Natural Allies: What a tragedy it would be if, at the precise moment that the inevitable real-world effects of neoliberalism – poverty, indebtedness, homelessness, precarious and/or under-employment – are manifesting themselves in ways that can no longer be hidden or explained away, the urgently needed political programme uniting old and young was forestalled by a cynical ideological project aimed at setting the Baby Boomers and Generation Rent at each other’s’ throats.
A WAR BETWEEN THE GENERATIONS looms, unless we move swiftly and decisively to avert it. Those born after 1966 will be pitted against those born in the first two-thirds of the Twentieth Century – most particularly, that massive demographic bulge born in the 20 years immediately following World War II: the Baby Boomers.
The narrative justifying this war is already in play. Among younger New Zealanders it takes the form of a bitter litany:
The Baby Boomers, who had everything given to them, are making us pay.
The Baby Boomers, who enjoyed state support into tertiary education, employment and housing, have pulled up the ladder after them – forcing us into lifelong debt.
The Baby Boomers, who are now in or approaching their 60s, are not only keeping us out of their well-paid jobs, by continuing to work, but also demanding that our taxes be used to fund their superannuation.
The Baby Boomers, who are selfish, greedy hypocrites, should be made to pay for the many injustices they have visited upon their children and grandchildren.
There’s more than a little truth in these accusations. Certainly the Baby Boomers constituted a significant proportion of the electorate during a period of extraordinary economic, social and political change.
But, hold on a moment, couldn’t a series of very similar arguments be constructed by pitting other social groups against one another? Maori against Pakeha, for example? Or Women against Men? And wouldn’t most of us pause before marching-off down those particular roads? After all, people do not choose to be born Male or Female, Black or White – any more that they chose to be born between 1946 and 1966. The other reason to pause, of course, is the very long list of evil consequences that flow from stereotyping whole classes of people. How would those who see nothing wrong in branding all Baby Boomers “selfish” and “greedy” respond to someone branding all Maori “violent” and “lazy”? Or, all women “weak” and “foolish”?
There are more than a million Baby Boomers in New Zealand – roughly one quarter of the country’s population. That’s a helluva lot of people! Can every one of them be “selfish”? Are they all “greedy”?
Let’s take a look at housing – a subject guaranteed to enrage the members of so-called “Generation Rent”. To hear them tell the tale, every Baby Boomer is the smug owner of multiple properties, as well as the grasping landlord of every young New Zealander condemned to a lifetime of living in other people’s houses. A truly depressing picture – but is it accurate?
Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement for landlords to register with a government agency. According to the Minister for Building and Housing, however, there were (as of 5 May 2015) 129,450 landlords who had registered one or more bond(s) with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Which strongly suggests that only about 1 in 10 Baby Boomers are landlords. (And that’s after assuming, almost certainly incorrectly, that every landlord is also a Baby Boomer!)
What percentage of all those generations who came before the Baby Boomers were landlords? We might well ask. Was it lower, higher, or about the same? Whatever the correct answer, the above figures demonstrate the rank unfairness of stereotyping people purely on the basis of when they were born.
Young New Zealanders need to be very wary of the growing number of individuals and groups who are inviting them to buy into a simplistic and extremely dangerous conspiracy theory. Because the Baby Boomers are no more conspiring to ruin the lives of young Kiwis (who are, after all, their children and grandchildren!) than the Jews were conspiring to ruin the people of Germany. Rather than make war upon their own parents and grandparents, “Generation Rent” should ask themselves the critical question: cui bono? Who benefits from transforming a whole generation of New Zealanders into scapegoats?
As the co-authors of Generation Rent, Shamubeel and Selena Eaqub, make clear, the rise of what they call “housing apartheid” is directly traceable to the late 1980s and early 1990s. The same, roughly 30-year period during which the neoliberal reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson have, so dramatically, re-shaped New Zealand society.
What a tragedy it would be if, at the precise moment that the inevitable real-world effects of neoliberalism – poverty, indebtedness, homelessness, precarious and/or under-employment – are manifesting themselves in ways that can no longer be hidden or explained away, the urgently needed political programme uniting old and young was forestalled by a cynical ideological project aimed at setting the Baby Boomers and Generation Rent at each other’s’ throats.
Those who would punish the Baby Boomers for Neoliberalism’s crimes against the Welfare State should first be satisfied that the vicious political marginalisation of their parents’ generation, is not followed by the economic destruction of their own.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 June 2015.