Friday, 3 December 2010

Unlucky Generations

Second Time Farce: The unlucky generation born between 1929-39 had Roosevelt and Churchill, Hitler and Stalin, heroes and villains to match the epic scale of world-wide depression and war. The unluckier generation born between 1968-78 had to make do with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

NEW ZEALANDERS born in the decade between the Wall Street Crash and the outbreak of World War II were dealt a truly unlucky hand. Their formative years were lived in the shadow of the Great Depression. War scarred their teens. And whatever hopefulness and idealism they carried into early adulthood was snuffed out by McCarthyism and the onset of the Cold War. Even the rising affluence the 1950s and early 1960s proved conditional. Yes, their new-found prosperity could be celebrated and enjoyed – but only soberly and responsibly, in ways that didn’t rock the boat.

I’m pretty sure the tightly constrained circumstances of this unlucky generation explains the baffled rage they visited upon their gloriously unconstrained off-spring. The cultural revolution of the late-1960s and 70s not only exploded the tight cocoon in which New Zealand was wrapped, but also revealed how very flimsy it was. Like the citizens of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, when Kiwis peered behind the curtain of post-war conformity, they discovered they’d been living in awe of some very little men with very loud voices.

Kiwis born between 1929 and 1939 are not the only unlucky generation, however.

No sooner had the conservative post-war cocoon been destroyed than its makers began spinning another. This new restraint would be much more sophisticated than its predecessor. Within the second cocoon there would be more room to move, but it would be constructed of material far stronger than the first. This time there would be no breaking of the ties that bind.

Because, if 1929 was one of History’s sign-post years, then so was 1968. New Zealanders born in the ten year period between the high-tide of the 60s youth rebellion, and the final years of post-war affluence became a second unlucky generation.

The formative years of New Zealanders born in 1968 were years of unprecedented prosperity. But, by the time they entered primary school the country was already reeling from Britain’s entry into the EEC and the first oil shock. Dominating their childhood were the divisive politics of Sir Robert Muldoon. Their teenage years opened with the 1981 Springbok Tour and closed with the 1987 Stockmarket Crash. Most could not remember a time when the New Zealand economy was not in crisis. Their early adult years were disfigured by the economic "fixes" of Rogernomics, Ruthanasia and Jennycide.

This second unlucky generation could not even console themselves with the thought that they were living through an era of existential danger. The Neoliberal Counter-Revolution which got underway as these unfortunate kids were entering secondary school in the early 1980s was a distinctly tawdry affair. Where the first unlucky generation had Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin and Hitler – heroes and villains to match the epic scale of world-wide depression and war – the second had to make do with Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.

They were the prisoners of a fetishised economics: cocooned not in the morals of a long departed Victorian Age, or the paranoid fantasies of anti-communist America, but in a notion much more dangerous and difficult to overcome: that the world we inhabit is as good as it gets; that there are no longer any viable economic or political alternatives to the free market and the self-commodification it requires.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this difference between the two unlucky generations. In the 1930s and 40s politics dominated economics absolutely, so the priority was clearly to prevent the twenty-somethings of the 1950s from considering either of the contemporary alternatives to capitalism – social-democracy or communism. It’s why the post-war social order had to be couched in terms of the citizen embracing a strict social and political conformity in return for affluent security.

For the "Rogernomics Generation" no such Faustian bargain’s been on offer. By successfully subordinating politics to economics, Neoliberalism has deprived them of the only possible means of escaping their cocoon.

This generation’s curious passivity has opened a yawning gap between the rapidly ageing rebels of the 60s and 70s and the generation of young New Zealanders only now entering their 20s. Not even the threat of global warming or the biggest financial disaster since 1929 have been able to shake the Rogernomics Generation's conviction that all intervention is futile.

But, if the dangerous fatalism of this zombie generation isn’t overcome, then very soon the luck will run out for all of us.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 December 2010.


Skyler said...

I was born in '76 and I think that even most people my age are pretty passive (and the younger generation even more so and individualistic to boot)- it's very frustrating trying to come up with ideas on how to motivate people into action.

Any ideas on how to wake the zombies up?!

Unknown said...

Reading your analysis of recent history, including leaders like Thatcher and Reagan it's hard to believe that we have resided on the same planet.

Briefly, Thatcher inherited a Britain that was on its knees through a crippling and punitive tax regime, and an industrial relations scene that was as conflicted as at any time in recent history, largely because of irresponsible Union activity.

She led Britain out of that morass in a way that only a Churchill or an "Iron Lady" could have accomplished. She was a woman born to such a task.

Reagan succeeded a series of either weak, or morally corrupt Presidents, and amongst other things, stood up to the Soviet Union and was primarily responsible for the end of the cold war. He also understood that wealth needs to be generated before it can be redistributed. Margaret Thatcher also understood this, saying once, famously, "The problem with spending other peoples money, is that eventually it runs out".

On the other hand, the socially liberal leaders of Britain and New Zealand, Brown and Clark, and yes even George Bush of the USA, have lead us through a decade of irresponsible debt fueled spending that will result in a level of hardship yet to be revealed.

We baby boomers have been the most blessed of any generation yet born on this planet.

Anonymous said...

Not their fault, but the youth of today is the me generation, spoiled, lazy, over-indulged, handed everything on a plate, getters, not givers. All in the upbringing, indivuidualistic society of today.

It's all about me, me me, Wall St has come home to roost.

peterpeasant said...

Pity your analysis ignores the intergenerational influences.

By the way there is no significance between decades. 1928-1938? 1923-1933, 1942-1952?

The environments they grew up in are very different.

The responses are bound to be different.

What does not change very much are the political/economic drivers.

The same mistakes keep being made two or three times a century.

Anonymous said...

I have no idea how much time Brendan spent in Thatcher’s Britain, but I grew up there. I was 16 when Thatcher was elected and we learned that “there is no such thing as society” and that striking miners (and any other organised labour) were “the enemy within”.

The carnage wrought on the basis of those assumptions shattered millions of lives through the 80s. My father lost his job aged 52, and never found paid employment again. While the middle classes climbed into the trough of privatisation, working class people got hammered.

Certainly the social democracy of the 1970s had many flaws, but at least it tried not to treat people as disposable labour units.

The neoliberal rewriting of history conveniently disregards the “collateral damage” that may be a mere footnote for some but was (and is) the devastating reality for many millions.

A vicious cult of wealth has dominated western societies for the past 30 years, and we are reaping what has been sown: growing inequality, and the social instability it generates. Yes we need to learn the lessons of social democracy's past failures. But we desperately need to recover the human impulse towards social justice that has been forgotten for a generation.

We urgently need to recover social democracy for our times.

Clock is ticking said...

A thought-provoking column - but must agree with PeterPeasant that the generation-based analysis is flawed.

Ultimately, all the adult generations now living are responsible for Planet Earth's and Mankind's fate. The current problems seem far more profound than those faced in any previous epoch. To expect a miracle from the 1968-78 cohort (along the lines of the post-WWII reforms or late-60s movements) is unrealistic and unfair.

Just as unfair as blaming the boomers for wallowing in the 50s/60s cult of prosperity partly responsible for our current problems (resource depletion, pollution, consumer lifestyle, institutionalisation of primary needs). I certainly don't. We're all in it together.

Anonymous said...

"me generation, spoiled, lazy, over-indulged, handed everything on a plate"

Quite frankly, the Baby Boomers and to a lesser extent, Generation X, they got spoiled and handed everything on a plate the most, with extensive subsidies in housing, education, health care, job security with generous union protections, and even if one was sacked, they only had to cross the street and walk into another job, state housing or government subsidised mortgages, award wages, weekends off, extensive libaries and council anemities, free access to the national parks and the beaches, penal rates, and to top it off, a nice pensioners in retirement.

Then they start slagging of young people who want the same, neatly after pulling up the ladder behind them - mind you, they had a bloody escalator.

The previous generation had it way better than the young people of today, sure they had to work hard, etc, but the rewards more substantial than today, and if times were tough, you didnt have to worry about homelessness or destitution.

Another Brendon

PS: I wondeer how much homelessness there was before 1979, when that cold hearted bitch Thatcher came to power.

Anonymous said...

Thatcher was very God-fearing, and a wonderful lady. It is a crime to call her a bitch, she is not, she led Britain out of the doledrums, and she had steel. She cared very much about the people, the welfare system of today is chewing up people, spitting them out and leaving them for dead.

Anonymous said...

>>>Briefly, Thatcher inherited a Britain that was >>>on its knees through a crippling and punitive >>>tax regime,

Nonsense. Britain was on an economic upswing in the late 1970s, helped by North Sea Oil. Had Jim Callaghan called an election in 1978, rather than waiting until 1979, British Labour would have probably won.

>>>On the other hand, the socially liberal >>>leaders of Britain and New Zealand, Brown and >>>Clark, and yes even George Bush of the USA, >>>have lead us through a decade of >>>irresponsible debt fueled spending

You do know that your conservative idol, Mr Reagan, engaged in nothing but irresponsible debt-fueled spending?

Craig said...

Isn't it interesting how the comments section presents two totally diverging views on recent history? Each version chooses to ignore the negatives associated with ones own viewpoint and fixate on the negatives associated with the other point of view, such is the blind idiocy of ideology. One can only assume the real truth is somewhere in between.

Anonymous said...

"She cared very much about the people, the welfare system of today is chewing up people, spitting them out and leaving them for dead. "

Of she cared, there wouldnt be any homelessness in Britain today EVERYONE would have a decent paying job, an education and a roof over their head.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Craig.

That is a comforting fallacy, Craig.

Unfortunately, there is only truth and falsehood.

Being half-way between them simply means you have either not travelled far enough, or have already travelled too far in the wrong direction.

Victor said...


I'm sure I don't live on the same planet as you.

I spent most of my first four decades in post-war Britain. It faced many significant social and economic issues, most of them connected with the decline of the country's global competitiveness.

An early start in industrialisation had turned Victorian Britain into the "workshop of the world". But other nations, with a greater array of natural advantages, had caught up with it and were now eclipsing it as a manufacturing nation.

Meanwhile, two world wars had entirely wasted the country's hitherto unmatched financial reserves and overseas investments. And yet, the post-Imperial UK insisted on playing an expensive military role worthy of a superpower.

Confounding all these problems was a pervasive class structure that prevented people from developing their talents to the benefit of themselves and others.

Whilst not the primary cause of Britain's economic malaise that you suggest it to have been, the "negative hegemony" of the trade unions was, in my view, another factor inhibiting change.

But it was an inevitable "Yang" to the "Ying" of a socially restrictive class system and also an inevitable reaction to the grim inter-war decades when the burden of economic decline had been disproportionately shouldered by industrial workers and their families.

And having said all that, Post War Britain was a a more affluent,caring, compassionate and equal place than the country had ever been before.

It introduced a great degree of security into the lives of ordinary folk, whilst, as the bland 1950s gave way to the 1960s, allowing for a cultural ferment that is still echoing creatively around the world to this day.

The only way that Britain was worse off than it had been before World War Two was in comparison with its West European neighbours and rivals ....not just the industrious Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians but the increasingly affluent French as well.

These were all societies with more interventionist economic models than had Britain. Common Sense (that allegedly most British of virtues)should have led the country to emulate its neighbours.

Instead it embarked on a hair-brained scheme to restore the economics of the Age of Gladstone. The immediate result was a recession that cancelled out the far from wholly unsuccessful attempts of Callaghan and Healey to reverse industrial decline.

The de-industrialisation of Britain was followed by an unhealthy weighting of the economy towards business and financial services. The upshot of this is an economy floundering in the mire whilst Germany surges forward, supplying high quality industrial goods (and not just cars) to the burgeoning markets of the BRIC nations.

David Cameron is now floating the notion of Gross Domestic Happiness as a way of measuring a country's wellbeing. The cruel irony is that, back in the allegedly dark and fractious 1970s, the Brits regularly came top of every Pan-European "Happiness" poll. In recent decades, they've recurrently come close to the bottom.

Not all of this is Thatcher's legacy. Just most of it!....more to come

Victor said...

Now, Brendan, let's turn briefly to your contention that the 'Gipper' won the Cold War.

Please remember that there was absolutely nothing to stop the Soviet Union putting guns before butter and holding its empire together through repression and military force, as it had done recurrently from 1917 onwards.

However, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev (a sincere and rather naive believer in the Soviet system) became General Secretary of the CPSU.

Like other intelligent young proteges of Yuri Andropov (e.g. East German security chief, Markus Wolf), Gorbachev believed that administrative and economic reforms could be accomplished without totally destroying the Leninist state.

But,once he started picking away at the ball of string, it just unwound....and with disconcerting rapidity.

This would have happened whoever had been in the White House. The crucial decisions were all made in Moscow (and, to a considerably lesser extent, in Warsaw, East Berlin, Budapest and the Vatican).

Only intelligent and sincere men such as Gorbachev and his circle could have made such decisions. A corrupt, intellectually-limited careerist like Brezhnev would never have made categorical mistakes of this nature.

BTW. I don't buy the notion that the Carter administration was "weak". Its sponsoring of Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan bled the Soviet Union's resolve to hang onto that nightmare outpost, led to deep-seated bitterness against the CPSU nomenklatura within the Soviet Army and was one of the factors behind Gorbachev's initial drive to reform the system from within.

Zbigniew Brzezinski (remember him?)has since countered accusations that the Carter crowd were largely responsible for injecting Al Quaeda into the Hindu Kush, with the simple (and obviously sincere) response that it really doesn't matter, because,as a result of these policies, freedom now reigns in Prague and Warsaw. Make of this, what you will.

I won't even begin to comment on your fantasy that the Clark-Cullen government were big spenders. Perhaps one day I'll travel to your parallel world. I look forward to eating the liquor and drinking the food with you.

Nick said...

Nice work Chris, its a bit hard trying to be precise with such a broad subject matter but the trend analysis seems correct.

Brendan completely misses the point with regard to todays youth and the legacy of Thatcher, Reagan and neo liberalism. It is best described as a theological thief in the night who sneaks in unseen and steals all hope, a blight on our today and a burglar of our future.

Hope more than money is what the current generation lacks, all taken in justification of ensuring a new Roller to old grey haired suits who already have too much.

Olwyn said...

I hope this link works when I paste it - it is a British 15 year-old called Barnaby Raine, a dazzling young orator who represents a re-politicised youth.

Anonymous said...

The fallacy of neo-liberalism is that any result, no matter how bad, is believed correct and desirable if arrived to from unadulterated market forces because of the process that created it.

The fallacy in the left today is that scarcity of wealth can't exist, only a scarcity of redistribution.

Those born today could be an unlucky generation if either is applied to their future.

Madison said...

I see people talking about a lack of hope and hopelessness among the current population. As if Socialism is going to sell hope? It sells the hope or a more even society where everyone has what they need, but this isn't what people are buying.

Neo-liberal capitalism has what people want to buy into. It sells hope the way a lottery sells hope. You can be the lucky one to win, you can be a chosen person to over-achieve and beat the odds. Most people don't beat the odds, that's why lotteries and casinos make money. But what they do have all wrapped up is the glittering shiny bauble of "HOPE," and people are attracted to that. They may need stability and safety but are constantly attracted to that jewel just out of reach and forever to remain there.

For most people it's going to stay like this until a major crash happens, and for all the trouble this past one caused it wasn't big enough. People aren't scared enough or worried nearly enough right now to abandon things as they are and remove their miniscule chance at winning in order to secure everything for everyone. Until socialism is able to truly sex up it's image or there are wholesale collapses of large portions of our economy then things are going to continue the way they are. As an over-achiever who has been beating the system that's fine with me. As someone who wants to see society do better as a whole it's a bit harder to stomach.

Anonymous said...

Great post Chris.
I was born in '68 and a lot of this stuff rings true. Many of my peers have developed real problems with addiction or have really dysfunctional ways of relating to others.Mid-late 80's NZ was a grim place to be a young adult. Remember going down south from Wellington & being blown away by the state of places like Linwood & Aranui where people had lost their jobs. Found a job in Hornby and stayed in a freezing flat in Armagh St. in the winter of 88. Remember the pillhead neighbours house burning down one winters night and when their kids came into our place for a milo a prick of a cop saying in front of their mum (who was scoffing rolys & valiums) 'little shit's 'll have fleas'. Us & them was the feel.
I remember being very concious of our connection to youth culture/politics in Britain/Ireland at that time. Marley, The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, Specials, LKJ...& we had Herbs! Reggae was the beat across our land- an uplifting but charged version. Even the punk bands played it.
Music was a way in which ordinary people learned about/reacted to social change and important issues.
Something tells me that my youngest children are going to see times just as tough.

Loz said...

I'm not certain that I agree that neo-liberalism is responsible for "subordinating politics to economics". After all, exactly the same economic arguments have been forwarded for over 150 years.

The departure of the 1980's is not due to a new breed neo-liberalism but rather the "New Left" abandoning an economic focus. Politics of class and universality were abandoned by the radicals of the 60's and 70's in favour of campaigns of self interest dressed up as progressive causes.

Twenty years of narcissistic naval gazing by self-interest groups under the banner of "identity" politics has produced an empty lunar landscape where the seeds of mass movements can never grow.

Economics is itself politics - one doesn't subsume the other.

We certainly know that the youngest of working New Zealanders are more expectant and demanding of wages and employment conditions than any of the generations before. Workplace stroppiness may not be the same as marches or sit-ins but its definitely a sign of politics.

What is extremely sad is that those proclaiming to be the progressive spearhead in New Zealand are unwilling (or are just incapable) of articulating the economic anxieties (or alternatives) to the stress being felt through the entire country. The problem is not the" subordination of politics to economics" but that conservative economics has (through lack of opposition) become viewed almost as a branch of mathematics than an extension of politics itself.

A successful political alternative must directly tackle economics instead of trying to distance its social goals from economic requirements. In 1936 the newly elected Labour government rapidly introduced the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Amendment Act to allow the government the ability to underwrite its development programmes and break free from the neo-liberalism being imposed by international lenders. The Minister of Finance stated during a speech to the House in August 1936 that "Unless a Government controls it's banking and credit system it will be materially hindered in the planning and carrying out of its policy. That is why the first major policy measure of the Government was the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Amendment Act, which gave it full control of the foreign exchanges and of credit within the country.." 1.

Contrasting that to current times, instead of exerting control over the economy, "bold changes" to the Reserve Bank Act suggested by the modern, born-again labour party are nothing more than "broadening targets" (with a few asset sales mixed in) while making commitments to not affect the independence of the institution. 2.

With a mind numbing absence of imagination across the political spectrum and the inability of the left wing to deal with economics, it's no wonder that "zombie-ism" has appeal.

Until the left wing is able to rediscover that politics and tangible economics are exactly the same thing then fatalism within younger generations is a fair expectation.

1. "Towards the Goal" Evening Post 5/7/1936
2. "Labour Signals big Economic changes" 25/11/2010

Victor said...


"The fallacy of neo-liberalism is that any result, no matter how bad, is believed correct and desirable if arrived to from unadulterated market forces because of the process that created it.

"The fallacy in the left today is that scarcity of wealth can't exist, only a scarcity of redistribution."

Bull's Eye! Excellent summary!

Victor said...


You too have hit a bullseye.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I can agree that a central concern of any politics is economics – or ‘political economy’ to give it its old-fashioned name.

The fatal (literally for some poor souls) error of neoliberal economics is that it considers the economy as an idealised mathematical problem in isolation from its social and ecological context. The errors of 1970s style social democracy include ignoring the ecological context.

By promising to re-embed the economy in society and environment, the rhetoric of green politics seems to offer a viable alternative to both neoliberalism and social democracy.

All the more disappointing, then, that the Green Party here fails to offer any sort of coherent economic policy whatsoever.

victor said...


The whole world used to ignore the ecological context. Don't blame that on Social Democracy.

There is no inherent contradiction between the Social Democrat's humane concern for the welfare of all citizens and care for the environment

paul scott said...

friends and countrymen, I was born of a middle class family in New Zealand
just when Ronald Regan and those terrible people were not doing what Chris says what they were doing,

And friends we had such a good life, we were fed well and raised well,
and we went to University and achieved degrees and went into the professions and trades
and we were well and happy and our wives loved us,
and god why is Chris now telling us we were not,

God thank you, we never fought inside the socialist war.
We were famous inside our own lives ,

Victor said...

paul scott

I'm delighted that you have had such a fortunate life, benefiting from the social and cultural capital of previous less individualistic generations.

You may also have benefited from the serendipity of good health and you certainly don't seem to suffer from any shortage of self-esteem.

Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor in your country has grown ever larger, whilst a progressively smaller proportion of children grow up with your advantages or the opportunity to achieve what you've been allowed to achieve.