and your partner enjoy! Our kids fight in the back seat about whether we’ll listen to Rush or whether we’ll listen to more Sherlock Holmes audiobooks. And you’ll get to enjoy wonderful surprises, like the kids recreating Tennyson’s great sea battle poem The Revenge, in the bath. 

We are living in an age of wonders. The world’s stock of cultural capital is available at prices so close to free as to make no odds. Is there any greater joy than sharing the things you love with your own children? Give the kids all the choices they want, among the things you love too. You’ll be happier, and that will make them happier too.

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