Tuesday 18 November 2014

Defending The Boomers: A Response To Chloe King.

Guilty As Charged? The Baby Boom generation is often accused of hogging the all the benefits of the Great Post-War Boom. But this is to suggest that they were somehow complicit in choosing their own birthdays. Boomers may have enjoyed the benefits of, but they did not create, the social-democratic society which raised them - nor did they destroy it.
THE BABY-BOOM GENERATION (49-68 year-olds) currently numbers just under a quarter of New Zealand’s population. Even so, there is a pervasive notion that the generation of New Zealanders born between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s exercises a decisive influence over just about every aspect of contemporary life. Younger New Zealanders, in particular, seem convinced that the difficulties they are experiencing in relation to education, employment and housing are entirely attributable to the selfishness and indifference of the “Boomers”.
It’s easy to see how the Baby Boomers have ended up in the frame for these crimes against youth. The simple passage of time means that even the youngest of the Boomers are fast approaching their fiftieth birthday. Since the people making most of the important decisions in any society tend to be aged between 40 and 60, who else could possibly be to blame? The Boomers are the ones with the experience; the ones who have patiently climbed their way to the summit of the big institutional hierarchies; the ones who find themselves bearing more and more of the responsibility for what goes on.
Which is exactly as it should be - given that the promotion of the old over the young is a feature of every human society. When the Boomers themselves were in their 20s and 30s the big decisions of the day were being made by the men and women who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In New Zealand this cohort was known as “the RSA generation” and we Boomers railed against it every bit as ferociously as Chloe King rails against our own. If Generation Y thinks John Key is a bad bugger, I shudder to think what it would make of Rob Muldoon!
On this issue, it’s a little difficult to grasp the purpose of Ms King’s polemic. Is she really, as the voice of Generation Y, suggesting that society should deny itself the benefit of the older people’s experience? That, somehow, everything would be better if the businesspersons, doctors, lawyers, teachers, electricians, plumbers and brain surgeons with 20-30 years’ experience were suddenly dismissed from their positions and replaced with people only a few years out of high school?
Gen-Y could, I suppose, point to Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world (or, at least, that part of it known to the Macedonians) by the age of 33. Or, to Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who, at the age of 24, led his country to war against the revolutionary French Republic. But, if they did, it would then be up to the Boomers to direct these opponents of gerontocracy to the example of Mao Zedong’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”.
Between 1966 and 1969 Mao’s youthful “Red Guards” were instructed to root out the “Four Olds” – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas – along with, naturally, the Old Party Comrades who, by allowing these antiquated practices to flourish, threatened to strangle the Revolution, restore the bourgeoisie to power, and (most serious of all) undermine “The Great Helmsman’s” position as China’s supreme leader.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, his ruthless purge of competence and experience throughout Chinese society was described by the Communist Party, with considerable understatement, as “being responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic”.
The other great avenue for attacking the Baby Boomers is the one that leads from the Golden Age of free tertiary education, full-employment and subsidised housing to this cruel and leaden age of student debt, precarious (or non-existent) jobs and the remorseless dismantling of what the National Party once proudly described as New Zealand’s “property-owning democracy”.
But to criticise the Boomers for enjoying the fruits of the Great Post-War Boom suggests that they were somehow complicit in choosing their own birthdays. Boomers may have enjoyed the benefits of, but they did not create, the social-democratic society which raised them. That was their parents’ extraordinary achievement, and any Boomer who isn’t truly grateful for what he or she received bloody well ought to be!
Nor is it the case that the Baby Boomers were principally responsible for destroying the social-democratic society from which they had derived so many advantages.
The principal architects of the neoliberal “revolution” of 1984-1993 were not Baby Boomers at all, but members of the generation which preceded it. Roger Douglas was born in 1937. Michael Bassett in 1938. Bill Birch entered this world in 1934. Jim Bolger, a year later, in 1935. Not even David Lange could lay claim to being a Baby Boomer. He was born in Otahuhu in 1942. Okaaay. But, what about the three high priests of the neoliberal faith, Graham Scott (Treasury) Don Brash (Reserve Bank) and Roger Kerr (Business Roundtable)? Nope. All three neoliberal ideologues were born during – not after – World War II.
Yes, of course, there was a host of Baby Boomers who were only too happy to sign-on to the Magical “Free-Market” Mystery Tour of the 1980s and 90s. Richard Prebble, David Caygill, Mike Moore, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley were all post-war babies. So was Labour’s most successful post-war Prime Minister, Helen Clark. (Even if her Deputy-Prime Minister, Jim Anderton, and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, were not.)
By 1999, however, the “reforms” of the 1984-93 neoliberal revolution were so deeply entrenched, and so fiercely defended, that a revolution of equal intensity and duration would have been required to root them out.
Shouldn’t the kids of the 50s and 60s have launched such a revolt? Risking all to restore the New Zealand of drab conformity, racist amnesia and smug misogyny that, as teenagers and young adults, they had devoted so much energy to shaking-up and tearing-down?
Some of them did try – sort of. Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and, after it, the Alliance, attempted to secure the best of both worlds: the full-employment, compulsory unionism, free education, public healthcare and affordable housing of Mickey Savage’s legacy, plus the radical emancipatory agendas of the new social movements for nuclear disarmament, ecological awareness, feminism and indigenous rights.
And, if neoliberalism had been confined to New Zealand alone, they just might have succeeded. But, the neoliberal revolution, along with the ruthless advance of globalisation it facilitated, was already an international phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) and Ronald Reagan (b. 1911) may have led the charge, but behind them were arrayed financial and corporate resources beyond the power of any single generation to overcome.
Besides, by the 1990s most Boomers had more pressing concerns. There were jobs to keep, mortgages to pay and, eventually, children to raise.
No one who has yet to hold their own child in their arms can fully comprehend how all-embracing is the priority of its welfare. When we are young it is possible, in a sense, to stand upon the banks of history and watch it flow by. But parenthood sweeps us up and into the rushing waters of historical time and only the very strong, or the very lucky, are able to resist the currents that bear their families forward.
What all parents try to do, however, even in the grip of these currents, is steer the craft that bears their children safely to shore. To give them the same brief respite that they enjoyed. To let them, if only for a little while, stand alone and unscathed by the relentless onrush of time.
Having found their feet, however, the younger generation’s task is not to bemoan the fact that their parents’ boat has sailed away without them; it is to set about building a boat of their own.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 18 November 2014.


Patricia said...

I think you are slitting hairs a bit here Chris. Yes, it was the pre war generation that pushed the Neo liberal ideology but those baby boomers have embraced it hook line and sinker. I am 75 and I do not know one person who does not embrace it with a fervour. Money is their God. They will use any argument to support their current position. Eg the poor are lazy, the young don't work like we did, the country hasn't enough money to be able to provide what we had etc etc. it makes a conversation on the topic very hard. While the baby boomers can't help being born when they did they were the ones who took it all and then pulled up the drawbridge.

pat said...

You have obviously read Chloe Kings piece...I wonder if she has done you the same service?...a revolution that harnessed both the energy of youth AND the wisdom of experience might just succeed.

Lindsey said...

Who says the baby boomers had it all good? My contemporaries were subject to compulsory military service,job adverts divided into "Mens Jobs" and "Womens Jobs in the paper and in 1981 when I applied for a mortgage with the BNZ I was told that the Banks policy was not to lend to unmarried women to buy a house. My father had to co-sign the loan even though I had a god job and could more than meet the payments. Us baby boomers fought against all that sort of discrimination and the people of today benefit.

Jamie said...

Never mind the blame game Trotter,
There will be plenty of time for that later if what I think is coming hits us...

NZ$ 92,586,707,919 Debt level


What we need is LEADERSHIP!!! GODDAMIT!!!

Hello Baby Boomers...
Got anything???

Because it's time to shine,
We are living on borrowed time here...

I have posted some very basic ideas on practical ways to survive if society goes tits up...

And have previously stated my very real fear that we could easily end up like the Rapa Nui if we keep on...

I await some older and wiser heads to allay this young bucks fears...

Some LEADERSHIP would sure be appreciated...

Daniel Copeland said...

Um, Chloe King's piece was not addressed to "Baby Boomers" as a whole but to "Baby Boomers who give my generation unhelpful advice". I wouldn't rush to identify yourself with that group.

Victor said...

To the extent that people from specific age groups have characteristics in common, it's often because they were born in a highly specific three to four year age band rather than one that spans a quarter of a century.

Having first emerged from the womb in 1946, I'm theoretically a baby boomer". But I can't say I have a vast amount in common, by virtue of age alone, with someone born in, say, 1960.

However, my attitudes aren't all that different to those of my "war baby" big sister. And that shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, we both grew up in the UK when it was a land of bomb-sites and rationing.

Having said which, I can understand the passion behind Ms King's rant. It's very tough for many of the young these days. And they and the very old are jointly the "canaries in the mineshaft" for many of the broader ills in our society.

But inter-generational invective doesn't help. It just raises hackles and deprives us of a highly desirable pooling of experience and knowledge.

And the "I've got it worse than you" game tends to be a bit arid and futile.

J Bloggs said...

You are being a bit disinegeous here, Chris. The baby boomers may not have been the architects of the Douglas/Richardson changes, but the Boomers were the ones who voted them in, not only in '84, but '87 and '90 as well.

Brendan McNeill said...


You are beginning to sound like a (socialist) conservative.


Charles said...

The last two posts and your contributors so far to them seem to me to disclose near depression symptoms in you all.
Meanwhile the sun shines on as it has since the horrors of WWII nearly 70 years ago and WWI 100. That first half of last century was something to moan about. Yet you Chris marvel at stuff built then and life then? Low wages, and lots of death and injury of workers built that infrastructure, for one thing. It was a sexist, racist, mean an lean world back there.
Workers almost everywhere are way better looked after and paid today. There are more people (%) employed today that ever in human history. Even a small house today is bigger and better than those they lived in before this great modern era.
Medicine is way better. Think of what dentistry used to be like!Education, now for all, not just boys is superb.
We now live in the best conditions, for the longest, with the most choices about everything for ordinary people.
But you lot cannot see it. A sure sign of depression. Get out in the garden and smell the roses folks. Seriously. Get out more. NZ is wonderful and its young folks are great. Few moaners like Chloe whoever she is.
And celebrate a bold new leader for the Labour Party!
Yeah right. Actually I see why you're depressed.

B'art Homme said...

Ws it not baby boomers who secured many a marine reserve? save a good number of native forests? started at least the beginnings of a green revolution? gave us the science to know what we are facing? Did a revolution around Apartheid happen on these shores? Did the Waitangi Tribuna not start to address the inequities of a racist past here? Wasn't there important law around equal pay? anti gender discrimination? Did our generation not make a stand against nuclear testing in our Pacific? I would suggest there are many many positives that the boomers have worked for.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Americans call the World War II generation" the greatest generation." Yes it was often mean-spirited, racist and sexist, but it is probably the generation in Western society that has suffered most in the twentieth century. And possibly longer :-). And while we can label them, I haven't noticed any huge improvement in some sections of society around mean-spiritedness racism and sexism. The major factor is there is public shame attached to them, so they tend to be more hidden. Even so, some refuse to be shamed :-). Let us hope they are fighting a rearguard action.

Anonymous said...

" No one who has yet to hold their own child in their arms can fully comprehend how all-embracing is the priority of its welfare. When we are young it is possible, in a sense, to stand upon the banks of history and watch it flow by. But parenthood sweeps us up and into the rushing waters of historical time and only the very strong, or the very lucky, are able to resist the currents that bear their families forward.

What all parents try to do, however, even in the grip of these currents, is steer the craft that bears their children safely to shore. To give them the same brief respite that they enjoyed. To let them, if only for a little while, stand alone and unscathed by the relentless onrush of time.

Having found their feet, however, the younger generation’s task is not to bemoan the fact that their parents’ boat has sailed away without them; it is to set about building a boat of their own."

Lovely. As an English Lit grad from decades back, just had to let you know that at least one person appreciated not only the sentiments expressed there, but the fine crafting that when into their construction. The way you carry the water metaphor right the way through and examine if from different angles, the repetition of S's and B's and rise and fall of the sentences etc etc. I had to read it aloud 3 times just to enjoy the luxury of the sounds rolling off my tongue. Take a bow. Think about writing a novel.

Charles Pigden said...

A propos, here is something I posted a couple of years ago on an international blogsite devoted to politics and philosophy. We were asked what regrets we would have if this were the last day of our lives. Three words of explanation to those taking a stroll down Bowalley Rd before a ‘Now Read On’.

A) I was born in 1956, am originally English, and arrived in New Zealand in 1986 after doing a doctorate in Australia. As a state school boy myself and the son of parents who rose from the working classes, I am a big-time beneficiary of the social-democratic state which enabled me, for example, to study at Cambridge, where I got my first degree.
B) My dominant personal ambition since the age of twenty has been to be (and to be recognized as being) a significant research philosopher. There is definitely a public-service dimension to this since some philosophical ideas are both accessible and useful to a wider public, but mostly what I want to do is to solve problems that are primarily of interest to an intellectual elite. Though I have tried to be something more in my off-duty hours, when I am at work I am pretty much of a mandarin.
C) In my initial post I was addressing people who could be presumed to have similar tastes and ambitions

Now read on ….(in the next post)

Charles Pigden said...

Regrets, I’ve had a few but then again, not too few to mention …
1) For fourteen years (1989-2003) I devoted a great deal of my time and energy to political activism, combatting the rise of the New Right in New Zealand, my adopted country. We achieved some successes, but it was a great deal of work for some very Pyrrhic victories. I did not neglect my students and I worked, at least, a forty-hour week at my official job. But it is difficult to be a high-achieving research philosopher if you only work the traditional forty hours. So during those years of political activism, my research career slowed, if not to a crawl, then to a very sedate walk. Between 1996 and 2006 I published no journal articles whatsoever (though I did publish an annotated collection of Bertrand Russell’s writings on ethics plus a couple of book chapters on the same theme). Since 2003 when I effectively resigned from my party (which had imploded because our leader preferred power to principle) I have published more than twice as many papers as I did in the preceding nineteen years. The result of all those years of activism is that I find myself in my middle fifties scrambling to do all the things that I have always wanted to do in philosophy before I run out of time, talent and energy. (So in a way, I DO regret the time I did not spend at the office. ) I am also (though this doesn’t matter to me so much) a lot less rich than I might otherwise have been, since a lower research output led to slower promotion. I regret all the time that I devoted to politics at the expense of philosophy - or, at least, I regret the situation that made it seem necessary.
2) I regret that, along with the rest of my generation on the broad Left, I have done such a dismal job of defending the institutions of the social democratic state which handed us so many golden opportunities on a platter. New Zealand, the US, the UK and (I think) Australia are less equal now than they were thirty or forty years ago, with less equality of opportunity and less social mobility. Of course, the New Right is principally to blame, and some of us fought against it, but it’s stunning success in making the world a worse place must have something to do with our stupidity, cowardice, inaction and incompetence and the relentless way in which we have persistently barked up the wrong trees. We have failed not only as citizens and activists but also as thinkers, since we have not managed to articulate an intellectually effective opposition to the New Right’s ideas (one that resonates with the wider public). This is not the world that our mothers and fathers fought to create when they defeated fascism and voted for social democracy. And the fact that it isn’t, is at least partly our fault.

3) I regret that in so far I have been politically active, I have devoted most of my political energies to what is really a side-show. By far the most important issue facing the world today is not the rise of the New Right per se but the threat of Global Warming. (Of course, the rise of the New Right has contributed to Global Warming and has helped to stifle attempts to do something about it, so there is some connection.) Global Warming is likely to bring about the deaths of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people over the next century, partly because of desertification and partly because of the drowning of populous and productive deltas. It might even lead to the collapse our civilization. And all I have ever done about this is write a few articles in the local paper and make a Quixotic gesture at the 2008 meeting of the Australasian Association for Philosophy. It’s not enough, and if I believed in God I would dread his judgment at my combination of complicity and inaction.

Charles Pigden said...

As you can see my regrets don’t form a consistent set. I regret BOTH doing certain things and NOT doing them more (or more effectively). You might say that I don’t really regret my period as an activist but the political situation which I felt called upon to deal with. And perhaps you would be right (though I have certainly been a lot happier at the personal level since I gave up on my party). But it’s the second two regrets that are really important. For if you are roughly my age and of roughly my political persuasion, and if you DON”T, to some extent, share in my second two regrets, then the chances are that you are deceiving yourself somewhere along the line. As a generation of intellectuals, we haven't done a great job. We have a great deal to be sorry for.
T-T-Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation. Hard to do it without some shame.

Chris Trotter said...

To: English-Lit Grad.

Thank you. It means a lot to me to learn that you enjoyed not only the sentiments but also the style of my posting.

Working on the novel.

pat said...

Charles...something a man of your calling is sure to want to consider...a question?
With the benefit of hindsight what could have been done to avoid the predicament we now face (both politically and environmentally)? and if you have tussled with that, is it too late for either?

Charles Pigden said...

Good question Pat. And I am not sure I have a good answer. But ONE thing I would have done and should have done is insist that the Alliance take Climate Change seriously which we didn't, at least not in the NLP. It should have been at the top of our agenda which it wasn't.

At the tactical level we should have pushed a lot harder to get Jim Flynn in a good place on the Alliance List in '96. And I should have agitated harder than I did to pursue a more critical and independent policy wen we were in Coalition with Labour.

Finally I wonder whether i should have devoted some time to the project of revivifying the social democratic outlook. For a contemporary philosopher who has done some outstanding work in this connection I recommend Philip Pettit. The trouble is that his stuff needs to be popularized.

I suppose I should add that I think my record is a lot less shameful than that of many intellectuals and academics of my generation. I did not live a life of self-deception, winning academic kudos by spouting the kind of pseudo-radical bullshit which nobody but an academic can understand and which consequently can do no good. But sadly that isn't saying much.

pat said...

Feel you are being unrealistically harsh on yourself Charles.
It is all very well to chastise the academics and politicians of the 80s and 90s for a perceived failing to head off the advance of neo liberalism but I submit this defence...
my recollection of the period is of a time when many did indeed (both politicians and academics ) warn of the likely consequences of said ideology but as only to be expected the electorate were expending their energies coping with the immediate consequences of said policies and had neither the time nor resources to do more than that.
I asked for the benefit of your hindsight observations as I was hoping that as the situation is essentially unchanged in that respect and the problems increasingly more obvious then we could seize the missed opportunities of the past to improve the future, but fear that the same dynamics will lead to the same outcome.
Short of a collapse of the current system (inevitable but the timing unkown) or revolution I cant see a marked change and understandably the bulk of constituents in the western democracies ear the anarchistic nature of revolution
The golden rule would appear to apply to an marked degree....he who has the gold makes the rules ...and the rest of us are merely an increasingly unnecessary distraction, so I feel although it may be true to say the baby boom generation(s) have squandered the legacy of their forebears it was unlikely in the face of the circumstances that the result could have been any different......that dosnt mean the fight is over.

Charles E said...

Charles P I think you should be more philosophical about your life. It is a failure but in many ways that is normal & human. We all could do better.
But it's never too late to step off in another direction and perhaps get some runs on the board, which might make you less pessimistic.
I suggest you turn around and look forward mostly instead. The old left & right are gone, perhaps for good. And that may well be a good thing for the average person. Just dull for philosophers who take a left wing view of the world rather than a neutral one.
Surely the path ahead for humanity is not determined at all. It does not have labels on it, like neo-liberal or neo-conservative (these cannot be the same thing btw, yet the depressed left use them interchangeably) and a warmer world may be better than a cooler one (the latter causes more death in fact, so far) and despite the daily news feed, there is less war and oppression now than in recorded history.
So cheer up Charles, it's not over and the glass may well be 60% full, if you don't look so narrowly at it. It all depends on you & your viewpoint doesn't it? Same as it ever was. Imagine looking at the world during WWI, say after the first few million men had died. You'd have to have thought humanity had had it.
So change your viewpoint and your point of view may improve.

Anonymous said...

And who voted for Lange, Bolger, Shipley et al? Sounds a bit like ... When were you born, Chris?

Frank said...

Having found their feet, however, the younger generation’s task is not to bemoan the fact that their parents’ boat has sailed away without them; it is to set about building a boat of their own.

Chris, you should re-read that closing statement. Do you realise what you have written?

In effect, you have parrotted ACT/Libertarian philosophy. "Pull yourself by your own bootstraps; don't rely on collective action; achieve by your own efforts - and if you can't, tough luck." That is essentially the thrust of that one, single statement.

Indeed, t Cactus Kate has linked to you to validate her attack on Ms King; http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2015/08/27/now-we-got-bad-blood-being-poor-in-a-rich-world/#comment-300004

Frank said...

By the way, if I may add to your comments;

"Boomers may have enjoyed the benefits of, but they did not create, the social-democratic society which raised them - nor did they destroy it."

Are you sure?

Because whilst they may not have voted directly for the destruction of our social democratic society, they sure as heck voted for parties that gave them seven - count; seven! - tax cuts since 1986.

Which effectively undermines a social democratic society if we can't afford to pay for it.

How many times have we heard the latest incarnation of Babyboomer's will being enforced, through this government, that "there isn't enough money to throw at XYZ"?

The latest was Tolley's remark about CYPS.

National promised tax cuts during the 2008 election campaign despite the GFC already affecting our economy by then. Cullen warned the country that these "cuts" were bribes and unaffordable.

National got elected.

They cut taxes.

Then they took the axe to social services.

So, what was that you were saying about not destroying our social democratic system?