A study of 339 young people aged 14 to 17 who live in Sydney's west and south-west suburbs found only one-third of them called themselves Australian even though two-thirds were born here.
Instead they identified themselves by their ethnic background as Tongan, Chinese, Lebanese, and so on, and 16 of the indigenous young people identified themselves as Koori or Aboriginal.
Less than half of them also felt ''Australian'' all the time and one-fifth did not feel ''Australian'' at all.
The liberal academic responsible for the research put a positive gloss on the findings:
Jock Collins, a professor of economics at the University of Technology, Sydney, who presented findings from the study at a conference in Europe, said the unwillingness of these "cosmopolitan" youth to identify as Australian should not be seen as a problem.
"A lot of these young people have links to their parents' nations of birth and they have diverse and multiple identities," he said. "They incorporate their migrant identities with elements of 'being Australian'."
Liberals like the idea of "diverse and multiple identities" because it suggests that identity is something that we can choose for ourselves from a menu of options. It fits in with the liberal belief that the key good in life is autonomy, so that the ideal man becomes someone who is self-defining or self-creating.
However, I very much doubt if Professor Collins has it right. I doubt that in the long-term these young people will sustain diverse ethnic identities.
What's more likely is that they are in the process of being deracinated - uprooted from their original culture and ethny. They might still identify as being a Turk or a Tongan, but it will be difficult to sustain this identity over time living in the suburbs of Sydney.
What happens when an ethnic identity is lost? Identity doesn't disappear. Individuals do need a sense of personal identity. So it takes on different forms.
You can see this with the Anglo liberals who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of them are the "true believer" types for whom liberalism is something of a religion. These true believers have a hostile view of whiteness and so have rejected identifying with their own ethny. They have also largely rejected identifying positively with their sex (masculinity or femininity) and with their family roles (husband, wife, mother, father).
So what do they build their identity on? Obviously, partly on their political beliefs. They have a sense that they hold a morally superior politics which makes them good and superior people. They also put a lot of emphasis on their work identity. Some of them, from what I've observed, also fill in the gap of their "tribal" identity through loyally supporting a sports team.
For reasons I will try to explain later, these alternative identities are a step down from the traditional ones. But they are nonetheless better than the ones that the young people living in Sydney's south-western suburbs are likely to adopt.
What happens to youth identity in a liberal culture? This is the issue discussed in a paper by Sarah Riley from the University of Bath in the UK ("Identity, community and selfhood: understanding the self in relation to contemporary youth cultures" 2008).
How would we expect identity to be treated in a liberal society? For liberals, what matters is that we are autonomous; we are supposed to be self-determining, self-sovereign creatures. The good, therefore, is not in anything we choose to do or be but that we get to self-define.
So liberals won't like forms of identity that we can't choose between or that we are "destined" to have as part of our tradition or biology. They will prefer instead forms of identity that are temporary, elective, multiple and fluid.
With that in mind, consider the following excerpts from Sarah Riley's paper. Here, for instance, she describes the dominant "neo-liberal" approach to identity:
The need to story oneself with multiple narratives, whether drawn from traditional - or consumption-based identity markers, is particularly relevant...
Neo-liberalism describes the idea that people are encouraged to see themselves as if they are autonomous, rational, risk-managing subjects, responsible for their own destinies and called “to render one’s life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and autonomy"...
Neo-liberalism allows people to make sense of themselves in individualistic and psychological terms, understanding their consumption practices as freely chosen markers of their identity
Identity here is self-created and subjective. It is about "self-storying". The elements of identity being played with can be traditional ones (based on family or ethnicity) or they can be modern ones based on "consumption practices" (what we choose to buy, to wear, to own).
Sarah Riley uses the term "liquid" rather than "fluid" to describe the preferred liberal form of identity:
It is likely, however, that young people’s subjectivities are constructed through a variety of identities shaped by ‘traditional’ orientations to class, region, family and gender, and more ‘liquid’, flexible ones orienting around leisure-based activities, such as sports or shopping.
Identity, in the above excerpt, is described as a self-constructed "subjectivity". Although traditional elements of identity are still played with, the modern forms of identity, based on leisure activities such as sports or shopping, are considered more liquid and flexible and therefore superior in liberal terms.
More on the same theme:
This context has opened up the possibility for young people to engage in a playful pick-and-mix approach to identity as they move through a kaleidoscope of temporary, fluid and multiple subjectivities that often celebrate hedonism, sociality and sovereignty over one’s own existence.
Well, that's the liberal approach to identity in a nutshell. We playfully pick-and-mix our identity, and move through "temporary, fluid and multiple subjectivities".
And what about group identity? In her paper, Sarah Riley takes into account a theory of modern group identity called neo-tribalism:
Maffesoli’s theory of neo-tribalism ... characterises daily life as a continuous movement through a range of small and potentially temporary groups that are distinguished by shared lifestyles, values and understandings of what is appropriate behaviour. These groups give a sense of belonging and identity, examples of which include gathering to watch football in a bar, participants on service user websites or regular commuters sharing public transport.
What distinguishes neo-tribal social formation from traditional social groupings is that people belong to a variety of groups, many of them by choice, so that neo-tribal memberships are plural, temporary, fluid and often elective
This too is a liberal approach to identity. Group identity is held to exist, but only in autonomous, self-defining forms, i.e. in forms which are plural, temporary, fluid and elective.
What is the point of this kind of group identity? It is to express "self-sovereignty:
when groups create opportunities to practice sovereignty over their existence they are creating spaces in which to engage in values that orient around sociality, emotionality and hedonism. In relating neo-tribalism to young people, it may be useful to recognise the similarities between Maffesoli’s concept of sovereignty and Hakim Bey’s ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ (TAZ), a term he uses to describe transitory unsanctioned self-governing sites
Note the language used to describe these group identities: they are based on "transitory" affiliations, which once again emphasises the idea of identity being temporary.
Which brings us to the key question. What is wrong with these modern, liberal forms of identity? One part of the answer is that they are merely subjective:
Thus, the proliferation and globalisation of near instant forms of technological communication make available a dynamically-shifting range of stories and forms of knowledge that can inform young people’s identity management. Subjectivity, then, is not considered to be constructed from pre-formed essences which exist independently outside of time, talk or other social activity, but are constantly (re)produced in interaction, constructed from the range of subject positions available to the individual...
Our identity is held to be subjective, self-constructed and "managed". It is not thought to be based on "pre-formed essences which exist independently" of our own self.
But if identity is not related to anything that has an independent, objective value, if it has value only because we choose it, then it isn't very significant.
I'll put this another way. For liberals, the forms of identity are not very important or meaningful in themselves. What matters is the feeling of "self-sovereignty" that we get in the moment that we exercise our choice to self-define. Liberals focus on the individual saying "I exercised my choice to opt for this" rather than "this category of being has a meaningful essence I share in or participate in or embody".
The results can be shallow. Identity can be reduced to consumer, lifestyle or leisure choices. Traditional identity, in comparison, dealt more with the "transcendent," by which I mean sources of meaning existing independently of our own individual will, but to which we could feel connected.
There's another problem. Identity based on subjective, transitory connections is likely to be disintegrative. Sarah Riley herself puts this even more strongly than I would:
It may be that young people will experience fractured and multiple subjectivity in the same way that they are encouraged to consider high street clothing – as tools of identity to be temporarily appropriated, experienced and then cast off in favour of some new look or experience. Future subjectivity may therefore be conceptualised as a collection of multiple, diffuse selves existing across time and space, that have differing degrees of relationships with each other and perhaps no longer needing to be held together by the concept of a ‘core self’.
It is likely, therefore, that in the future young people will need to find ways to exist in the plural.
I'm not sure it will get to that stage, but I do think it's true that an identity that aims to be shifting, temporary and liquid will become increasingly fractured.