Rebecca Huntley Columnist

Rebecca is a director of The Mind & Mood Report, an author and social commentator with a background in publishing, academia and politics. She holds degrees in law and film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies.

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Young Australians just want to be themselves

Published 11 January 2013 11:43, Updated 14 January 2013 06:38

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Young Australians just want to be themselves

Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong Beatrice de Gea

Who do 20-somethings look up to? Who are their role models?

These are common questions for marketers and brands interested in appealing to this cohort (most of whom aren’t yet tied up with mortgages and kids but who have some cash to spend that hasn’t just been siphoned from their parents).

According to our latest research on 21-year-olds, the role models of young Australians aren’t musicians or reality TV stars or sports people.

In fact they tend to reject the relevancy of the role-model concept altogether, as this exchange between two 21-year-old women illustrates:

Woman 1: “I think the term ‘role model’ is so over-rated. You need people to look up to but you should never model yourself on only one person.”

Woman 2: “Like sportspeople, I admire their drive and I wish I could be like that, to have that focus, but they’re not a role model.”

If pushed to talk about someone they do admire or who inspires them to be a better person, they look away from the TV screen and across the couch at someone they know, warts and all – a friend, a sibling, a parent or grandparent. Typically, mum provides the example for the young woman, dad the example for the young man.

Comments such as:

“I really look up to my parents because they’ve done lots of hard things like move around the place. I look up to my dad a lot because he enjoys his job and he just kind of works because he has to and he’s not all that ambitious. He goes around doing what he wants. Which is quite cool, I want to do that.”

and

“Probably my mum because she’s such a generous person and just the way she lives her life. She is always helping other people but in the same time she is successful as well. She is someone I can always talk to and I relate to her well I guess.”

More than just admiring the unsung achievements of mum and dad, 21-year-olds are looking less for an all-round role model in one person that a suite of desirable traits and talents in a selection of people they know personally or through the media. One young woman expressed it to me this in these terms: “It’s weird that you want to be like another person. Just be who you are and pick bits from others. What’s your favourite thing about your best friend?”

What’s wrong with the role-model concept? It seem old fashioned, something teachers pushed you to think about at primary school. But it also seems unrealistic in a world in of intense media scrutiny. Those too-good-to-be-true figures like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods? Turns out they were. As one young man who was critical of the role model concept put it: “You just know everything about everyone. So everyone’s fallible and you can just see that everyone’s flawed.”

Don’t take this to mean that the well-pitched celebrity endorsement doesn’t still work with this generation. It’s just it has its limitations (significant ones as celebrity culture becomes all the more pervasive, bizarre and ripe for parody).

The 21-year-olds we encounter in our research are a group that looks up to the people they know rather than people they observe from afar through the paparazzo’s lens. And they are more interested in being the best version of themselves rather than a pale imitation of a celebrity.

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