Friday, 22 June 2012

Baby Boomers Beware

Disputed Destination: New Zealand's world-beating, state-provided universal superannuation scheme offers unprincipled politicians and rapacious financial institutions a tempting target. The Baby Boom Generation (1946-1965) is fast becoming the preferred scapegoat of these "reformers".

THERE’S NOTHING NEW about Welfare Reform, it’s as old as the ideas advanced in its justification. Managing the poor and vulnerable is just one of those perennial problems with which governments of every stripe have to contend.

Mostly, politicians restrict themselves to tinkering, but every so often a government comes along which engages in the sort of ruthless, root-and-branch reform that leaves deep scars upon the body politic. Fortunately, the bitter historical memories handed down by its victims serve as a prophylactic against similar “reforms” for generations. But, eventually, popular memory fades, and when it does the threat of root-and-branch reform returns. And tragedy follows it.

New Zealand may soon be facing just such a threat and, curiously, it’s as likely to come from the Left as the Right. If that sounds improbable, then perhaps we should all remind ourselves that it was the supposedly left-leaning Labour Party which unleashed the “New Right” economic reforms of the late-1980s. And that it was no less a “liberal” than Bill Clinton who campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it” and who, in 1996, affixed his Presidential signature to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

President Bill Clinton signs the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, putting an end to "welfare as we have come to know it", August 22 1996.

But why would Labour do such a thing? How could attacking the poor and vulnerable possibly assist its reclamation of the Treasury benches?

Part of the answer lies in the “communitarian” beliefs evinced by followers of Labour’s “Third Way”. It’s a philosophy which asserts that too much emphasis has been placed on “rights” and not enough on “responsibilities” in the formulation of public policy. Society, they say, has a duty to see that one group of citizens’ rights are not upheld at their neighbours’ expense.

The implications of communitarianism for solo mums, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled are readily imagined. Indeed, they’d do well to remember that David Parker, Labour’s finance spokesperson, is a strong believer in communitarian principles.

The other reason Labour might opt for root-and-branch welfare reform involves the same reasoning that went into the National Party’s own root-and-branch solutions to the “problem” of “welfare dependency”: poor people don’t vote. Eight hundred thousand New Zealanders failed to cast a vote in the last election. Most of them were young, many of them were poor, and practically all of them didn’t give a stuff about politics.

Motivating such voters requires immense effort, and National has opted instead to appease its more conservative supporters by transforming the young and the poor (Maori and Pasifika especially) into handy targets.

Labour’s challenge is to find some way of mobilising the young without at the same time making itself a political hostage to the needs of the poor. One of the easier ways to do this might be to provide younger voters with a hate figure: a stereotype capable of igniting both their indignation and their fear. Fortunately for Labour, such a stereotype already exists: the Selfish Baby Boomer.

By encouraging Generations X and Y to blame the Baby Boomers for everything from the price of real estate to the rising cost of tertiary education, and enlisting their support for a “root-and-branch” reform of New Zealand’s “irresponsibly generous and fiscally unsustainable” system of universal superannuation, Labour could off-set its declining levels of support among older voters. By attributing New Zealand’s indebtedness to the “intergenerational theft” of Baby Boomers, this stripped-down, communitarian Labour Party could, at least in younger voters’ minds, transform “austerity” from a political swear-word into a righteous electoral virtue. In combination with the Greens’ bracing mantra of ecological restraint, they could be on to a winner.

In 1834 the newly enfranchised English middle-class shrugged-off its responsibilities to the poor and vulnerable by passing a new Poor Law. Its hated symbol, the workhouse, was immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. The new Poor Law’s sponsor was not some Tory reactionary, but the liberal Whig, Lord Melbourne.

The Workhouse: The New Poor Law of 1834 brought these dreaded institutions into existence. They were explicitly required to offer conditions harsh enough to dissuade all but the most desperate (overwhelmingly, as the above photograph reveals, the elderly) from seeking sustenance within their walls. The legislation was the work not of Tory reactionaries, but of liberal Whigs.

Baby Boomers, be on your guard.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 June 2012.


Robert Winter said...

A couple of points.

Whilst you are right about certain brands of Third Way thinking, the balance between rights and responsibilities - how we manage the social contract - is an important, perennial and thorny discussion, at the heart of every welfare state. We do need an informed discussion on this (which is why, for example,I look at the basic income model with interest. It is why, for example, I find myself drawn inexorably into the complex arguments about superannuation (a process in which I find my own position pro-extension of retirement age softening).

Second, I think that your "mobilisng the young by creating a hate figure" argument must be backed up with evidence. I don't think that it is the equivalent of National's welfare dependency narrative. I can't speak for everyone in the Labour Party, of course, but there has been no such debate in my circles, and it would be rejected out of hand by most of my mates.

Moreover, I see little evidence of a malign, covert campaign in this direction from the top of the party. The "rights and responsibilities" argument does not lead inevitably to the currying "hate" approach.

Brendan said...


I'm uncertain from the tone of your article if you are saying that Labour "should" or "could" turn baby boomers in to hate figures in order to motivate the young, the poor, the uneducated to vote?

Either way, even postulating that course of action carries with it a level of irresponsibility I did not anticipate from you.

You are a student of history. Were these not the tactics of Hitlers Nazi Germany?

Setting up one section of society to hate another for personal political gain surely is abhorrent to you?

Even if you were simply being provocative for its own sake, it was in poor taste.

Chris Trotter said...

Alas, Robert, these are not the sort of strategic discussions that tend to take place among Labour members and/or supporters. They only occur within that narrow layer of the political class that develops strategic options for party leaders based on the way someone raised an eyebrow in a focus group, or the results of exhaustive polling of key demographics, following close study of the "psychographic profiles" of abstaining and/or swinging voters in the last three elections.

They have little or nothing to do with political principle or economic realities, but everything to do with winning.

Oh, and to you, Brendan, I can only say this. After months of subtle (and not-so-subtle) attacks upon trade unionists, beneficiaries, and other vulnerable groups in our society, it ill-behoves you to run this 'Now, now, Chris, you mustn't stir up social hatreds' argument in the context of an examination of the future of universal superannuation.

Anonymous said...

Denial is not just a river in Egypt, Chris.

First, communitarianism per se does not necessarily imply any dire consequences for beneficiaries. It's not hard to see how communitarian principles could be used to argue for an expanded welfare state on the grounds of everyone having to take responsibility to ensure a well functioning community. If anything, communitarianism is a welcome break from the sense of entitlement generated by rights based liberalism – where the problematic sense of entitlement is that of the better off strata of society.

If you are going to make your case defending the boomers, then there are a few questions you need to answer.

First, I assume that you are well aware of the fact that the welfare state characteristically redistributes income from those aged between 30-60 to the elderly and the young. That’s a crude way of putting it, but it is more or less true.

What you have to do is explain why the electoral popularity of neoliberalism coincides exactly with the moment the boomers entered middle age and started paying more in than they were taking out (note that Proposition 13 was passed in 1978). Yes, we all know that the 70s was a period of economic problems and that the cause was energy, Nixon abandoning Bretton Woods, etc. It’s not sufficient to blame that for the enduring popularity of neoliberalism (after all, there were alternatives). After all, even if the radical right turn of the neoliberals was a shock to many, a greater shock was our seeming inability to get rid of them. There is no conspiracy theory here – the reason they stayed in one form or another is that enough people voted for them, and those people were largely boomers (you’re the big voting bloc – nothing happens unless enough of you vote for it). Like many Xers I thought that the neoliberal mania would end through unpopularity. We didn’t realise (sometimes until late on) that the boomers’ votes were what was keeping it going (see the UK election 1992; the US election 1984; NZ in the 90s). This is the only explanation that makes any sense. The usual ones offered by leftist boomers are nothing more than conspiracy theories.

Chris Hayes’ has a good book that just came out that explains exactly what happened. After WWII there was a period in which social mobility underwent a massive increase due to the increase of the welfare state. Those who “won” in the reshuffle more or less pulled the ladder up behind them.

Even then, there weren’t enough of them to have it all their own way. They had to get a sufficient number of the other boomers to go along with it. The way they did this was to pass on the costs of the reforms to the young. To argue as some do that this obscures the fundamental issue of class is puerile. Classes don’t have to be static over time – all they are really is a group of people who have a common economic cause. If the old get together and use their population advantage to screw the young, then that is a form of class politics.

My mother was born in 1946, which puts me in one of the early cohorts of boomers’ kids. By some miracle as just before I arrived at university, allowances were scrapped and loans introduced. Similarly, the dates of the proposed pension reforms appear to cut off the old system of entitlements just before I hit 65. My friends left school only to discover that apprenticeships had all but vanished (this was the early 90s). They are all worse off than their parents, who all enjoyed the full backing of the state to support them raising their families and buying their own homes. To imagine that this is all just some big coincidence is fanciful.

Do you think that we can’t see what has been done? I’m surprised that you can’t see it yourself.

Brendan said...


There is a world of difference between contesting the behavior and practices of Unionists and their supporters, decrying the anti-civilizational promotion of fatherlessness by the State, and proposing a campaign of hate against a section of society for selfish political ends.

I readily admit to the former, and totally reject the latter.

Olwyn said...

@ Robert & Chris:

"The "rights and responsibilities" argument does not lead inevitably to the currying "hate" approach." True, but...

I do not know whether or not your guess is right Chris, but so long as any vaguely leftish noises coming from the "top of the party" retain the tone of pick-up lines rather than firm commitments, you are very much justified in making such guesses.

Speculation of this kind has been rife since Shearer took the helm, and rather than addressing the attendant qualms by ruling such moves out, they instead caution Cunliffe for sounding too "left" and point to what grand financial managers they will make. So long as this modus operandi continues, one has every reason to be suspicious I'm afraid.

Robert Winter said...

Let Labour's organisational review open up the party's arteries snd free them from the arterial plaque of politics........

Patricia said...

My grandmother who was English died in 1960. She had dementia but I do remember her crying "don't put me in the work house"
Perhaps it is time we reintroduced the one and sixpence in the pound that all New Zealanders used to pay to provide for their health costs, benefits and superannuation

Anonymous said...

The argument that boomers voted consistently for neo liberalism is simply not true.

In fact once they realised the enormity of what Lange and Douglas were doing they voted for a government that said it would bring in a 'Decent Society" - the Bolger government that intensified the neo liberal programme instead.

Following that betrayal many voters turned to the Alliance and Labour only to find Helen Clark was not going to move significantly away from neo liberalism and Jim Anderton wasn't what they thought he was.

And so it goes. The boomers are the generation that brought us treaty settlements, gay rights, increased womens rights, MMP and many other freedoms that are now taken for granted.

Unfortunately no matter what they did they could not get rid of neo liberalism because every political party they tried embraced it.

peterpeasant said...

sururaThe last "root and branch" reform was done by the Lange government at the behest of Douglas and Prebble.

It is precisely that desperate LP attempt to grab and retain power that has landed us where we are at now.

Richardson and Shipley loved it. They knew how to stick to to the poor.

Key and his mates are merely continuing the tradition resurrected by the LP in 1984 of sticking it to the poor.

It goes without saying that the poor are that way because they are undeserving.

It is only the very very wealthy that deserve tax breaks that everyone else pays for.

Douglas and Pebble must be smirking as much as Key.

peterquixote said...

Sometimes I think Chris is getting wiser,but not always, he can revert
any time any place, he sees the failures of socialism, but he still believes

peterquixote said...

Sometimes I think Chris is getting wise, but not always, he can revert any time any place, he can see the truth sometimes as in this article

Scouser said...

I must admit to some surprise at the venom expressed by some against the "Selfish Baby Boomers". The numbers don't really add up though.

The leading edge of the Baby Boomers are just about to retire and the rest have approximately 15 years of working life in them. They're paying (and paid), along with the 25 to 50 years olds, for the superannuation (and rest of the welfare state) others receive.

As an earlier poster pointed out expenditure vs revenue by age shows net contributions for the 25-60 ish age band. This has been the case for quite a long time. A quick google shows this is true back in 97 for instance.

We also spend (and have spent) more on the young per capita than the aged. The issue is the proportion of the population that will be aged.

Under the PARENTS of the Baby Boomers we saw the welfare state grow significantly. Not enough of the boomers were old enough to vote even for much of this period never mind having sufficient influence.

However, once the boomers did have influence we haven't seen the welfare state significantly alter in size. It does wax and wane a bit based on which flavour of government one has but nothing as significant as the 1945-1970 era.

One point of contention for the younger is tertiary education/fees/loans etc. I understand that we actually spend more on this now than before. Back in the 60s and 70s tertiary education was better subsidised per capita but provided to a smaller proportion of the youth.

As on average relative wealth increases with age I suspect some of this is confused with the traditional "welfare bludgers vs capitalist fat cats" arguments. Thus enabling it to be framed in terms of a wealthy vs poor conflict.

Than said...

Chris, for the purpose of full disclosure could I inquire what generation you classify yourself as?

Chris Trotter said...

Certainly, Than. I am a baby-boomer: born in the very heart of my generation - the mid-1950s.

When Roger Douglas launched the neoliberal project in NZ I was in my late 20s. I've devoted the rest of my life to preserving the best of the NZ welfare state I grew up in for those coming along behind me.

To hear myself, and people like me, branded "selfish" enrages me. It makes about as much sense as describing everyone born between 1925 and 1945 as the "totalitarian generation" because some of them backed Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.

Perhaps Generations X and Y need to be reminded that the infliction of collective punishment is classified as a war crime under international law.

By all means blame me and everyone else born between 1946 and 1965 for the sins of commission and/or omission we have personally committed, but please, don't condemn us all for something over which we had absolutely no control - the year of our birth!

Monique Watson said...

What on earth would be the good of us blaming the baby boomer generation. This doesn't translate into power.
As you deftly pointed out, generations X and Y are too disenfranchised and alienated to care. We suffer Prince Charles Syndrome. Forever in the wings waiting but never to rule.
With regards to resentment of a preceding generation: The degree of that sentiment hit it's height when we came of age to vote. We were enalized for being plentiful in numbers as baby boomer's children through the 90's.

Robert M said...

Particularly in the NZ context, I assess that the babyboomers fall into two distinct groups, that have little in common with each other or in the use of the state for jobs and support, those born 1946-1954 fall into a quite differernt life experience to those born between 1956 and 1964.
Thos born up to 1954, 55 grew up in a tight conservative community, isolated from the world, but in which most were guaranteed fairly highly paying jobs on the wharves, freezing works, clerks etc. There were a few exceptions those in factory jobs provided by import license protection, probably were concentrated in low wage poor white suburbs of parts of the Hutt and Auckland.
In 1967 Muldoon opened NZ's economy up to the world and world bank and censorship and licensing laws were relaxed and became fairly obvious that a liberalising society would soon abolish borstal, caining and the CMT. These changes were not immediately obvious to all, but by the time I started secondary school in Sth Canterbury in 1970 social and even sexual control was minimal compared with the very repressive society that existed in mid 1960s, NZ. The violent fiasco of the Vietnam war was the main coverage every night on the news and a massivley anti war , anti rugby attitude was already apparent in most of the academic forms at TBHS. Culture there was already set by the Beatles, Hendrix and the Hells Angels be late 1970. The other point is that once Muldoon came to power the growth of graduate jobs in the public service rapidly was closed off by the sinking lid policy and by 1979-80 most of the talented graduates were already looking offshore for their employment. In my view those born before 1955 always had the lock on the good positions in NZ,and few born after that had much chance in this country.

The point about the welfare state is the real drain on the economy isn't actually welfare, its the cost of obsolete hospital based health systems and the huge army of social workers regarded as necessary to repress and police the poor, to keep the poor low grade workers satisfied there getting there revenge.
At the time of 2000 US elections I often discussed this in correpondence with my aunt, a former Chief nurse and embassy wife, who latest husband was a professor at Chapel Hill, then represented in the Senate by the notorious reactionary, Jesse Helms. The point was the debate in that election was largely about the subsidising of pharmacuticals to the public and on health and defence, W43 was really elected to a platform well to the left of Gore. Personally I believe most of the beneficiaries and patients can better make their own choice about what sort of services, life and pharmacuticals they want than nurses, social workers or Pharmac.
In some cases subsidies will be required, but generics are cheap and life and sex an even alcohol are usually a better cure.

Victor said...

Robert M

Coming from a slightly different perspective, I too dislike the eliding of differences between the immediate post-war quartile and those born in the 1950s.

Having first seen the light of day nine months after VJ Night, I don't see many differences of perception or attitudes between myself and my War Baby big sister, apart from her preferring Cliff (ugh!)to the Beatles. We both recall a childhood of rationing and shortages and a sudden general improvement in just about every facet of life around the time when she was a teenager and I a snotty nine year old. In contrast, even now, I'm occasionally conscious of a gap between myself and those just a few years younger than me.

I'm originally from the UK, so you might think this is irrelevant to a discussion of New Zealand. But my conversations with Kiwi-raised friends and in-laws point in similar directions. Indeed, the intra-baby boomer differences are, if anything, rather greater here.

It's part of a global phenomenon and, in my limited experience, most marked in Germany, where my contemporaries grew up surrounded by the rubble of war and their kid brothers and sisters midst an economic miracle.

I think the moral of all this is that we can divide, sub-divide and further sub-divide the human experience ad infinitum. But, ultimately, these distinctions count for very little when placed in the context of our common humanity and our shared need for a decent, caring society, that (one way or another) can provide for both young and old.

The differences between various age groups that seem to loom so large today will seem trifling by the 2030s, just as, to that magnificent Depression/World War Two generation, everyone who came after must stil seem uniformedly fortunate.