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.
Except Chris - Who first voted in the Neo-liberals? Sure as hell wasn't Gen X, Y or the millenials. Which generation has been the main beneficiaries of the Neo-Libs? Sure as hell hasn't been Gen X, Y or the millenials?
Who is going to have to pick up the tab for the Neo-liberal program of the late 20th century?. Sure as hell ain't going to be the Baby-Boomer's is it?
The Baby Boomers didn't seem to have a problem protesting the ills of their parents generations making - such as the Vietnam war and Nuclear weapons - yet the protests of their children at what their parents have done to the country are written off as the product of some secret neo-lib conspiracy to set generations against each other.
I don't believe the baby boomers were conspiring anything more than maximising their own gains, and minimising the costs to themselves. This out pouring of protest by "generation rent" is nothing more than the Boomers reaping what they have sown.
As for casting the Baby boomers as victims alongside Maori and Women, please excuse me while I go vomit....
It certainly wasn't me that took their chances away. I barely survived the 80s with enough money to buy my own house, at more than 11% interest as well. Lucky to get that. Definitely let's sheet the blame home to where it belongs. Douglas and Shipley.
Good point Chris. I would like Labour to keep 65 for old age pensions and also stop calling it superannuation because it now is not a fund that has been paid into for years.
Also I would like them to bring in the idea of putting assistance back into society by the older person. Nothing drastic, find out where they could help for even three hours a week for no pay. This would be of huge benefit! You said 1 million older people, that would be 3 million hours available for all those little things that assist and smooth and advance and brighten our country and people. (Incidentally I practice what I preach.)
Showing willing to help the youth, would go a long way towards deflating rising annoyance, and still allow the oldie to sleep in. Later perhaps he or she might be helping at the child care, or the reading group, or the gardening circle helping that Tongan who goes to work early.
There was a tv show at one time that showed how some PI families had mother at work at 4 am then home for a nap while Dad got the kids off to school before work, when Mum would rise and do the housework and care for the toddler. More visibility of the lifestyle of the strugglers, and the input of the over 65's would help to illustrate the communal interaction between the generations. Perhaps we could have public television with stories about it. As you say it is a huge social story that can't be ignored.
If it's not neoliberalism, how comes that neo-liberal ideas like austerity loom so large in the inter-generational warriors' armoury? Have none of you heard of Keynes?
The term 'Baby Boomer' has a derogatory sense to it but it shouldn't. After WW II, which took a huge number of young men out of the gene pool, those who survived were determined to make the world a better place. That war took the lives of 50 million plus and human instinct is to re-populate as quickly as possible, hence the 'Boomers'.
Most worked hard at low wages knowing that they would be looked after when they retired at 60. They worked and paid taxes to support those who came before and each generation did the same. But not today, people want everything and they want it now. They don't want to pay tax to support those who came before or even after. Self-righteousness to an extreme.
Eaqub and his Generation Rent (which apparently I am part of - so more incorrect assumptions from Eaqub) ignore the fact that this current young generation are tomorrows older generation and cutting things like the pension today will mean a self fulfilling prophesy of Baby Boomers getting pension and us younger ones not!!! Andrew Little is a smart man to rule out means testing the pension as universal pension is the only way it will survive because everyone gets it and everyone wants it. Plenty of other Govt expenditure to cut before you cut the pension!
Your point is an excellent one, Chris, and well made. The b-bs benefitted from ( and fought for) the brief post-war period (described by Piketty) when some wealth shifted downwards and social security was just that ( not for sole parents etc, but that's another story). Now the reversal is almost complete and younger generations are suffering most. But this is not the b-bs' doing!
It was TV3 who set up the debate as between baby boomers and the x,y, millennial generations, this was not Shamubeel's findings.
Shamubeel said NZ was drifting into a classist society and away from its egalitarian culture.
The two classes being the landed gentry and generation rent. A more accurate but less catchy description of generation rent would be the propertyless working class.
There are plenty of baby boomers who have not benefited from this transformation and there are many more who are worried about its implications for their kids, grandkids etc.
That's also my understanding of Shamubeel's findings.
It should, moreover, be absolutely obvious to everyone living here that poverty and wealth crisscross New Zealand's generational divides. Furthermore, as Chris points out, no-one can help which generation they're born into.
I apologise for repeating a sentiment I've uttered many times before on this site. However, when I come across someone with racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic prejudices, I know that there's a reasonable chance that the person concerned is in the grip of some well-established cultural meme and that the 'singer' is almost certainly better than the 'song'. But I'm afaid I can't say that for people who peddle recently invented reasons for hating people, such as 'ageism'.
That said, young New Zealanders face specific problems that are threatening their chances of having a half reasonable life in the country in which they grew up. Their concerns have to be taken very seriously.
One of the most obvious of these concerns is our dysfunctional housing sector and the high price of putting a roof over your head.
To some extent, baby boomers are to blame for the continuation of New Zealand's property fetish. But they didn't invent it. It's what you get when you're colonised by Anglo-Saxons. And what were boomers meant to do with their hard-earned dosh when there was nowhere else safe to put it?
Another huge problem is child poverty, which exists at horrifying levels in New Zealand. Much of this is the result of inter-generational poverty, social exclusion and racism. It's certainly not the fault of just one generation, although market-orientated 'reforms', lower real wages and the withering of the welfare state have obviously made things worse.
And then there are the gripes about tertiary fees and student loans. Yes, a previous generation of students had it a whole heap better. But there were far fewer of them and most Kiwis had to be content with the 'University of Hard Knocks'. Moreover, many boomers were 'educated' on the culturally dominant premise that a woman's place was in the shop, the typing pool and/or the kitchen.
....more to come
Continuing previous post:
So just what innovative policy formulations do the inter-generational warriors have for righting the wrongs they deplore? Oh yes! They want to means-test NZ Super!
Of course, as with any use of means-testing, this would almost certainly cause hardship in a large number of marginal cases and subject many other recipients to an unpleasant and worrying degree of scrutiny and uncertainty about their ability to make ends meet, often at a time of life when it's becoming harder to cope with such intrusions and uncertainties.
Meanstesting would also tend to drive older people out of the workforce, thus increasing their social exclusion, possibly impacting negatively on health and mental health status and thus increasing the drain on the health dollar. At the same time, it would deprive the domestic economy of older citizens' skills and experience, as well as of their spending power (no small consideration in times of recession), whilst reducing the government's tax take. And it would make it very difficult indeed for the elderly to move in and out of employment, as many currently do, in accordance with changes in their health status and other circumstances.
Meanwhile, of course, a regiment of bureaucrats (paid for by Ms and Mr Taxpayer) would be required to police the means-testing regime, whilst the black economy would grow expotentially, thus probably raising employment levels at the IRD.
So, if the desire is not to punish a group whom you just don't happen to like but to help our economy deliver for all New Zealanders, I'm not too sure what you would have achieved.
There's certainly a respectable case to be made for gradually raising the age of accessibility for Super, whilst retaining it as a universal benefit for those in the appropriate age band. Even so, provision would need to be made for those whose bodies won't take them comfortably along that last, difficult mile. But I'm also open to the suggestion that it might be financially feasible to keep things as they are.
True, Super already takes up approximately 25% of government expenditure. But that's only because our total government expenditure per head of population is actually quite small.
Last time I looked, our net government debt to GDP ratio stood at around 26%, compared to 83% for the UK , 88% for the US and 134% for Japan. Even the frugal Germans have a debt to GDP ratio of around 57%.
So maybe, just maybe, we can provide for our young without financial recklessness AND without penalising our older citizens. And what (if we could achieve it) would be wrong with that?
But, of course, we're never going to get there whilst the austerity mantra remains ditty of the day!
When baby boomers talk about growing up in the school of hard knocks they forget to mention that was before the economy was deregulated and the Employment Contracts Act was introduced. While you could still get a job in the 80s without some form of tertiary education that's no longer the case. I went to university in the 90s because of the wonderful labour market under Spud Bolger and Ruth Richardson. I spent close to 15 years working in my chosen profession and finally paid off my student loan. But last year after being made redundant I'm studying again. I don't have the income or equity to buy a house and having a stable career is a bad joke. But people from my generation don't know how lucky we are mate. Steve Alfreds
I'm a little bit sick of all these generalisations about baby boomers. I never talk about the school of hard knocks. My father talked about the school of hard knocks, and he had every right to, because his father lost his job in the 1930s depression. All I will say is, that when we were students we tended to work through the holidays in factories which gave us an appreciation of what life was like for workers. I'm not sure that students necessarily get that appreciation today.
I really don't disagree with you. I was just trying to sketch a bit of context and you've sketched a bit more.
Are the baby boomers, once they have obtained power, acting like the previous generation? Pretty much. And I'm in no doubt x, and y will do no better. Not while we hold on to the same political economy, and political psychology systems which keep liberalism in place.
Liberalism is the Tory mantra. It's has a fancy new name - neo-liberalism, which really gets bandied around - but it's still liberalism. So my fellow x and y's - this puppy liberalism has been around for a very long time, and it seems to reassert itself in rather ugly terms every 80 odd years or so.
So I think we need to ask ourselves - is a intergenerational fight worth it? Or is it more of the Tory crap of divide and rule? Or do we take a look at liberalism and its many manifestations - Then decided we need to look at another way.
Now as Chris knows, I'm not one to increase the power of the state. Indeed at my most conservative, the state should run only three things. Healthcare, education and monopoly crushing. Everything else should be in the hands of more local control. The best thing about the supercity is we now understand we need more local governance, not less. We definitely don't need it centralised, and the less that corporations are involved the better. I mean take 5 minutes to look at the joke the companies who run auckland are, it's more expensive, with less services. And they have conned the supercity council into increase rates. Please, this is liberalism right there - a puffed up set of ideas to make a few blokes rich.
The state has no role in having a military, spying, or trade. As we have seen under this national government - nothing good comes from a state involved in punitive powers over people's lives.
So don't fall for a intergenerational fight, or it's business as usual for the Tory bastards.
On the contrary, the state is the ONLY organisation that should be involved with punishing people. And I'd rather not be defended by private mercenary armies thanks :-). I might agree about trade, except that there are ethics involved, and private companies have none. Anyway, you get the government out of trade and every business in this country will be screaming foul.
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