Monday 26 July 2010

Generation Games

Divide and Conquer: Who benefits from setting Generations X & Y and the Baby-Boomers at each other's throats?

WHEN DID IT BEGIN – this war between the Baby-Boomers and Generations X & Y? When did it become something more than the normal bickering between those who wish they still were, and those who (infuriatingly) still are – young? And how did I become so sensitised to these anti-Baby-Boomer attitudes that I’m now posting on the subject?

The proximate cause – as the forensic scientists would say – was a story by Tim Watkin on the Pundit blogsite. According to Tim, the Baby-Boomers were "locusts" –poised like a pestilence to devour what little remains of New Zealand’s patrimony:

"The baby-boomers start retiring now", wailed Tim, "which means the first locusts are already landing on our crops, and behind them comes the swarm ready to devour our welfare budget. Yet our politicians are sitting there like the monkeys with their hands over their eyes, ears and mouth."

For the first time in a long time I experienced that awful feeling of being condemned not for anything I had done, but because of my membership in a particular group. Like every other New Zealander born between the years 1946 and 1966, I did not choose my birth date – and yet, there I was, squarely in Tim’s gunsights.

I cannot say my mood was improved upon reading, a little further down, that: "[The Baby-Boomers] have given themselves generous and repeated tax cuts, meaning fewer services and assets for the generation coming behind. I used the locust metaphor because the baby-boomers (not all, of course, and in a broad, generational sense) have simply gorged themselves without thinking about what they leave behind."

Tim’s rather mealy-mouthed qualification notwithstanding, this accusation really flicked my angry switch. So this was how the younger generations saw us? As selfish insects who "gorged themselves" without the slightest thought for future generations?

I recalled the Baby-Boomers who had raised the banner of ecological sustainability; the Baby-Boomers who had fought tooth-and-nail against the onslaught of Rogernomics; men and women with no other thoughts in their minds except to preserve the planet and keep safe the ideals of fairness and social justice for future generations.

I thought about the vast cultural and political transformations wrought by young middle-class students of the 1960s and 70s: in civil rights, women’s rights, Maori rights, gay rights. I remembered the struggles waged against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with South Africa, and for a woman’s right to choose. Two decades of unceasing agitation against the cultural and political institutions of the rigid post-war consensus: militant anti-communism; fast-frozen gender- and race-relations; a stultifying cultural conservatism – all made palatable by an ever-rising standard of living and expanding material wealth.

And, finally, I thought of the tens of thousands of young New Zealand workers who’d unleashed the most protracted period of strike action in New Zealand history. Because, yes, it was the working-class Baby-Boomers who made the 1970s and 80s rock-n-roll with militant union power: working on the chain at the freezing works, driving trucks, building dams, manning the production-lines in the big import-substitution factories of Auckland, Porirua and the Hutt Valley.

Not that I imagine young Tim ever gave much thought to where all those fifteen-year-olds ruthlessly drafted-out of secondary education by the School Certificate examination eventually ended up.

Just as it never occurred to Tim that the tax-cuts he so casually attributes to the greed of the Baby-Boomers couldn’t possibly have been their doing. It was, after all, Rob Muldoon who began cutting income taxes back in the early 1980s. Roger Douglas and Bill Birch (neither of whom are Baby-Boomers) kept on cutting – but not for the sake of young New Zealanders in their 20s and 30s.

The reduction in the top rate of income tax was for the benefit of those in the top income brackets, and in the normal course of events such people tend to be older rather than younger. The men and women (they were mostly men) entering their prime earning years in the 1980s and 90s weren’t Baby-Boomers, they were of Roger Douglas’s and Bill Birch’s generation – New Zealanders born in the 1930s and 40s – not the 1950s and 60s.

A moment’s more thought would have reminded Tim that the real "Baby-Boomer Government" led by Labour’s Helen Clark (b. 1950) – didn’t cut taxes, it raised them.

And it’s about here, of course, that we come to the ultimate cause of this nasty little war between the Baby-Boomers and Generations X & Y - historical amnesia.

Having the generations who were its primary victims at each others’ throats is exactly what the neoliberal architects of Rogernomics require. Those responsible for the changes which transformed New Zealand society from one of the most equal (in terms of income share) to one of the most unequal in the OECD have no interest whatsoever in New Zealanders accurately recalling "whodunnit".

And, of course, Generations X & Y either weren’t old enough to appreciate what was going on between 1984-93 – or had yet to be born. All they know about what happened in the 1980s and 90s is what other people tell them. And that’s the trick, you see. To make them believe that the reason they have to pay student fees; the reason they can’t afford a house; the reason they have to keep putting off getting married and starting a family: it’s all down to those greedy bloody Baby-Boomers!

And we Boomers: affronted and hurt by the false accusations of Generations X and Y; and not a little confused ourselves about how everything turned so comprehensively to shit over the past quarter-century; we get all angry and defensive.

"Who do these little bastards think they are?" we say. "We haven’t noticed them marching down the street for peace, justice and equality – like we did. We haven’t seen them taking part in strike action. Shut up in their rooms: with their PCs and iPods and cell-phones; downloading, texting, face-booking and tweeting their lives away; who the fuck are they to point their fingers at us!"

Divide et Impera. Divide and Conquer. It almost never fails.

While the victims of the neoliberal counter-revolution scratch and tear at each other for a share of the social-services cake which, with every passing budget, emerges from the oven just a little bit smaller than the year before, the men and women who bake it refill their glasses and offer up a votive prayer to Pluto – the God of Death and Money – that those whose lives they've so comprehensively constrained never grasp the simple and unchanging truth. That greed is ageless.


Victor said...

An excellent post, Chris

To call any age-group 'locusts' should be as completely beyond the Pale as using such a term for a racial or ethnic group.

Shame on Watkins for his zeal in a bad cause!

Cnr Joe said...

I raise a glass to you Mr Trotter

Victor said...

A further thought is whether the whole notion of a 'Baby Boomer' generation, sharing common characteristics, whether born in the late-middle 1940s or early 1960s, has any real validity.

For example, having been born in 1946, I have characteristics in common with my 'War Baby' big sister that I simply don't have with someone a dozen years younger than me.

Prejudice tends to paint with a broad brush and simplistic definitions aid its task.

Anonymous said...

This film explores issues related to todays generation:

Beyond the labels of “Generation X” and “Generation Y,” the feature documentary film ReGeneration takes an uncompromising look at the issues facing today’s youth and young adults, and the influences that perpetuate our culture’s apathetic approach to social and political causes.

Focused on how today’s education, parenting, and media can shape us, the film follows three separate walks of life representing today’s generation. Each brings their own unique perspective – from an inspired collective of musicians working outside the corporate system, to a twenty-something conservative family about to welcome the birth of their second child, and a group of five high-school students from the suburbs looking for their place in society.

Their stories are interspersed with the knowledge, wisdom, and personal reflections of some of the country’s leading scholars, social activists, and media personalities, including Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Talib Kweli, and the late Howard Zinn, among others.

Within the film, the discussion of apathy found in today’s generation leads to exploration of technology, our disconnection with nature, how much we consume, our loss of history, and the economic factors holding many of us back from becoming more active participants in our communities. With such a varied and intelligent group of interviews, we come to a deeper understanding of the numerous influences shaping today’s culture where one universal feeling is shared – our society is at a crossroads, economically, environmentally, and intellectually – and we must change ourselves and the world for the better.

Kirsten said...

Why suddenly is this framed as a war between generations?

My point was merely that the reality is that the union movement today is actually largely made up of people who have entered the workforce since the mid-1980's. And it's worth thinking about that union members now are most likely to be women and work in service-based roles - both in the public and private sectors.

The media currently admit only a few "voices of the left". Helen Kelly is probably the only one that could be seen to reflect someone close to the reality of our current union membership.

Reminding the public of dynamics that existed within the movement and the left 30 years ago serves only to reinforce the view of many that the movement is out of touch and made up of dinosaurs - you just need to skim through the comments on the Herald page to see this very language. Does this help us influence in the way that we need to to at this time? I don't think so.

Madison said...

The simple solution is that the young of today don't understand the older generation and don't like the lies they see. They have been brought up by an older generation that worked to set up for the future, claiming that the systems in place would make sure they weren't a burden. They also began having children and raised them with a sense of entitlement, that they are owed much just for being alive.

The failures of the older generation to completely succeed in what they wanted to do set up (retirement wise) and the current recessionhave combined to add to an already dreading sense of strain as there aren't enough of the younger generation to fully pay for the costs of what still exists. It's not that the older are locusts, but to someone who has their whole life ahead of them and who has always been taught they are special and are entitled to much it becomes a serious problem to realize that their entitlements apply to others and now they have realized that they aren't entitled to it, they have to earn it. For a generation who hasn't spent much if any of it's life having to work for or earn anything it's a painful blow and those with voices are crying out.

Are they right? Partially, they have been robbed of the innocence that was wrongly preserved in them for so long. They have never been mentally trained to deal with hard work or stress and this is possibly their first stress test. Are the boomers locusts? Possibly, but no more so than the fact that locusts are taking what they need to stay alive and live well without contributing at the time. I still believe that after having saved and been taxed and contributing to these super funds for most of their life the boomers have earned a break. Is this bad? Not really but it does cause a serious financial strain which most of the younger generation are completely unprepared to deal with. Get ready for the whining, but don't worry, they're not in control of anything yet.

Chris Trotter said...

I am always intrigued by the "dinosaur" metaphor.

In order for it to be anything other than a term of abuse, the metaphor would need to be applied to a type of person, or institution, that is completely extinct - and which has been in that unfortunate condition for a very long time.

And, yet, if we look back 30 years we find that many of 2010's most familiar union faces were already in - or just about to enter - the trade union movement.

Are people like Peter Conway, Maxine Gaye, Karl Anderson, Robert Reid, Matt McCarten and James Ritchie "dinosaurs"? Or is Kirsten using the term (as it is used so often) simply to attack the credibility of those whose ideas she opposes, or which make her feel uncomfortable?

The whole idea that the past is something best forgotten; that the actions of those who came before us have no influence over our present choices; that there is nothing to be learned from the way people either succeeded - or failed - in meeting the challenges of their time, is a notion so utterly ignorant and unhelpful that those who go around behaving as if it were true should hang their heads in shame.

And what possible relevance does the gender of the workers in the firing-line of these changes have? Is there some suggestion that women are incapable of fighting? That the language of resistance must be toned down lest the delicate constitutions of the "ladies" be thrown into turmoil?

What would Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones - or own own Sonja Davies - have to say to these prissy little middle-class madams with their positively Victorian attitudes about the "weaker sex"?

Read the history of the mill-girls of Lawrence, Massachusetts, Kirsten, and then see if you're still keen on linking militant union action with "dinosaurs"!

Madison said...

Exactly and well said Mr. Trotter. What place does gender have in determining how we should deal with people, apparently a lot according to the employment courts. As for the Union 'dinosaurs' you and Kristen are mentioning, yes, you are. You're not dinosaurs age-wise or even in your devotion to the Union or attitudes towards others. You are dinosaurs in your collective minds and strategies. You are mostly old-school Union activists, I know Ms. Kelly is second generation at least, and you are not willing to see any evolution of the Unions and their movements. You do look to the past, but often as an outsider I've seen that these leaders don't learn from the past you just look to repeat tactics.

Studying history is a very necessary step to advancing, but instead of overhauling problematic tactics and vitriol that alienate more people than they attract you continue with minor tweaks on previous ideas. The Unions in NZ haven't pulled out a radical overhaul since the 50's and are still pushing to get back to that. This is part of the problem for the Unions and the movement. By sticking to the past and trying to push people back that way they haven't realized they are recruiting a whole new generation looking for something else, and it's a generation that isn't roused by the same tired battle cries.

Matt McCarten is one of the best adaptable and dynamic of the names you mentioned, but underneath his fantastic and well-planned Public relations mastery is Unite Union pitching the same tired old lines, structure and reward-the-old-guard philosophy that the Unions have clung to since their inception. Taking over the Labour party wasn't a new and adventurous move, it was a rehash of simply creating the party in the first place.

Unions must adapt and alter the whole dynamic they work with and look very hard at the new generations they are recruiting if they are going to keep from losing power drastically over the baby boom retirement wave. A growing portion of the workforce, and it's most union undecided, has now been born so close to the ECA or after it that they have no idea of strong Unions and laugh at stories of what the Unions used to be. That both makes them think of unions as outdated and clinging to the past, as well as something failing. They don't see any ground gained since.

Change, adapt or become extinct. The unions are holding on heavily but will they become the coelecanth or the shark?

Chris Trotter said...

If you want to keep contributing to this blog, Madison, you will have to bring yourself up to speed with the facts of the issues you're addressing.

Your comments on unionism are so wide of the mark that I struggle to see the point of adding them to the commentary threads.

For example, could you please tell me what "radical overhaul" the NZ unions underwent (of their own accord) in the 1950s? Sid Holland shook them up in 1951, it's true, but only in the way a terrier shakes-up a rat.

You're talking through a hole in your hat, mate. Either learn some NZ history, or find somewhere else to vent your ill-informed right-wing opinions.

Kirsten said...

Read my post again and you'll see that I've said that my concern is that the dinosaur thing is the perception of many (strongly represented amongst Herald views contributors)- rather than saying it is my perception.

Also, I have not said that the past is best forgotten - just that invoking it is not the best way to influence the majority of workers or the general public at this time.

It is incredibly relevant that the union movement is increasingly made up of women - especially when the people who purport to speak for them remain predominantly men. Who said anything about "toning things down"?

The only suggestion here that women are not "fighting" here (and perjorative references to "prissy middle class" and "ladies") are all your own.

Your suggestion that I need a history lesson is condescending and inaccurate and it's a tad sad to see what I'd hoped to be a constructive engagement descend into a tedious focus on the person rather than the issue.

Madison said...

I didn't say that they had a radical overhaul in the 1950's I said that they hadn't had one since then, a phrase I understand can be misunderstood. As for the rest of it, I work with a lot of the younger workers around and many don't see the history NZ Unions have had. Simple fact. I was trying to show that there needs to be some change to the way the Unions promote and recruit as most of the younger (under 30) workers I know in several worksites view the Unions as outdated or clinging to the past. Personally I'm not a member but I have referred several people to Union organisers to get the facts to determine whether it's the right move for them. I see Unions as good, but I still believe the focus on gathering back political power through Labour and holding steady is more of a continued reaction to the ECA than a true move forward.

Unite, who I do not like, are one of the best at engaging the younger workers by having found a way to bridge much of that gap between the old days of power and glory with the chance to change things and keep younger people more interested. Most of the other Unions are sticking with either tried and true methods that got them to the all time high in the 80's or are more worried about protecting their current members than recruiting new ones.

Being outside the Unions I've looked at both those that join and those that refuse, most who refuse haven't done so out of looking, they've bought the neo-liberal capitalist propaganda and not the Unions propaganda. While the Unions may not be old, stodgy and dinosaurs totally there is a perception among a vast majority of today's youth that they are. In today's youth market you'll probably notice that perception means more to these people while making choices than facts. It's perception that is currently hurting the Unions and will continue to do so.

At my work it took 1, only 1, of those absolutely toxic and evil useless coworkers to ruin the image of the Unions for about 30 people. The problem with that is that even the other members of the Union couldn't speak out about him and get rid of him despite the damage he was causing until after he was gone. By then a campaign had waged a year, and what people didn't see was the Union helping it's member through everything, what they saw was the Union helping a known thief and liar despite all their evidence. Did the Union do what was right? They protected their member and honored their agreement till the (very) bitter end, I think that was a very honourable move. But in the end it soured at least 30 people and probably more on the Unions because they didn't see the other side, even though I explained why the Union kept stepping up for him. This is the sort of perceptual problem the Unions need to find a way to spin helpfully.

I have mentioned you guys as dinosaurs, but you are the leaders of the movement who do know just how powerful it can be, however what is really needed is some seriously young talent who can come up with new ideas. Not to change, tear down and weaken, but new ways to consolidate workers, engage new workers and pull some really powerful contracts. I've said McCarten is one of the best at this, and he's still semi 'directing' Unite despite the populist stance.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Madison.

Explanation accepted.

To: Kirsten.

My apologies for the spleen-venting. Re-reading your comment carefully, I see that I have, indeed, mis-represented your position.

Like many others, I was outraged at John Armstrong's oh-so-clever red-baiting in The Herald (endorsed, to her eternal shame, by Labour's Darien Fenton). Somehow, I got the impression you were doing something similar.

And it's vital that unionists understand the purpose of Armstrong's snide attack on Matt McCarten, Sue Bradford and John Minto. It is to marginalise those who take a strong stand by branding them as either self-serving attention-seekers, or outlandish "dinosaurs" preaching the class-war rhetoric of a bygone age.

Buying into this appraoch can only weaken - not strengthen - the unions' collective response. As Sue Bradford told an organising meeting in Auckland last night (Wednesday) there has to be room for all kinds of tactics in the forthcoming CTU campaign: from the mildest to the most militant.

So, I'm sorry, Kirsten, that you bore the brunt of my bad temper. In future I will do my best to reserve the rhetorical bullets for those who truly deserve them.

Madison said...

Thanks, Chris for the explanation yourself. These issues are issues that can't be solved by angry actions and I don't expect you and the other prominent figures to truly jump to rash actions. I've railed against problems the Union I faced had caused me, but I've also said that were I in a different industry I would probably join one.

Good luck and hopefully we'll see some really inspired new tactics, no matter who comes up with them as you push for more influence again.

Darien Fenton said...

You should have read my post properly Chris. I didn't endorse John Armstrong's article. I said he had a point. But I also said that the unions and the radical left should protest, but Labour's job was to reach out to those who find that a big turnoff. And I said that this issue is too important to be fighting over who is staunchest.... as I see happening already.

Anonymous said...

Shame on you Darien Fenton! The job of the Labour Party was (at it's inception) to fight in Parliament to get the pay & conditions (economic and social) that workers wanted and needed.

Now union 'kingpins' like you concede points to capitalist propagandists like Armstrong, before you concede the fight altogether like in 1991, eh? Labour should be reaching out to all workers encouraging them to be militant, not just murmuring your agreement with those who find action a 'big turnoff'.

Are you a socialist or a liberal capitalist Darien? Because you're an MP for a party that has consistently pushed liberal (free market) capitalism since 1984...

We workers want leaders like McCarten and Minto who speak - and act - for the workers at all times. Not cronies of the capitalists - we had enough of them with Ken Douglas, Angela Foulkes and Rob Campbell.