THE DAILY BLOG’s Editor, Martyn (Bomber) Bradbury, is characterising the decisive 2020 election result as the Twilight of Boomer Power. Martyn, and all those who share his view, had better hope not. Baby Boomer votes played a critical role in Labour’s historic victory. Moreover, as New Zealand’s most electorally diligent demographic, they are likely to play an equally critical role in the next. Under these circumstances, dancing on the grave of Boomer power strikes me as a sub-optimal strategy for holding together Jacinda’s winning coalition.
For clarity of analysis, it is important to remind readers that the age-range encompassed by the term Boomer stretches from those born in the year following the end of World War II, 1946, to those born at the very end of the post-war surge in fecundity in the mid-1960s. In other words, a Baby Boomer can be anybody between the ages of 55 and 75. Or, to put it another way: the first Boomers came into this world to the crooning of Frank Sinatra; the last to the pop poetry of The Beatles.
We are a singular generation. Those who pay attention to the ads on television will have noticed a strange shift in the marketing strategy of the corporations promoting retirement villages. Where once the ad-men conjured up visions of silver-haired ladies and gentlemen settling into their final years amid fine china and roses, they are now making their pitch to what look like slightly wrinkled versions of sixties-era hippies and rockers. The soundtrack, once Mantovani and his Orchestra, is now The Who and The Rolling Stones. Clearly, the psychographics are telling the advertising gurus that the Boomers are preparing to grow old as they grew up – disgracefully.
There’s a political side to all of this that it would be most unwise for younger generations of voters to ignore. It is, perhaps, best illustrated by a meme sent to me recently by a friend. It depicts a young woman from the Swinging Sixties standing in front of a Mini Minor motor car. The text reads:
Your Grandma wore: Mini Skirts, Hot Pants, Go-Go Boots, Bell-Bottoms, and no Bra.
Listened to: Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Stones.
Drove: Mini Cars.
Rode on: Fast motor bikes and scooters.
Smoked: Slim cigarettes.
Designed: Fashion you are still wearing today.
Drank: G and Ts and shots, came home at four am, and still went to work.
You will never be as cool as your Grandma.
Boomer hubris? Of course! But it does make the point that the generation raised in the years of plenty turned out to be very different from the generation raised during the years of global economic depression and worldwide war. All that generation wanted to do when the shooting stopped was find a job, get married, buy a house, and start a family. (Although, not always in that order!) Their children, however, took all of their parents’ hard won opportunities and affluence for granted, and went off in search of something more. Not all of them gave up when the rules of the game changed abruptly in the 1980s. And even the ones who did can still remember what it’s like to reach for something beyond your grasp. Some of us are reaching still.
Could that “reaching” have played a part in Labour’s astonishing victory? I think it did. I think Jacinda reminded many Boomers of their younger selves. I think they contrasted her courageous handling of the Covid-19 Crisis with their own cowardly failure to meet the moral challenge of Neoliberalism. Where they had simply taken the corporate money and run, Jacinda faced down the “economy first” brigade with, of all things, kindness.
There was a transcendence in that brave display: a moment of – dare I say it? – transformation. It reminded many of them of things they had forgotten. Like the sheer size of the anti-Vietnam War mobilisation of 1971. Like the political electricity crackling across the first United Women’s Convention in 1973. Like the lonely thrill of seeing the Riot Squad advance with batons drawn in the anti-Apartheid protests of 1981. Like the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986, and the Nuclear-Free New Zealand legislation of 1987.
Some may even remember the evening of Saturday, 25 November 1972, when New Zealanders, after 12 long years, shrugged off the blues and turned their country red. I certainly remember it. Sitting in my parent’s kitchen, watching the portable TV set, drawing a red star by every electorate that fell to Labour, and a blue swastika alongside every National win. And how, by the end of the night, the Special Election Lift-Out section of the Evening Post, sellotaped to the kitchen wall, had become a veritable galaxy of red stars. Thinking to myself: this is new; this is something I haven’t seen before. I was sixteen.
Nobody will convince me that in kitchens all over New Zealand, last Saturday night, there weren’t thousands of 16-year-olds looking at their devices and feeling that same shiver-up-the-spine as their country, very deliberately, turned a page. That they’re out there fills me with hope. But, I would be lying if I didn’t admit also to feelings of dread.
A recent study by the University of Cambridge indicates that: “Young people are less satisfied with democracy and more disillusioned than at any other time in the past century.” The reason? That’s easy. Their disillusionment has grown out of their steadily deteriorating socio-economic situation vis-à-vis the two generations that came before them. It’s the Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, who feel most aggrieved. And why wouldn’t they? When the Baby Boomers were their age, in the US, they held 21 percent of the nation’s wealth. Today, Americans aged 25-40 hold just 3 percent! For those disposed to light a match there is fuel aplenty here to set democracy ablaze.
That would be a tragedy, because the sort of people who set democracies ablaze do not offer hope – only hate.
Our democratic vote can be put to multiple uses. In dangerous times, it can be used as a shield. In times like these, of opportunity, it can also be used as a tool – to build a better future. But our votes can also be used as weapons: to punish and to harm political “enemies” of all kinds. But, when they are used in this way, history shows that the weaponisers suffer every bit as much harm as their intended victims. Political vengeance is a poor substitute for progressive policy. Giving up on democracy means giving up all hope of a better future.
Martyn Bradbury is right about the Boomers: twilight does beckon them, as their long reign approaches its end. But before they go into “that good night” (which awaits us all!) I, as someone born right in the middle of the Baby Boom generation, would implore the younger generations to give my fellow Boomers one more chance to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light”. One last opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of the poet, Robert Browning, who declared: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
In the name of generations yet unborn, I invite you to reach out your hands to those who, for a few, brief, shining moments, allowed themselves to believe that there is “something more”.
Because, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four: don’t we all, as New Zealanders, deserve the chance to say:
“This is new. This is something we haven’t seen before.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 October 2020.